Introduction To The Oasis Of Farafra
 
 
 

The oasis of Farafra is a triangular-shaped fertile depression to the north-west of Dakhla and roughly mid-way between Dakhla and Bahariya, with the impenetrable Great Sand Sea bordering the region to the west. Since 1958 Farafra has been part of the Wadi el-Gedid or ‘New Valley’, but in ancient times it was known as Ta-iht or the ‘Land of the Cow’. This name probably came from the region’s association with the cow-headed goddess Hathor, known for her nurturing qualities. The largest depression in the Libyan Desert, measuring around 200km long and 90km wide (at Qasr el-Farafra), this oasis currently has the lowest number of inhabitants in the New Valley, but ambitious plans by the Egyptian government for dozens of new communities in Farafra will signify the end of this remote and peaceful oasis.

Farafra’s ancient history is clouded in mystery. Ta-iht is mentioned in texts from the Pharaonic era - in the titulary of a Dynasty V official and in the story of ‘The Eloquent Peasant’, which relates to the reign of King Khety of Dynasty X. A list of localities in Luxor Temple names the oasis as a source of dates and minerals during the reign of Rameses II, while an inscription by his son Merenptah at Karnak Temple, tells of the occupation of Farafra by Libyan troops during his Dynasty XIX reign. At Edfu Temple Farafra is mentioned as the third of the Seven Oases, ‘. . . Ta-iht at the north-west of Kenemet’ (Dakhla).


Even though it is mentioned in literary sources, Farafra is not noted for its ancient monuments and no archaeological evidence of Pharaonic occupation has yet been found. But like many remote places there are stories and legends associated with Farafra. One of these legends connects the oasis with the mysterious disappearance of the army of Cambyses, the Persian king who conquered Egypt in the 6th century BC. In a story told by Herodotus, Cambyses sent an army of 50,000 men from Thebes to Siwa to destroy the Oracle of Amun. It was reported that the army travelled seven days to the city of ‘Oasis’ (Kharga?), then probably via Dakhla to Farafra before striking off across the desert towards Siwa, perhaps attempting to cross the treacherous Great Sand Sea. The army never reached Siwa and was never heard of again. Herodotus was told that Cambyses’ army met their fate when a great sandstorm rose up and engulfed the marching men, causing them to entirely disappear - the search for the lost army has inspired the journeys of desert explorers ever since.

The few sites of archaeological interest in Farafra all date from the Roman Period onwards, when a fortress was built to guard this section of the ancient caravan routes to the other oases and to the Nile Valley. Even then the oasis seems to have been sparsely populated. Most of the Roman ruins are centred around Qasr el-Farafra, today the capital town of the oasis and in ancient times the only village. The qasr or fortress on the northern side of the town dominated the top of a ridge overlooking the surrounding desert. Possibly built on the site of an original Roman structure and constructed from stone and mudbrick, the present fortress was enlarged or rebuilt during Medieval times after which it contained at least 125 rooms. Next to the qasr is a small well which would have provided the inhabitants with an important water source in times of siege. Unfortunately the fabric of the building was damaged by rain in the 1950s, adding to its state of collapse, although it is still partly inhabited today. There is also an ancient cemetery near Qasr el-Farafra, where a few undecorated rock-cut tombs are almost completely buried by sand. Other rock tombs can be seen in areas nearby, some of which were used as dwellings by early Christian hermits, who scratched or painted their crosses on the walls.

According to Ahmed Fakhry, the Egyptian archaeologist who visited Farafra many times, Ain Besai is the most important site, located about 12km south-west of Qasr el-Farafra. A Roman cemetery, remains of two mudbrick structures, a small ruined and uninscribed limestone chapel and some undecorated rock-cut tombs can be seen here.
Most visitors to Farafra Oasis go there to see the White Desert, the area to the north-east of Qasr el-Farafra which is renowned for its spectacular scenery. The chalk-white landscape is strewn with alien shapes, boulders of brilliant white which thrust up from the surface of the desert, intensified by the clear light of noon, shimmering gold at sunset or blackened and shrunken in a cloud-filled sky. Many of the formations are given descriptive names - sculpted by the harsh desert winds into weird shapes which constantly change over time. There are ‘monoliths’ and ‘mushrooms’, 'ice cream cones’, ‘tents’ and ‘crickets’, as well as the majestic conical flat-topped ‘inselbergs’, to name but a few of the formations.

As part of a White Desert safari the visitor may see an important spring known as Ain Hadra, where palm trees rise up from a mound in the desert on the ancient caravan route to Bahariya. The ground is covered with pottery sherds left by travellers in Roman and Byzantine times and amongst the remains of buildings here, Ahmed Fakhry found Roman amulets of Sekhmet and Harpocrates, a scarab and a Roman coin. Ain Hadra is situated at the southern end of a small picturesque depression, the Ain el-Wadi. Although long deserted the tiny oasis was inhabited during the Roman Period as attested by the many pottery sherds. There is evidence of former cultivated fields near the spring at Ain Hadra but the area had never been excavated. To the north is the entrance to the Wadi Abu Hannis with a miniature escarpment along its western edge called Witaq Abu Tartur, where there are more remains of Roman mudbrick structures, possibly a large house.

Around 70km north of Qasr Farafra is an area known as the Hidden Valley, or Wadi el-Obeiyd, where a small dried up lake has yielded evidence of a prehistoric presence. An Italian/Egyptian mission, who have been investigating the area for over a decade, has identified a Neolithic seasonal village form the 8th millennium BC, which may have links with Nabta Playa. These may have been the Libyan Desert’s earliest inhabitants who were a pastoral people at a time when the region had regular rainy seasons. This important investigation could change our whole concept of the history of Egypt’s desert regions.

About 75km north of Farafra is a separate small depression known as Ain Della - now a closed military area. The tiny oasis is thought to have been the last port of call for the army of Cambyses before they vanished into the desert. The spring, in a strategic position between the Libyan border and routes to Farafra, Siwa and Bahariya would have been an important watering place throughout history. When Ahmed Fakhry visited the site in 1939 he saw remains of two mudbrick structures with plastered walls, though they are now destroyed or buried. He suggested that the larger of the two may have been a Roman military outpost.

Although the archaeology of Farafra is insignificant compared to the other oases it was obviously an important place on the ancient routes through the desert. It has always been a remote region and the insecurity of life in such a place led to depopulation and decline after the Roman Period. Today the inhabitants are mostly a mixture of Arab and Libyan ancestry, with customs and traditions similar to the culture of the Bedouin. Their main source of income is agriculture, as it has always been, with dates, olives, beans, rice and watermelons exported to the Nile Valley. These days tourism is an important feature of life in this New Valley oasis, with a few new small light industries beginning to add to the economy. The major crafts are carpets, rugs and hand-woven mats, together with the ubiquitous palm-leaf products seen in all of the oases.

   
   
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