On the Hunt for Egypt’s Forgotten Cities
Originally published on Safareya
Standing with a group of strangers waiting for my turn to use what we were told is the only functioning bathroom in 300 kilometers, when our bus driver yells, “We leave in 10 minutes.” Can you imagine the state we were in?
We had been traveling all night to reach Egypt’s Dakhla Oasis, 800 kilometers southwest of Cairo and one of the more isolated oases in Egypt. From Cairo and other northern cities, there are two main routes to Dakhla; the shorter one runs straight down the Nile valley to Assuit (also spelled Asyut), crossing west to Kharga Oasis, and then further northwest to Dakhla. However, we had planned to stop at several sites along the way, and thus opted for the second route, which passes through most of the country’s oases – first heading west through Bahria, then south passing through Farafra and Abu Minqar oases before reaching our final destination.
The whole trip was a spur-of-the-moment decision. A trip organizer friend of mine was asked by a hotel owner in Dakhla to shed light in any way on the oasis. He complained that most employees and investors in tourism over there had been suffering from the lack of tourists for many years. The very next day a Kharga-based historian invited the same friend to check the newly-restored oldest standing house in Kharga oasis on his next southern bound trip.
Needless to say, we took both conversations as a sign and arranged a week-long exploration trip. We planned a long list of excursions, all of which deserve an article on their own. However, the focus of the trip was to visit two historic—often overlooked—Bedouin towns in the south of Egypt: Al Qasr village 24 kilometers north of Dakhla and Balat city 40 kilometers southeast of the oasis.
An Oasis in the Dark
Driving through the longer route, the journey from Cairo to Dakhla should take no longer than 12 hours – depending on how fast we were driving. However, it took us 23 hours to make it to our hotel as we stopped for a small hike and checked a couple of smaller oases along the way.
We left the capital sometime around 1 AM – fast-forward some road drama, a lot of laughs, checkpoints, and a beautiful sunset and we finally make it to Dakhla oasis just before midnight.
We couldn’t see much when we arrived, but we could tell that the hotel was smack in the middle of the fields. I remember the moment I stepped into our beautiful room; I ignored my friend’s oohs and ahhs and ran to the bathroom. Nevertheless, the room and the entire hotel were beautifully decorated in a classic 1900s style.
Those of us who couldn’t sleep from hunger were invited into a dining room lit with candles—to conserve energy—and enjoyed some vegetable soup made with lamb fat for dinner, which is a million times more delicious than it sounds. It is part of the Bedouin culture to cook with lamb or buffalo fat to stay warm in the winter and fuller for a longer time.
Grateful for the warm meal and a much-needed shower, I—and probably everyone else—dropped from exhaustion around 2 AM.
Something they don’t tell you growing up in the city: farm animals wake up far too early. Even though we were exhausted, the buffaloes managed to wake us all up shortly after sunrise. Luckily, this gave us enough time to explore the hotel’s surroundings. Right outside our balcony were endless fields. I quickly got dressed and went for a walk.
The fields had an interesting mix of palm trees, fruit trees, crops, and flowers. I wandered for what seemed like an eternity, passing buffaloes, donkeys, and cows – all of whom looked at me suspiciously. That’s when a man on a donkey stopped me and asked me to return to the hotel. Apparently, most of us had wandered off the premises so the hotel manager had to ask one of the farmers to ride through the fields telling us it’s time for breakfast.
For a city girl, breakfast was as enticing as my morning walk. The milk was so fresh it was still warm from the buffaloes, the juice was from oranges just picked from the field, the eggs had been brought in from a nearby farm, and the bread was baked in a clay oven out back.
By 9 AM we packed ourselves into our rented bus, picked up our local guide, Mahmoud Sayed, along the way, and headed for our first historic village: Al Qasr. One of very few perfectly preserved Islamic medieval towns, Al Qasr’s history goes back to the early Islamic ages; however, its construction and expansion kept going until the Ottoman era.
There are several theories about the age of this historic town, however, it is difficult to officially pinpoint when the Bedouin village was built as it all relies on inherited tales from elders. Nevertheless, it is agreed upon that Al Qasr was a main stopping point for Islamic pilgrims coming from the west of Egypt.
Currently, the ancient town is empty and listed as a protected area; however, locals native to Al Qasr live around the ancient city, some of whom cater to the few tourists that visit.
We began our tour with a panoramic spot at the edge of the village; from where we stood it all looked like it was all one large sandcastle. All the houses seemed connected and were the same shade of camel beige.
Given the harsh nature of the desert, the heat, and the fact that the town is relatively isolated, it was constructed as a connected maze of covered streets. The entire village is divided into 10 sections, each includes a group of connected houses and corridors separated from the rest of the town by a huge wooden door.
The covered streets weren’t just to shield the locals from the strong desert sun of Upper Egypt, but were brilliantly engineered to include gaps in their ceiling to direct cool into the village. While we were melting from the sweltering heat outside the city, we enjoyed a cool breeze walking its covered corridors.
As we walked towards its entrance we were greeted by the town’s oldest and highest standing building, a mosque’s minaret. Believed to be constructed during the first decade of the Hijri calendar (around the 11th century), this is the only part of the mosque that survived through the ages. The rest was rebuilt in the 1800s.
Due to the fragile state of the three-story minaret, we were allowed to climb it one person at a time. The mosque—like the rest of the city—is built from clay bricks and supported by palm tree barks. I was the first one allowed inside; unfortunately, the spiraling squeaking wood staircase terrified me. I stopped somewhere on the second floor and hurried back down. Most of my friends, on the other hand, reached a small window at the very top.
