The fortress and settlement of Qasr el-Labekha lies in an isolated part of the desert around 12km west of the main Asyut to el-Kharga road and approximately 50km north of the city itself. The site contains two temples, an imposing fort and a group of decorated tombs.
The fortress of el-Labekha was constructed in a wadi at the base of the northern escarpment and served as a garrison, strategically placed to guard the intersection of two important ancient caravan routes from the north and the west. Similar in style but smaller than its neighbouring fortress at el-Deir, Qasr el-Labekha must have been an imposing sight, with mudbrick walls 12m high and four massive round towers on its corners. The entrance on the eastern side gives access to the interior, which today is a chaos of crumbled walls and sand-filled remains of vaulted chambers.
Several buildings once surrounded the fortress and to the south is the silted remains of a large well, an ancient spring, still surrounded by palm, acacia and tamarisk trees, which would have provided water for the fort and settlement. The size of the well probably suggests that a large community lived here, which was served by a series of aqueducts, or qanats, built to take the water out to the cultivated fields. The fortress itself has never been excavated, but the area below the western and southern walls has recently been the subject of a study by the Supreme Council of Antiquities together with the French Alpha Necropolis team, who have uncovered several small statues as well as large quantities of Roman pottery. Qasr el-Labekha is also part of the current North Kharga Oasis Survey conducted by a French team of archaeologists.
An impressive brick-built temple, situated to the north of the fortress, was constructed on a natural outcrop which dominates the wadi. The temple, 12m square, contains three rooms and possibly dates from the 3rd century AD. The eastern wall is now collapsing, but there are entrances on the other three walls leading into the interior. On one of the plastered lintels there are remains of a depiction of a vulture goddess (Mut?) and some graffiti is inscribed on the sides of the arch.
A second more ruined temple, to the north-west of the fort, was only rediscovered during 1991-92 by Adel Hussein of the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation. This temple was completed during the reign of Antoninus Pius and still contains some of its original painting. The architecture of this temple is unusual and consists of a speos-like structure, partially built into the rock with extensive remains of a brick-built section to the front. There is recent evidence that the temple may have been dedicated to Hercules (who also had a temple in his name at Bahariya) and later to a deified man named Piyris during the 3rd century AD. The structure appears to have been re-used as a Christian shrine. A limestone statue of a hawk, unearthed in the temple by the French Mission, is now in Kharga Museum.
A number of cemeteries have been located in the Qasr el-Labekha environs. The most impressive necropolis is in the area to the north of the fortress, dug into the western cliffs where some of the most elaborate tombs in the oasis have been found. Many of the tombs were simple one-room chambers cut into the rock, but there are also several multi-chambered and decorated tombs and many still contained mummified burials when investigated by Alpha Necropolis and the Supreme Council of Antiquities during 1994 to 1997. Although virtually all of the burials had been disturbed by thieves (some very recently) the team evaluated some 500 mummies and found that the majority had enjoyed a good state of health and good quality embalming. Some of the bodies of higher-status individuals were covered with gilded face masks similar in style to the Faiyum portraits and many, especially the burials of women and children, contained jewels of bronze, glass and semi-precious stones. Mummy boards were decorated with traditional paintings of Osiris. In many cases the richer tombs were plastered and painted with religious symbols and burial equipment included large quantities of glass vessels. The less imposing tombs are located to the south and the west of the settlement.
Ain Muhammed Tuleib
Remains of a late Roman settlement and fort can be found near the modern village of Ezbet Muhammed Tuleib, about 1km from the main road on the track leading to el-Labekha. The small fortress and the settlement is named, like the modern village after a local land-owner. Only two walls remain standing of the two-storey military installation, once measuring 22m by 16m, and the interior is now a mound of rubble. The structure was surrounded by a large settlement with evidence of domestic and industrial sites as well as aqueducts and cultivated fields. There are cemeteries located on the eastern and western sides of the settlement.
How to get there
The archaeological sites of Ain Muhammed Tuleib and Qasr el-Labekha are off to the west of the main Asyut to el-Kharga road. While the former is accessible by normal vehicle, Qasr el-Lubekha requires the use of 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.