Introduction to Dakhla Oasis
In ancient times Dakhla was known as Zeszes, the ‘Place of the Two Swords’, because it is divided into two distinct areas. It has also been called el-Wah, the ‘Inner Oasis’ and is an area of around 2000 square kilometres, bounded on the west by the Great Sand Sea, on the north by a high limestone escarpment and on the east by the Abu Tartur Plateau. From el-Kharga, the trip to the eastern edge of the Dakhla Oasis, covers 150km travelling along the ancient Darb el-Ghubari desert track, through some spectacular dune-fields. If coming from the north and Farafra, the distance is around 230km. Although smaller than Kharga Oasis, Dakhla is the most highly-populated region in the Wadi el-Gedid, or ‘New Valley’ – the name, since 1958, by which the oases of Kharga, Dakhla and Farafra are known. The government of Egypt is working to unleash the full potential of these desert areas, with plans to further develop agriculture, mineral resources, industry and tourism.
There is evidence that Dakhla, like other desert regions, has been inhabited since Prehistoric times – fossil bones associated with human habitation have been found here from 150,000 years ago. When the region gradually became more arid people began to move closer towards the sources of water. We know little about these people, but several skeletons, flint and bone tools and some of the earliest hut circles in Africa have been found here, dating from the Neolithic era (circa 5000BC). Evidence suggests that the inhabitants of the desert led a pastoral lifestyle. Like Kharga, Dakhla was once dominated by a vast lake or ‘playa’ and neolithic rock-carvings have been found which indicate that elephant, buffalo, zebra, giraffe and ostriches watered on its shores. In these times the region would have been similar to the African savanna, but when the area began to dry up the human population migrated towards the more hospitable Nile Valley where they settled and became agricultural.
Archaeologists have been constantly excavating here for a quarter of a century, with many teams of specialists involved in the search for Dakhla’s history. The Dakhla Oasis Project, currently directed by Professor Tony Mills of Toronto University, is an international, multi-discipline team dedicated to investigating all areas of human activity at a wide range of sites in Dakhla.
The desert sands, which have long covered and preserved the settlements dating back to the Old Kingdom, are now beginning to reveal their buried treasure as the oasis becomes more fertile. Dakhla seems to have been of great importance during the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom, with its capital possibly at Ain Asil, near Balat. Here, in the east of the oasis, was a large settlement with a palace, administrative buildings and a nearby necropolis at Qila el-Daba. A necropolis from the First Intermediate Period has been found at Amheida, one of the largest archaeological areas in the oasis which was later covered by a large Roman city.
During the New Kingdom the capital was moved to Mut, further to the west, which remains the main city of Dakhla today. The old quarters of Mut are now crumbling into ruins but contain a warren of dark twisting alleyways and intriguing wooden doors which invoke the atmosphere of centuries past, while the ancient pharaonic temple area of the town, known as Mut el-Kharab (‘Mut the Ruined’) is located a little to the south-west of the modern city. On the northern edge of the oasis is Qasr Dakhla, a medieval Islamic village built over Roman foundations and believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited villages in Dakhla Oasis. Here too the visitor can wander through the older parts of the fortified village where the Islamic architecture is currently being restored and soak up the images of a time gone by.
In pharaonic times the oases were places of wells, orchards, vineyards and farms as attested in many of the New Kingdom tombs in the Nile Valley. Dakhla especially seems to have been very fertile and known to be a centre for the production of wine, fruit, grain and minerals which were extracted from its inhabitants in the form of taxes. There are remains of Ptolemaic structures in Dakhla, with more evidence from this period emerging with recent excavations, but so far there is little evidence of Greek occupation. The Romans however, left many important remains in Dakhla, including the recently restored Temple of Amun at Deir el-Hagar. There are only two of the fortress-temples (so prominent in Kharga) and much of the Roman architecture and art is quite different to that seen in the southern oasis.
The Christian population of Dakhla re-occupied many of the Roman sites during the later part of the Byzantine Period and many of these sites are now being uncovered after remaining buried in the sand for centuries. These are proving to be a great source of important information on the transitional periods between Roman and Christian occupation at Dakhla. The town of Ismant el-Kharab, ancient Kellis, seems to have been the major administrative centre during this period and contains remains of several early Christian churches.
The Arab invaders seem to have reached Dakhla earlier than the other oases and there are remains of buildings in Qasr Dakhla which date from the Ayyubid Period (12th century). It was during this time that the medieval fortified villages came into existence, as a protection from invaders from the south and west. These centres later came under Turkish influence, when the town of Qalamun became the capital.
Dakhla Oasis has a very long history. There are many sites to visit and several of them can be seen easily, though some will require the use of a 4×4 vehicle. Today there are 16 modern villages in Dakhla and 75,000 inhabitants with increasing agricultural and industrial areas. Growing, drying and packing of fruit and other produce remain one of the region’s main industries, along with its crafts of pottery, rug-making, basketware, jewellery and wood-working. Apart from the wealth of archaeology and the rich cultural heritage of Dakhla there is also an abundance of hot and cold springs, famous for their therapeutic effects, said to be a cure for many ailments.