El-Hayz is a sparsely-populated region which is made up of several small hamlets about 40km south-west of Bawiti in Bahariya Oasis. Perhaps the ‘Fourth Oasis’ of the seven mentioned at Edfu Temple, it lies on the main ancient caravan route between Farafra and Bahariya and judging by the ruins must have been an important and prosperous agricultural and trading community during Roman times.
The region of el-Hayz contains at least four important springs, Ain el-Izzah, Ain el-Sheikh, Tabla-Amun and Ain el-Ris, near where most of the ancient sites are located. The Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry conducted the first scientific investigations into the history of the area during the 1930s and 1940s, when he partly excavated several sites around Ain el-Ris but still comparatively little is known of the early history of the region. Numerous artefacts, mainly flint fragments and blades, have been found from the Neolithic and Lithic Periods and there are sites now identified in the area which may have been prehistoric settlements or flint workshops, but so far very little evidence of activity has been found from the Pharaonic Period.
In the west of the el-Hayz region, towards the gebel, is the small village of Ain el-Izzah. About 2km north-east of the spring there is an ancient settlement, now badly preserved, but with many pottery sherds covering the surface of the ground. To the north-west of the village rock-tombs were cut into a ridge, where several fragments of mummies and pieces of their pottery coffins were found scattered around. The most interesting remains here are the shafts of Roman aqueducts, similar to those found in other parts of the Western Desert.
Ain el-Ris, where the most interesting ruins of el-Hayz are situated, lies about 2km south-east of the main road. This is the largest settlement of the el-Hayz oasis and was dominated in Roman times by a large mudbrick fortress. The site has in recent years been partly excavated by a team from the Inspectorate of Antiquities at Bawiti who found remnants of a palace, possibly belonging to the fortress commander, and a wine cellar as well as orchards. Large cemeteries were also found to surround the area of el-Ris.
At the northern end of Ain el-Ris is the only well-preserved early Christian church in the Western Desert, though it has much deteriorated since its paintings were described by Belzoni and Cailliaud in the early 19th century and even since Fakhry wrote about it in the 1930s. The church is a basilica type, constructed in two stories of mudbrick and was probably dedicated to St George, suggested by descriptions of a man riding a horse in the paintings, he was a popular saint in the oases. The roof and the fresco paintings have now vanished, as has the upper floor, but its plan is easy to follow and there are still a few remains of decorations incised into the remaining plastered walls. Fakhry suggested that the date of the church was no later than the 5th to 6th century.
Not far from the Church of St George, Fakhry excavated several small mounds under which he discovered remains of a large mansion or palace in 1938. The walls at the time were still coated with a white plaster and decorated with geometric designs. Further excavations between 1939 and 1945 revealed several more structures, suggesting that el-Hayz was heavily populated by a wealthy community. About half a kilometre south of the church are the remaining walls of an irregularly shaped Roman camp, which was probably an outpost of the larger military structure at Qasr Masuda, 2km further south. Qasr Masuda is an imposing multi-storied fortress about 18m square, containing thirteen rooms with a well in its open court, built on a rocky knoll above the desert floor.
The Czech Institute of Egyptology at Charles University, Prague, directed by Dr Miroslav Bárta, are currently undertaking a survey and investigation of the el-Hayz area. Their first season (2002-3) concentrated on a thorough survey of the area and was very productive in locating a great many Prehistoric and Roman remains scattered throughout the seven main settlement areas under investigation. In later seasons the team have identified estates from the Roman Period as well as several underground irrigation systems known as manawirs.