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Explorers & Travellers

The archaeological site of 'Ayn Asil, in the Dakhla Oasis, proves that at least Dakhla was considered of a certain importance during the Old Kingdom. Little is known for the moment about a contemporary occupation of the other oases, the way the ancient Egyptians named these areas in the Western Desert is still unclear. Herodotus, the Greek traveller and historian, spent a few months in Egypt in the V century BC and visited Siwa, seat of the famous Oracle of Amun which had achieved a considerable importance throughout the Greek world. After the Roman conquest, all the oases seemed to have been included in a vast project of cultivation, and fortification whenever they happened to mark the southern border of the Empire. It was in the Middle Ages that Arab travellers, across the Western Desert, introduced the idea of buried treasures and actually started the mania of treasure hunting, which has never really faded away.

The modern scientific exploration of the Western Desert started towards the end of the XIX century thanks to German and British scholars and geographers, followed by the first Egyptian explorers. Among others, it was Georg Schweinfurth, who founded the Royal geographical Society of Egypt; Gerhard Rohlfs, who organised the first interdisciplinary expedition in the Western Desert; John Ball and Hugh Beadnell, who worked in the oases for the Geological Survey of Egypt, Ahmed Hassanein, who made a remarkable journey from the Mediterranean coast down to the Sudan, Prince Kamal el-Din, who explored and mapped large sections of the Western Desert, and Ahmed Fakhry, the first Egyptian Egyptologist to visit and record the antiquities of the oases.

Rohlfs, travelling by camel, for the first time headed west to the unknown Great Sand Sea, where his expedition had quite a hard time. Saved by a miraculous rainfall, they named the spot where they could refill their reserve of water "Regenfeld" (lit. field of the rain) and left there a message in a bottle marked by a cairn. Fifty years later, Prince Kamal el-Din found the cairn and added another message, which is probably still there waiting for a new expedition. Instead of using camels, he travelled across the desert using Citroen caterpillars, while the British traveller Ralph Bagnold opted for Ford cars to explore the Great Sand Sea and the region south of Kharga.




Exploration from the air was carried out by Ladislaus de Almasy and Robert Clayton, who organised an expedition to the south-western region of Gilf Kebir and Uweynat which then inspired the book (and the movie) "The English Patient".

Modern satellite images have filled the large blank sections that were typical of the maps drawn by the early explorers, but this does not mean that the desert has given up all its secrets or that it has lost its fascination. Travelling by car in the Western Desert is certainly easier now than a few decades ago, when the oases were connected to the Valley and to one another by desert tracks only. The tarred road between Cairo and Baharia, for example, was built in the late '60s. The oases are the focus of an ambitious project of land reclaimation, and obviously the connections among them are an important part of this plan. The New Valley is now linked to Cairo by regular flights, and many of the desert roads are undergoing significant works of improvement, including the construction of resting places, petrol stations and emergency units at regular intervals.

Some tourists go around in minibuses with organised tours, others travel in 4x4s on their own. For long and difficult tours in harsh regions of the desert, it is possible to join an organised tours that includes everything, from food to tents, from 4x4 to guides. Otherwise, military permission, good cars, expert drivers and a certain experience of the desert and its potential problems (including mine fields in some areas) are mandatory. In general, for less demanding tours, a group of two to three 4x4 (never go off road on difficult tracks with one car only!) and a little experience of desert driving is enough to visit many of the places which will be described below. It is important to bear in mind that all the archaeological sites must be visited with the permission of the local Inspectorates, who may also provide local guides to reach the most hidden or complicated destinations. A visit to the local authorities will also clarify whether a special permission is needed to visit certain areas. The majority of the desert roads are in fact controlled by military check points, which from time to time may require a written document to allow passage.
(Corinna Rossi)



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