Dakhla is among the most remote oases being far from both Cairo and Luxor. To get there from Cairo you drive south over 850km. Yet it retains a charm quite its own that makes journeying there well worth the expenditure in time and effort. You pass from Farafra along one of the loneliest stretches of road in Egypt. Once past the outlying villages of Abu Mingar there is nothing for 200km - just empty road, dunes on the right and the unending escarpment on the left. Anytime you stop- and you should stop because this modern road follows an ancient route through the desert- you will find stone tools scattered close to the road. You can stand by your silent car and hear nothing but the wind for ages, turning over the evidence of ancient man in your hands.
The road from Farafra then passes a few outlying patches of green and then a village. After that one has to wind up and over the great dunes blocking the entrance to the main part of the oasis. These dunes lie between a mountainous outpost- Gebel Edmondstone- named after the Victorian cartographer Archibald Edmondstone , the first European visitor to Dakhla since Roman times. He arrived in 1819.
But back on the road, once past Gebel Edmondstone you are surrounded by fields alternating with patches of rock and desert. You’ll know you’re in Dakhla because, unlike Farafra, everyone working wears a straw hat against the heat- which makes the place look vaguely Mexican!
Dakhla is considered to be one of the oldest inhabited places in Africa, or rather Mut, its main town is. Mut, which means mother in the Ancient Egyptian tongue, is really the mother of all dwelling places. Houses with organic remains carbon dated to 13,000 years ago have been unearthed there.
Dakhla is home to many ancient remains, hot springs and towering over it – the escarpment which dominates the skyline on the northern side. In the oasis town of Qsar (like many of the Oases, the main town is called Qsar after the fortress) a Dutch lead team of locals have succeeded in almost completely rebuilding the dark mud walled old town. This place of narrow alleys and secret passages is one of the great sights of Dakhla. Lose yourself in an endless labyrinth which is like something out of Starwars or the Sheltering Sky. In one linked house lurks a blacksmith and his family- making knives, needles and sickles with their signature saw toothed edge. This design has been traced back to pre-dynastic times when the saw teeth were microliths of flint set in a curved wooden handle.
In the maze of streets you’ll easily get lost so take one of the unpaid guides and give him a tip- they are not at all pushy and really very helpful. There is also a small museum on the edge of the mudwalled town. Though Qasr was deserted for concrete dwellings in the early 1990s a few families have moved back- though the laying of a water main was controversial. In the past all water was brought in by hand- because the consequences of a flood would be disastrous- the dissolving of the very fabric of the town. Needless to say, no one ever leaves the tap running.
Deir El Haggar
A few kilometres before Qasr is the intriguing Roman ruin of Deir El Haggar. This place was once under sand- which helped preserve the paint on the carvings. There is something very recent about paint and to see some that is 2000 years old is quite amazing. One can compare oneself to the great explorer Rolhfs who signature can be seen quite clearly on a column in front of the temple of Deir el Haggar. But he carved it when the sand was much higher. Now cleared away to reveal more of the temple, his graffiti is a good three metres above the ground. One is left standing far below, pondering the neat and exact way they carved their names in those days- compared to the slapdash way people scratch their signature these days.
Rohlfs started on his famous expedition to try and cross the Sahara to Libya from Dakhla. He failed and it wasn’t until the era of the motorcar that this feat was achieved by a European explorer. He did, of course, get to Siwa- and it is this 650 km journey that we emulated in 2009/10.
Across the way from this restored Roman temple complex are conical hills full of tombs. Some have been excavated, some robbed but as you cast your eyes further there are many more similar looking hills spread throughout Dakhla. When people have been living somewhere continuously in such a dry climate for 13,000 years there are a lot of bodies to bury. You get a glimpse of how the whole oasis is one great archeological site.
Amheida Wall Paintings
Between Qasr and Mut lies the extensive Roman ruins of Amheida, perhaps one of the largest and most significant within the oasis of Dakhla. In Roman times it was a major city, relying for its wealth on the good farming in the oasis. The old city remains as sand buried buildings, a temple and over 3000 graves. Most recently a marvelous series of wall paintings have been unearthed. They depict in great detail scenes of Greek and Roman mythology in a large 15 room building dug from the sand by a Canadian team of archaeolgists. These are the first wall paintings to be found in Dakhla and one of the main paintings tells the story of Perseus and Andromeda which supposedly occurred itself in the Western Desert.
Biking in Mut
To see all the antiquities in Dakhla you can ride in the back of a pick up, take a taxi or hitch lifts. Better, probably, is to hire a pedal bike. You can hire bicycles in all the oases. Mut is no exception- though with its wide largely empty roads it makes for some of the best on-road cycling in Egypt. You can hire bikes at several places and it is a cheap and easy way to get around.
Final fact: Desert raiders originating in Chad attacked Dakhla up until the 19th century using iron boomerangs. These are not so different in design to the boomerangs used by the Ancient Egyptians to catch small birds.