While the entire town is built in the same style, in the same color, each house gave a different vibe. Many doors were carved with Arabic poetry or welcoming messages, some houses were decorated with painted strokes on their internal walls, and administrative buildings such as the court enjoyed an old Islamic design. In short, each corridor introduced you to a new piece of a charming puzzle.
We were advised over and over to remain close to the guide as it was common to get lost in the village’s maze. That didn’t stop a few from wandering off, causing us some delay. Luckily, the locals treated us to some Bedouin tea while we waited for everyone to make it back.
As we approached the bus, we found several local women waiting for us with their handmade wicker bags, baskets, bracelets, and camel-wool socks. A brief shopping spree later and we were on our way to catch the sunset on top of a hill.
Lucky for us, the hill was a couple of hundred meters from our hotel, so we brewed some coffee, packed some snacks to hold us until dinner, and headed for what we were promised was a breathtaking view.
The hill overlooked stretches of lush green fields, all surrounded by a reddish desert, with an orange-violet sunset. The view was spectacular enough to render us speechless. We all just sat there quietly watching the sun go down.
Every moment in that day was perfection; that being said, nothing beats the moment you step into a cold shower when you are in the middle of the desert during the summer.
Sometime around 8 PM dinner was ready, where we enjoyed another round of fatty delicious soup, vegetables cooked with lamb meat, rice, and some salad. Afterward, we carried our full tummies to a nearby firepit where we were treated to some Seylaani tea (Bedouin tea) and local music. We spent the rest of the night dancing with the local Bedouins and the hotel staff – also Bedouins – until just before sunrise.
It was really difficult to get up after sleeping only for a few hours, even with the chanting buffaloes outside, but we had a packed day ahead and we needed to be on the road as early as possible. However, while we were drinking our much-needed coffee, we learned of a flash storm a few hundred kilometers east and it was spreading fast to include several Upper Egyptian cities.
Unlike urban cities, Egyptian oases don’t have many paved roads, which meant that we would be stuck wherever we were if it rained. Nevertheless, Sayed, our guide, insisted that it never rains in Dakhla. “We are always lucky we never get any rain,” he said. To us Cairenes, this is quite an interesting notion that a local desert community considers rain bad luck.
Trusting our guide, we went ahead with our plans as is. Balat is just over 40 kilometers away from Dakhla’s center. Given the condition of the roads, it takes around an hour to get there from most places within the oasis. To keep our expectations low, Sayed told us that we should expect the same scenery as the day before. He added that most tourists only visit Al Qasr as it is the older larger version of historic Bedouin villages.
Luckily, he turned out to be wrong about Balat and right about the weather. It never rained that day despite very grey skies, and the old town was magical.
Built during the Ottoman era, Balat is believed to be some sort of an extension to the original inhabitants of Al Qasr. Unfortunately, very little material is published about the town, it is mostly shared facts from guides and local historians.
Once we arrived there we met the groundskeeper, Mohamed Hamouda, a descendant from the native families of Balat. Similar to Al Qasr, the village is currently empty, considered a national heritage site, and most of its original inhabitants live on its outskirts.
Hamouda explained that Balat had emptied gradually over the years as no electricity, running water, or other infrastructure necessities could be introduced into the historic village. They still, however, own their ancestors’ houses.
While the village has the same style of connected houses and streets as Al Qasr and a very similar camel-beige hue, it has several distinct features. Primarily, much lower entryways. Hamouda explained that, hundreds of years back, invaders or any outsider not accompanied by a local wouldn’t be aware of the relatively lower entrances and end up hitting them, alarming the residents.
Another wonderful feature of the town is its blue mosque; in the midst of a beige town, all praying areas are coloured bright blue to stand out. The town also had some streets and squares exposed to sunlight.
The lack of steady tourist flow to Balat made my conversation with the groundskeeper less edited. He wasn’t speaking to an outsider, he was simply talking to another Egyptian about his life. He explained that most of his community had been self-sufficient since the brick of time. They are all farmers; the influential families owned the land and the rest farmed it. “All families bartered their produce; whatever we needed, we had within the community,” he said, “but things have changed now.” Given the economic situation and increasing taxes, isolated self-sufficient communities are suffering from a change in their socioeconomic composition. Many are seeking second jobs to afford escalating costs. Moreover, some Bedouin women have ventured out into the workforce. Right next to the historic village was a government-owned carpet factory, where Bedouin women hand-knitted beautiful silk carpets.
The day was running fast and we needed to hit the road, but before we did we stopped in a beautiful field nearby where the local Bedouins had arranged for us to stop for some delicious tea, feteer (a sweet Egyptian pastry), and some date concentrate for dipping.
After a beautiful afternoon, we took our bus 160 kilometers east to Kharga where we were invited by one of the locals, Mesbah el Wahaty, for a night of history tales, music, and a tour of his house – the oldest standing building in Kharga. It took him five years to renovate his family’s house and turn it into a museum.
The building is two stories high, with only half of the second covered by a roof. The uncovered part is used as a seating area for guests. Similar to the villages we visited, the house was built from clay bricks and palm tree barks. The house included around five rooms, each about two meters in diameter. According to el Wahaty, his extended family shared the house, where each room housed an entire family. That was the norm back then.
We spent the following three hours listening to wonderful stories about the history of Egypt’s oases, their inhabitants, and how politics in Cairo shaped their lives. By the time we left, it was almost midnight and we were all so tired that none of us spoke on the way back. Nevertheless, I wished the day had been longer and our energies higher. There was still so much to explore.