At the eastern end of the great Sahara is the dry region called the Western Desert by the ancient Egyptians. With an area of some 680,000 square kilometers, the Western Desert covered about two-thirds of Egypt's land mass. It extended from the Nile Valley's agricultural strip west to the frontier between Egypt and Libya, and from just south of the Mediterranean littoral southward to the Sudan-Egypt frontier. It is an area of great sand plains, outcrops of sandstone, and limestone escarpments. There are areas of massive dune activity and areas of barren rock. It is an inhospitable region and one of the driest. It is generally low-lying, with the great Qattara Depression at the north being over 100 meters (320 feet) below mean sea level in places. Toward the south, in the Gilf Kebir and Gebel Uweinat regions, the land slowly rises, to a maximum at Gebel Uweinat of nearly 1900 meters (6,000 feet) above mean sea level. The climate of this region is extremely arid, although rainfall can be attracted to the highlands of Uweinat and the Gilf Kebir, where in good years it provides seasonal grazing for the animals of nomadic pastoralists. The winter Mediterranean rainfall seldom reaches southward far inland. Only where there are deposits of water underground may any life be supported in this vast waste; the water deposits were, during the geological past, rain fed—most recently ending about five thousand years ago. The underlying Nubian sandstones are porous enough to hold water, so the water deposits are kept intact by surrounding shales until a natural fault or a well is drilled to release it. Artesian pressure or pumping brings it to the surface for use. Day temperatures in this desert reach well over 50°C (122°F) in summer, while freezing temperatures are often encountered at night in December and January. The other constant feature of the desert climate is the prevailing wind, which blows from north-north-east; it creates spectacular landforms by its sculpting effects not only on sand but also on the rock formations.
During the Cretaceous era (some 100 million years ago), the great Tethys Sea covered most of the Sahara region, including the Western Desert. This created the limestone landforms of the region and left a legacy of salts in the geochemistry; these salts are still present in the soils and the water of the region. Within the limestone are the fossilized remains of a great variety of extinct marine and land-based animals. There are also cherts (a hard stone that fractures well), which have been raw material for the stone tools of Paleolithic and Neolithic peoples in the region. As might be expected, there is little wildlife in the desert. There are, however, some animals, particularly in the vicinity of wells. The populations are never great, so prey and predators both have a meager existence. There are mostly species that need little or no water, that derive enough liquid from their food to survive. Among them are the hare, fennic, fox, Dorcas gazelle, oryx, and various lizards, snakes, rodents, and insects. Virtually no plants are found, except where the roots can reach water.
There are water sources in a number of places in the Western Desert; most are small wells and springs, which may be dry at the surface and require some digging to reach the water. These small places may have some shrubs and a few trees, particularly palms, but are insufficiently watered to sustain human habitation on any viable basis. In addition, there are five major oases, where there has been permanent settlement for several millennia; from north to south, these are Siwa, Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla, and Kharga. The Kharga Oasis is closest to the Nile River, while Siwa is the most distant from the river. These oases hold less than 1 percent of the total population of Egypt and are basically self-sufficient agricultural areas. Traditionally, the oases have been seen as having Greco-Roman period ruins and as having been at their most active at that time. Recent research, however, indicates otherwise. Whereas the Greco-Roman ruins are often visible, standing above ground, earlier remains dating back into prehistoric times are also present.
Modern explorations of the Western Desert began with the nineteenth-century European explorers and travelers, although there were some few pioneers in late medieval times. In 1819, F. Cailliaud traveled great distances over the oasis routes; A. Edmonstone traveled to Dakhla and Kharga in 1819; B. Drovetti went to Siwa Oasis and to the Kharga-Dakhla region around 1820; and the name of John Hyde (1819), can be found on many monuments. Others include J. G. Wilkinson, the pioneering Egyptologist; and Gerhardt Rohlfs, in 1875, with his great German geological expedition. In the twentieth century, W. Jennings-Bramley made a census of the desert Arabs, incidentally exploring a wide area; Ahmed Hassanein made pioneering traverses; there has also been an increasing number of European Egyptologists as interest in the antiquities of the oases has quickened; and such explorers as P. Clayton, R. Bagnold, W. B. K. Shaw, C. V. Haynes, and Ahmed Fakhry have all contributed to an increasing elaboration of knowledge of both the desert and the oases as natural phenomena and as places of habitation.
