Western Desert Attractions
690,000 sq. km are within Egypt and the rest in Libya and Sudan.This desert one of the most inhospitable regions in the world came into being over a period of some 600 million years through the build up of alternate layers of marine deposits and continental sediments which were convulsed by up thrusts and subsidences of the earth's crust and reshaped into a huge plateau.
This was then broken up by further subsidence, folding and erosion into ridges and shelves, great terraces and wide basins. These basins reach down in the north to well below sea-level (Qattara Depression -440ft/-134m, Wadi Natrun -80ft/-24m); farther south they are only just above sealevel and are enclosed by steeply scarped hills.Imprisoned within the layers of sediments are large underground stores of water left over from ancient seas. In the depressions the water occasionally finds its way to the surface or can easily be tapped by sinking wells, making possible the development of luxuriant oases. Strung across the desert in a wide arc are the oases of Kharga, Dakhla, Farafra and Bahriya, and in the extreme northwest of Egypt, near the Libyan frontier, is the great Oasis of Siwa. Between these major oases are a number of small oases and watering points, of importance only as staging points for caravans. In a different category is the Fayyum Oasis, which is supplied not by fossil water but by water from the Nile.In particularly low lying areas salt water from the Mediterranean seeps into the ground water; and in such depressions (e.g. in the Qattara Depression) the high rate of evaporation and absence of leaching by rain lead to the formation of extensive salt marshes.The higher regions of the desert are, for the most part without water or vegetation, covered by gravel or pebbles. The waterless depressions are frequently traversed by sand-dunes 100-200ft/30-60m high, driven by the trade winds into a north-northwest-south-southeast alignment. The arid climatic conditions, interrupted only by occasional cloudbursts, and the wide temperature variations over the day lead to a very rapid erosion process.Abundant finds of fossils show that in the course of the earth's history the Western Desert, like the Sahara as a whole, has experienced several pluvial periods, broadly corresponding to the glacial periods of more northerly regions, during which it had abundant plant and animal life. The last of these rainy periods ended more than 20,000 years ago, giving place to the aridity which determines the aspect and the life of the region today. Archeological evidence shows that the oases were settled from the Palaeolithic onwards by semi nomadic tribes who practiced a primitive kind of agriculture in these fertile spots. The shallow artesian wells of these early days, however, soon dried up, and the population declined. Thereafter the oases were of importance only as bulwarks against the repeated penetrations by the Libyans into the Nile Valley; and from the time of Ramesses II onwards fortresses were built to provide protection along the edge of the desert bordering the Mediterranean. During this period, too, the remoteness and inaccessibility of the oases made them places of refuge for those fleeing from persecution and places of banishment for political opponents.In the sixth C. B.C. the Persians introduced new techniques of well construction into Egypt, and these were subsequently refined, making it possible to draw ground water from greater depths. The oases enjoyed a heyday in Graeco-Roman times, when new towns and other settlements were established, with magnificent temples the remains of which are still impressive. During the medieval period, however, they declined into insignificance; the wells dried up and the population shrank to a fraction of what it had once been.In our own time the oases of the Western Desert can look forward to a fresh period of prosperity. Minerals (phosphates, iron, oil) have been discovered in considerable quantities and are in process of being developed. At the same time a great agricultural redevelopment program is in progress. It is planned by deep boring (down to 4,900ft/1,500m) for fossil water and the use of modern irrigation techniques minimizing evaporation to bring into cultivation, as the "New Valley", the valley between the Kharga, Dakhla, Farafra and Bahriya oases and to resettle it with fellahin from the Nile Valley and Nubians. Although the first results of this program have been encouraging, it seems likely that the limited reserves of ground water, with little rainfall to replenish them, will set natural limits to its development.WarningThe desert holds serious hazards for drivers. Before setting out on a journey across the desert make sure that you have sufficient supplies of water and gasoline (petrol); important spare parts should also be taken. It is advisable to drive in convoy. Do not leave the main road or track unless you have an adequate map or preferably an experienced guide.
The chief place in the oasis and in the New Valley Frontier District is the little town of Kharga, which has a population of some 9,000. The old part of the town is a labyrinth of narrow lanes roofed over with palm trunks and branches. From Kharga the ancient sites in the northern part of the oasis can be visited.
Roman Fort of El-Deir
Some 15mi/25km northeast of Kharga can be seen the remains of the Roman Fort of El-Deir, a large structure with round towers; on the north side is a temple. There are other remains in the vicinity.
The Oasis of Siwa, lying in latitude 29° 12' north and longitude 25° 20' east in a wide depression in the Western Desert, 65ft/20m below sea level, is the most westerly of the Egyptian oases. Thanks to its remote and isolated situation it has preserved many old customs and characteristics.Siwa is an attractive island of green under a sky that is always cloudless. The inhabitants are Berbers, with a mingling of bedouin and Sudanese slaves acquired in the course of the centuries. They speak their own Berber dialect, and usually Arabic as well. The oasis owes its fertility to its 200 or so springs, 80 of which are used for irrigation; in ancient times there were said to be a thousand springs. The main crops grown in the oasis are dates (200,000 palms), olives (50,000 trees) and citrus fruits.In 331 B.C. Alexander the Great traveled to Siwa the first King of Egypt to do so and was received as the son of Zeus-Amun and crowned with the ram's horn crown.
The chief place in the Siwa Oasis is the little town of Siwa (pop. 5,000), perched on a rocky hill. The ancient town was 2mi/3km west, at the village of Aghurmi (pop. 350); only a few remains survive, apart from the conspicuous and well preserved Temple of Amasis (26th Dynasty), the presumed site of the oracle consulted by Alexander the Great. Nearby, at Ummel-Ebeida, are the remains of a Temple of Nectanebo II. At Qaret el-Musabberin (Gebel el-Mota) are rock tombs of the 26th-30th Dynasties, with interesting reliefs.
The little Oasis of Farafra lies in latitude 27° north and longitude 28° east. Unlike the other Egyptian oases, it is not in a depression but on an apparently endless plain, surrounded by a sea of light colored limestone rocks.The 1,000 or so inhabitants live by cultivating dates, olives and citrus fruits. Although Farafra was frequented by nomadic tribes as early as the Palaeolithic period and was settled in Early Dynastic times, developing into a place of some importance as a staging point between Bahriya and Dakhla, it has practically no ancient remains. The chief place, and indeed the only regular settlement, is Qasr el-Farafra, with old town walls and picturesque winding lanes.
Farafra - Badr's Museum
This museum is actually the home and gallery that houses the work of local artist, Badr, including paintings and ceramics. The surrounding garden features sculptures created from objects found in the desert.
Great Sand Sea
The Great Sand Sea is one of the largest accumulations of sand in the world. It stretches for over 600 kms. There is diverse terrain and colours including silica rock that would have formed over 100 million years ago.