The oasis of Farafra is a triangular-shaped fertile depression to the north-west of Dakhla and roughly mid-way between Dakhla and Bahariya, with the impenetrable Great Sand Sea bordering the region to the west. Since 1958 Farafra has been part of the Wadi el-Gedid or ‘New Valley’, but in ancient times it was known as Ta-iht or the ‘Land of the Cow’. This name probably came from the region’s association with the cow-headed goddess Hathor, known for her nurturing qualities. The largest depression in the Libyan Desert, measuring around 200km long and 90km wide (at Qasr el-Farafra), this oasis currently has the lowest number of inhabitants in the New Valley, but ambitious plans by the Egyptian government for dozens of new communities in Farafra will signify the end of this remote and peaceful oasis.
Farafra’s ancient history is clouded in mystery. Ta-iht is mentioned in texts from the Pharaonic era – in the titulary of a Dynasty V official and in the story of ‘The Eloquent Peasant’, which relates to the reign of King Khety of Dynasty X. A list of localities in Luxor Temple names the oasis as a source of dates and minerals during the reign of Rameses II, while an inscription by his son Merenptah at Karnak Temple, tells of the occupation of Farafra by Libyan troops during his Dynasty XIX reign. At Edfu Temple Farafra is mentioned as the third of the Seven Oases, ‘. . . Ta-iht at the north-west of Kenemet’ (Dakhla).
Even though it is mentioned in literary sources, Farafra is not noted for its ancient monuments and no archaeological evidence of Pharaonic occupation has yet been found. But like many remote places there are stories and legends associated with Farafra. One of these legends connects the oasis with the mysterious disappearance of the army of Cambyses, the Persian king who conquered Egypt in the 6th century BC. In a story told by Herodotus, Cambyses sent an army of 50,000 men from Thebes to Siwa to destroy the Oracle of Amun. It was reported that the army travelled seven days to the city of ‘Oasis’ (Kharga?), then probably via Dakhla to Farafra before striking off across the desert towards Siwa, perhaps attempting to cross the treacherous Great Sand Sea. The army never reached Siwa and was never heard of again. Herodotus was told that Cambyses’ army met their fate when a great sandstorm rose up and engulfed the marching men, causing them to entirely disappear – the search for the lost army has inspired the journeys of desert explorers ever since.
The few sites of archaeological interest in Farafra all date from the Roman Period onwards, when a fortress was built to guard this section of the ancient caravan routes to the other oases and to the Nile Valley. Even then the oasis seems to have been sparsely populated. Most of the Roman ruins are centred around Qasr el-Farafra, today the capital town of the oasis and in ancient times the only village. The qasr or fortress on the northern side of the town dominated the top of a ridge overlooking the surrounding desert. Possibly built on the site of an original Roman structure and constructed from stone and mudbrick, the present fortress was enlarged or rebuilt during Medieval times after which it contained at least 125 rooms. Next to the qasr is a small well which would have provided the inhabitants with an important water source in times of siege. Unfortunately the fabric of the building was damaged by rain in the 1950s, adding to its state of collapse, although it is still partly inhabited today. There is also an ancient cemetery near Qasr el-Farafra, where a few undecorated rock-cut tombs are almost completely buried by sand. Other rock tombs can be seen in areas nearby, some of which were used as dwellings by early Christian hermits, who scratched or painted their crosses on the walls.
According to Ahmed Fakhry, the Egyptian archaeologist who visited Farafra many times, Ain Besai is the most important site, located about 12km south-west of Qasr el-Farafra. A Roman cemetery, remains of two mudbrick structures, a small ruined and uninscribed limestone chapel and some undecorated rock-cut tombs can be seen here.
Most visitors to Farafra Oasis go there to see the White Desert, the area to the north-east of Qasr el-Farafra which is renowned for its spectacular scenery and is now a protected area. The Badawiya Hotel in Farafra is a good starting point for many desert expeditions from overnight camping in the White Desert to longer excusions by Jeep or camel into the wilder areas such as the Great Sand Sea. The Farafra people are renowned for their hospitality and friendliness and there are many local crafts for sale in the hotel and around the town.
As part of a White Desert safari the visitor may see an important spring known as Ain Hadra, where palm trees rise up from a mound in the desert on the ancient caravan route to Bahariya. The ground is covered with pottery sherds left by travellers in Roman and Byzantine times and amongst the remains of buildings here, Ahmed Fakhry found Roman amulets of Sekhmet and Harpocrates, a scarab and a Roman coin. Ain Hadra is situated at the southern end of a small picturesque depression, the Ain el-Wadi. Although long deserted the tiny oasis was inhabited during the Roman Period as attested by the many pottery sherds. There is evidence of former cultivated fields near the spring at Ain Hadra but the area had never been excavated. To the north is the entrance to the Wadi Abu Hannis with a miniature escarpment along its western edge called Witaq Abu Tartur, where there are more remains of Roman mudbrick structures, possibly a large house.
Around 70km north of Qasr Farafra is an area known as the Hidden Valley, or Wadi el-Obeiyd, where a small dried up lake has yielded evidence of a prehistoric presence. An Italian/Egyptian mission, who have been investigating the area for over a decade, has identified a Neolithic seasonal village form the 8th millennium BC, which may have links with Nabta Playa. These may have been the Libyan Desert’s earliest inhabitants who were a pastoral people at a time when the region had regular rainy seasons. This important investigation could change our whole concept of the history of Egypt’s desert regions.