The Western Desert has always been a great natural protector of Egypt's western frontier. Since it had few people, it would not normally have been an area harboring a military threat in antiquity. It also had few mineral resources, unlike the mineral-rich Eastern Desert, so was not particularly attractive to the ancient Egyptians; it was considered an area apart, and although connected tenuously by settled populations, it was generally outside Egypt's mainstream. The Nile Valley was their home and they feared the deserts as strange places, full of evil. They seldom ventured into the deserts, unless there were good economic or military reasons. Officials in the Nile Valley were in charge of the oasis areas, keeping control over desert routes and collecting taxes. Yet the situation never seems to have been fraught with the military and bureaucratic personnel that other areas required.
When this part of the Sahara was more moist, during the earlier half of the Holocene, there was an extensive population. The work of the Combined Prehistoric Expedition, of the Beseidlungsgeschichte der Ost-Sahara project, and of the Dakhleh Oasis Project shows that there had been a viable population of hunters and gatherers, then pastoralists, and then, relatively settled peoples. With the higher rainfall pattern of ten thousand to six thousand years ago, humans and their prey were able to roam easily. As the humidity decreased, human activity became increasingly restricted to places of permanent water. Nabta Playa, west of Toshka, is an outstanding example of such habitations, at a shrinking water source, which continued in existence for several millennia before ending. The large oases, having permanent water, attracted increasingly settled populations.
The economic resources of the Western Desert are far fewer than those of the Eastern Desert. For example, away from the Nile the only significant quarries are the diorite quarries, west of Toshka, where Old Kingdom pharaohs, particularly Khafre (Chephren) gained this hard black stone for statuary. At the quarry, there is also a series of Middle Kingdom stelae. There are no mineral quarries elsewhere in the Western Desert. During pharaonic times, the five great oases of the desert each had its own connections with the cities of the Nile. They were particularly renowned for their various agricultural products, such as dates, olives, and wine. The only products of the oases, when depicted in tomb scenes or mentioned in texts, are agricultural products. In general, there is no known industry nor yet any mineral or other resources to have made them more economically important to the ancient Egyptians. The Kamose Stela (c.1570 BCE) does indicate the strategic importance of the four oases closest to the Nile—Bahariya, Farafra, Kharga, and Dakhla—particularly for defensive control of the western approaches to the river. The Libyan threat that occupied Egyptian international affairs in Ramessid times, was chiefly in the Mediterranean coastal region. The Libyan Desert, as the westward continuation of the Western Desert, was equally inhospitable and an equally effective barrier frontier. From the Libyan pre-desert, archaeological evidence shows no human inhabitants between the Old Stone Age and the Romans. Two hieratic stelae from Mut in the Dakhla Oasis, dating to the twenty-second dynasty and the twenty-fifth, attest to a community of Egyptians living there—as well as “Libyans”—and it seems likely that people known as Libyans to the Egyptians also lived in the other oases.
Several deities are associated with the western oases. The most important is the chief Theban god, Amun. With the Egyptian belief in the threatening deserts, however, it was natural that a number of desert deities became important in the oases. In the Dakhla Oasis, the major temple, at Mut, seems to have been dedicated to Seth, a deity of desert areas; there are also temples to the protective deity Tutu at Ismant el-Kharab and to Amun-nakht at Ein Birbiyeh. The Siwa Oasis is more closely connected to the Mediterranean coast than to the Nile Valley and so might be associated more closely with various Libyan tribes living to the west of Egypt. There are Egyptian references to the region and its peoples from the Early Dynastic period; while there is evidence for prehistoric occupation of Siwa, there are no Egyptian monuments earlier than the twenty-sixth dynasty in the oasis, and the inhabitants until then were probably Libyans. In the reign of Amasis (569–526 BCE) a temple dedicated to Amun was built at Aghurmi, and from the mid-sixth century it became renowned as an oracular center. The Greek historian Herodotus recounted that a large army was sent by Cambyses (525–522 BCE) to attack the oracle of Amun at Siwa; the force went from Thebes to Kharga and subsequently disappeared somewhere in the Western Desert in a sandstorm. Later known as the Oracle of Jupiter-Amun, the oracle was consulted and admired by many throughout the Mediterranean world, perhaps the most famous being Alexander the Great.
