The Oases

The contrast between the lush landscape of the Kharga Oasis and the surrounding desert is evident here in a view of Kharga’s most substantial ancient remains, the Persian Period temple. Hemis/Alamy.

There are five major oases in the Western Desert that have witnessed substantial settlement activity: Siwa, Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga. These can best be regarded as independent areas, fertile islands in a desert ‘sea’ whose level of settlement, and interest to the ancient Egyptians, was based on a number of factors, of which size and distance from the Nile Valley were perhaps the most crucial.

With the exception of Balat in the Dakhla Oasis, none of the oases has preserved substantial settlement remains from the dynastic period. Siwa was the most distant oasis and probably unknown to the Egyptians before the Late Period, although it seems to have developed rapidly from that period onwards and became a famous oracular centre whose visitors included Alexander the Great. Farafra was of relatively marginal interest and, although known in texts from the Old Kingdom, archaeologically nothing is now preserved before the Graeco-Roman Period.

To the dynastic Egyptians the most important oases were Bahariya (known as the Northern Oasis –Wehat Mehtet), and Kharga and Dakhla (known jointly as the Southern Oasis – Wehat Resyt). Before the Late Period, Bahariya is known principally for the New Kingdom tomb of a local administrator, Amenhotep-Huy; no contemporary settlement has been discovered to date. It is Dakhla that has produced the most substantial pre-Classical settlement evidence, including Mut el-Kharab, which was probably the most important town in the oasis (and perhaps its capital from the New Kingdom onwards) and which has been occupied sporadically from the Old Kingdom to the present day. The extent of the modern town of Mut has hampered a wider understanding of the full extent of this important centre, which has been excavated since 2001 by the Dakhla Oasis Project and Monash University. Their work has revealed an important and long-used temple of the god Seth within a large enclosure wall (240 m (787 ft) north to south by 180 m (591 ft) east to west), probably built during the Late Period.

The Town at Balat

The modern village of Balat in the eastern Dakhla Oasis gives its name to an ancient town composed of two distinct, linked areas: a necropolis now known as Qila el-Dabba and a nearby settlement site now known as Ayn Asil.

The town was founded in the late Old Kingdom, probably to act as a regional administrative centre and a colonial town for the Egyptians who governed the Dakhla Oasis. The largest tombs in the cemetery – huge mastabas with mudbrick walls up to 6 m (20 ft) in height, and with burial chambers at the bottom of enormous pits up to 10 m (33 ft) deep – belong to four governors of the Oasis in the period from the late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period. The largest of these belonged to Khentika who was ‘Boat Captain and Ruler of the Oasis’.

Excavations at Ayn Asil, which have been carried out by the French Institute in Cairo since 1997, allow the reconstruction of the history of building work at the town, which in total covered an area of 800 m (2,625 ft) north to south and 500 m (1640 ft) east to west. The earliest phase of the site, during the reign of Pepi I, is represented by a square fortified enclosure with mudbrick walls 175 m (574 ft) long and with rounded towers at the corners. By the reign of Pepi II the town had expanded to the south, protected by a thick enclosure wall, including a governor’s palace-complex which was 225 m (738 ft) north to south and 95 m (312 ft) east to west.

The processes by which the town of Ayn Asil quickly disappeared after its abandonment is well demonstrated by the wind-blown sand that has already accumulated around the buildings excavated (and partially restored) by the French team. Rutherford Picture Library.

The Governor’s Palace complex at Ayn Asil provides a rare example of what must have been typical urban architecture of all periods of Egyptian history, with limited use of wood or stone for necessary parts of buildings, like these column-bases. Rutherford Picture Library.

The survival of significant and complex remains in mudbrick is only due to the unusual location of the town which has been preserved through desertification. Rutherford Picture Library.

Not far from Ayn Asil is its cemetery at Qila el-Dabba, including some impressively large tombs built for governors of the oasis during the Late Old Kingdom. Rutherford Picture Library.

This complex contained a range of buildings that fulfilled a number of functions. They included private domestic apartments, administrative areas, storage areas and a series of ka-chapels, which served the cult of the governors. Ayn Asil’s capacity for industrial self-sufficiency is best represented by a large pottery workshop, which seems to have satisfied local ceramic requirements, partly by reproducing fashionable contemporary vessels from the Nile Valley.

A clear destruction level, including a major fire, marks the abandonment of the palace at some point in the First Intermediate Period, although the western part of the town continued to be occupied until its final abandonment in the early Middle Kingdom.

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