Qasr el-Sumeria & Qasr el-Geb
About 50km north of el-Kharga, Qasr el-Sumeria is a small unexcavated Roman fortress which was surrounded by a settlement now marked by a sea of pottery sherds strewn across the desert floor. The ruined fortress stands on low ground on the ancient desert route between Asyut and Dakhla, the Darb el-Arba’in, at the point where it enters the Kharga depression via the Ramia pass.
The mudbrick fortress, 14m square and 7m high contained several rooms, all of which have now collapsed. The corners of the structure were marked by round buttressed towers and the entrances to the fort were in the centre of the southern and northern walls. The northern wall has mostly collapsed.
The village, recently found to be large and complex, is on the southern side of the fortress and was probably once an important provisioning station for travellers going in and out of the oasis. The shapes of several ruined houses can still be seen beneath the sand and the remains of mudbrick structures, ovens, storage areas and grinding emplacements suggest that this may have been an extensive industrial site as well as having an agricultural role. Possible animal pens have been located by the North Kharga Oasis Survey team as well as a complex field system with drystone walls and an irrigation system, including the qanats (underground water system) seen in other Roman sites in the oasis.
An extensive Roman cemetery is located further to the south of the settlement which contains rock-cut tombs as well as brick-lined tombs with vaulted ceilings.
As the most northerly Roman fortress of Kharga Oasis, Qasr el-Geb stands on a high-point of the desert only about 2km from Qasr el-Sumeria and is a replica of the latter structure. The fortress of el-Geb is visible from the main road.
In Roman times Qasr el-Geb was the last source of water in the Kharga depression. Larger than its companion fort of el-Sumeria at almost 17m square and 11m high, the strategically situated structure probably served as a watchtower and beacon to control and guide travellers into and out of the oasis. All of the desert between the eastern and western escarpments is visible from Qasr el-Geb. The fortress was constructed from mudbrick with exterior walls 2.5m thick and round buttressed towers at its corners joined by a parapet along the top of the walls. The entrances were on the eastern and southern sides – the eastern wall has now mostly collapsed, but the others are in good condition and the southern wall still retains its beautifully constructed arched doorway. The structure originally had three stories and the staircase on the southern side still leads up to the parapet. Inside the fortress there were many rooms packed close together and the remains of six vaulted garrison rooms still exist along the eastern and western sides of the courtyard. There is an underground gallery and aqueduct system which is part of the highly sophisticated and complex hydraulic system which supported this part of the oasis.
It is thought that Qasr el-Sumeria and Qasr el-Geb were probably constructed around the 5th century AD and were both re-used by the Turkish garrisoned army during the Ottoman Period. Many other settlements and cemeteries are known to exist in the surrounding areas, which apparently had been long inhabited, but until recent years the area had not been thoroughly investigated. To the south of el-Sumeria is a settlement known as Ain el-Gazar which contained a spring and a cemetery, although little remains today above the sand. Another buried site exists at el-Maghatta, south of el-Sumeria. NKOS have located tombs in the rocky outcrop to the west of here which have revealed some fragments of cartonnage and mummy wrappings as well as remains of several human bodies showing varying levels of mummification.
The North Kharga Oasis Survey (NKOS) co-directed by Dr Salima Ikram and Dr Corinna Rossi (American University of Cairo and Cambridge University) are currently mapping and documenting the archaeological remains of the northern part of the oasis with the aim of gaining a better understanding of the relationship between sites dating from the Prehistoric Period up to the 19th century AD.
See details of the survey on the NKOS website.
How to get there
The archaeological sites of Qasr el-Sumeria and Qasr el-Geb are off to the west of the main Asyut to el-Kharga road and access is by 4×4 vehicle. Permission from the Antiquities office in el-Kharga must be obtained before visiting these sites. Visits will be accompanied by an antiquities officer.