The Fortress of el-Deir
The fortress-town of el-Deir, also known as Deir el-Ganayim, lies at the foot of the eastern escarpment about 20km north of el-Kharga, where it guarded the main desert route towards Farshut and the Nile Valley. It is one of the most impressive Roman fortresses in North Kharga.
The huge enclosure measures 73m square and had twelve round towers interspersed along its thick mudbrick walls. The towers were interconnected by a parapet running along the top, accessible via staircases inside the fortress. Entrances to the fortress were on the northern, eastern and western walls but it is the southern wall which is the best preserved, still rising to a height of around 10m. The interior is now empty apart from a few rooms on the southern side of the courtyard and the plastered walls of these rooms still contain a wealth of modern graffiti left by British soldiers who were stationed nearby during the First World War, as well as many Arabic, Coptic and Turkish names. In the centre of the courtyard a deep well provided the inhabitants with water which was also channelled through an ingenious system of underground conduits to the outbuildings and cultivated fields beyond. Although never excavated, the fortress is thought to date from the reign of Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century AD. Sadly, much of this magnificent fortress is now irrevocably ruined by the destructive forces of sand and wind, but assessments for the consolidation and restoration of the remains are being currently undertaken by the French team Alpha Necropolis, who will present them to the Supreme Council of Antiquities.
A town lay on the northern side of the fortress and surrounded a temple which also remains unexcavated. A great number of pottery sherds litter the ground but remains of any dwellings have yet to be found, even though their irrigation system is quite visible. It is thought that the site was occupied from the Ptolemaic Period or earlier through to the 5th century AD, and was cultivated up to the 20th century when it was eventually deserted.
The temple, about 1.5km north of the fortress, is constructed from mudbrick, similar in plan to the temple at Qasr Dush and thought to date to the 2nd to 3rd centuries AD. It contains an antechamber with benches along its sides, a hypostyle hall, an offering chamber and vaulted sanctuary. The name el-Deir means ‘the monastery’, indicating occupation of the site in early Christian times, when the temple itself was transformed into a Coptic church and may have been the monastery from which the name derives.
The Alpha Necropolis team has recently been conducting a study of the occupation of some of the sites in Kharga Oasis, including el-Deir. A rapid survey carried out in 1997 recognised the existence of three areas of burials to the south, north and east of the fortress. During excavations of the southern sector in 1998, eight plundered tombs were uncovered and wooden sarcophagi, human remains and traditional funerary furniture were found. Subsequent excavation seasons devoted to the northern sector of the necropolis have revealed 35 tombs and 19 white limestone sarcophagi, some containing well-preserved mummified bodies buried in the Osiris position with arms crossed over the chest. The burials are thought to date from the 3rd to 5th centuries AD. During the 2002 season several re-used tombs were found to contain the bodies of a large quantity of mummified dogs, presumably votive offerings to the canine deities Wepwawet or Anubis who were worshipped in the Asyut to Abydos regions from where desert tracks led out to the oasis.
For further details of el-Deir see the Alpha Necropolis website (French language).
How to get there
A well-defined dirt track to the fortress of el-Deir leads off from the main Kharga to Asyut road but ends about two kilometres from the site. The last part over a chain of encroaching sand dunes should not be attempted unless on foot or alternatively from the south in a 4×4 vehicle. Permission from the Antiquities Office and a guide must be obtained before visiting this site.