Introduction to Bahariya Oasis
Bahariya, known since ancient times as the ‘Northern Oasis’ is situated in a depression about 100km long by 40km wide and completely surrounded by high black escarpments. The valley floor is covered with lush groves of date palms, ancient springs and wells and is strewn with numerous conical hills which probably once formed islands in a great lake during Prehistoric times. Improved roads and the advent of the 4×4 vehicle has meant that Bahariya is no longer an isolated oasis, but merely a few hours drive from Cairo – in fact many tourists today will go there on a one or two a day trip.
Bahariya was an important centre of agriculture and wine production and a source of minerals since Pharaonic times. Unfortunately few of the sites from this period have been excavated and what little is known of Bahariya’s early history is documented in tomb paintings in the Nile Valley, mostly from the Middle Kingdom and early New Kingdom onwards. A scene in the tomb of the Vizier Rekhmire at Thebes from Dynasty XVIII, shows people of the ‘Northern Oasis’ wearing striped kilts and presenting tribute. The oasis began to flourish during Libyan rule of Egypt in the Third Intermediate Period as a main route from the Libyan border to the Nile Valley and a strategic crossing of several caravan routes to other oases. By Dynasty XXVI Bahariya had its own native governors and had grown into an important centre of trade. Near Bawiti is the tomb of a Dynasty XIX provincial governor Amenhotep Huy and several tombs of Dynasty XXVI governors of the region, as well as an ibis cemetery from the same period. There are also two temples, one dating to King Apries of Dynasty XXVI and the other to the reign of the Greek ruler Alexander the Great.
Until Recently the little knowledge we have had of the Romans in Bahariya came mostly from a large quantity of Roman Papyri found at Oxyrhynchus (el-Bahnasa), which tell us that the oasis was garrisoned by Roman troops taken from the larger station there. The presence of many Roman ruins and an elaborate system of aqueducts suggests that Bahariya was heavily populated during this period. In March 1996 a guard riding his donkey from the Temple of Alexander stumbled into a hole in the sand which proved to be a tomb. This began an excavation which has subsequently led to the astonishing discovery of a vast necropolis containing possibly as many as 10,000 well-preserved mummies of Graeco-Roman date, some wearing spectacular golden facemasks. Bahariya, long considered to be a backwater in Egyptian history, has now become one of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt and famous all over the world for its ‘Valley of the Golden Mummies’.
The people of Bahariya seem to have clung to their traditional beliefs longer than in any of the other oases. After the Roman decline Bahariya had a strong Christian population and even had its own bishop, although there is a suggestion by archaeologists that there may still have been followers of the more ancient pagan cults during this time. Even though Islam was brought to the oasis as early as the 7th century, Christianity remained strong in Bahariya longer than in any of the other oases, right up to the 17th century, and no monuments from the lslamic Period have yet been found.
The inhabitants of Bahariya are a mixture of the original oasis dwellers, the Bedouin tribes of the Western Desert, and families who have migrated from Middle Egypt and the Nile Valley. The fortunes of the oasis have changed throughout history – in times of decline and poverty many of the population migrated to more wealthy regions, especially Cairo, in search of work and by 1958 when the government plans for the ‘New Valley’ were introduced there were only around 6000 inhabitants in Bahariya. Then the development of the desert began – many migrants returned to the oasis in the belief that conditions would improve and a rosy future was in store, and although these dreams were not instantly realised, there are now almost 30,000 people living in Bahariya Oasis. Revitalisation here was slow compared to Kharga and Dakhla, but since the road from Cairo was first paved in 1967 and the mineral mines at Managim were developed, together with the modern paved road connecting the oasis with Farafra, conditions began to improve. Today the new archaeological discoveries, resulting in a growing tourist industry, has provided the icing on the cake of Bahariya’s fortunes.
When the Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry first visited Bahariya in 1938, the journey took two or three days by car from Cairo. There were then four principal villages in the oasis – the twin villages of Bawiti and el-Qasr and at 8km east, Mandishah and el-Zabw. Today Bawiti is a modern administrative town and has swallowed up the older sections of the twin villages, which are slowly being abandoned and falling into ruin. There are many ancient monuments, springs and gardens close to the town to entice tourists and for this reason several hotels have been built in recent years. Because of increasing media attention, many of Bahariya’s sites are currently under excavation by the Supreme Council of Antiquities and consequently most of the sites are officially closed. The visitor must request permission from the local antiquities authorities before going to view the sites. The sites open will vary from time to time.
If travelling north from Farafra to Bahariya, it is worth stopping at Gebel el-Izaz, or ‘Crystal Mountain’, about 25km before reaching the escarpment on the modern road down into Bahariya Oasis. This small mountain is formed with a large proportion of quartz crystal, and gives a wonderful view over the desert from the top. One of the nearby rocks has a hole in the centre and there are lots of small pieces of crystal strewn around.