Bahariya Oasis is much closer to the Nile than Siwa, only 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Beni Mazar. Being so much closer to ancient Egypt, it played a greater role in its history. As in all the oases, there is ample evidence at Bahariya for prehistoric occupation of the region. While no monuments earlier than the late eighteenth dynasty have been found there, its name, ḏsḏs, is known from Middle Kingdom times. This oasis may have been the residence of the Libyan group that eventually became the twenty-second dynasty (931–725 BCE). The smallest of the great Western Desert oases, Farafra, lies some 180 kilometers (115 miles) southwest of Bahariya and just over 300 kilometers (200 miles) west of the Nile Valley at Manfalut. In pharaonic times, it was termed the Ta-iht (“Land of the Cows”), an indication of a past richness that has since vanished.
The “Great Southern Oasis” (Whʒ.t rsy.t) consists of both the Kharga Oasis and the Dakhla Oasis. Kharga, lying parallel to the Nile between Nagada and Edfu, and a maximum of 230 kilometers (145 miles) distant, was important as part of a second route into Sudan, the Darb el-Arbain. On it are many monuments and sites of Greco-Roman times, several of which are caravanserais. The capital of the region was at Hibis, present-day Kharga. The largest of all the oases, was Dakhla, farther to the west; it was occupied by the end of the sixth dynasty, and there was a major Egyptian settlement, not only at Ein Aseel, the capital, but throughout the oasis area. Although evidence suggests a continuous habitation by ancient Egyptians, after the initial settlement there was never a large population until the Roman period, when a number of temples were built, three major towns established, and the many smaller sites—all of which attests to the economic importance of the area to the Roman world market. After the collapse of that empire, the role of the Western Desert oases dwindled to one of local subsistence farming.
- Beadnell, H. F. L. An Egyptian Oasis: An Account of the Oasis Of Kharga in the Libyan Desert. London, 1909. An account of life in the Kharga Oasis early in the twentieth century, with emphasis on water sources.
- Bagnold, R. Libyan Sands. Bristol, 1935. An account of the Western Desert explorations by a world authority on sand and deserts.
- Caton-Thompson, G. Kharga Oasis in Prehistory. London, 1952. The seminal work on Pleistocene prehistoric excavations at Kharga Oasis.
- Churcher, C. S., and A. J. Mills, eds. Reports from the Survey of Dakhleh Oasis. Western Desert of Egypt, 1977–1987. Dakhleh Oasis Project Monograph, 2. Oxford, 1999. Essays concerning results from the survey of the oasis by members of the Dakhleh Oasis Project.
- Edmonstone, A. A Journey to Two of the Oases of Upper Egypt. London, 1822. An account of the journey by the first European to visit Dakhla Oasis; also the first description of the oasis.
- Fakhry, A. The Necropolis of El-Bagawat in Kharga Oasis. Cairo, 1951. An account of a well-preserved, large early-Christian cemetery at Kharga.
- Fakhry, A. The Oases of Egypt, vol. 1: Siwa Oasis. Cairo, 1973. A description of the modern oasis, its people, customs, history, and monuments.
- Fakhry, A. The Oases of Egypt, vol. 2: Bahariya and Farafra Oases. Cairo, 1974. A description of the people and the monuments of these two oases.
- Giddy, L. L. Egyptian Oases. Warminster, 1987. A compendium of the sources in the Nile Valley and in the oases for the oases of Bahariya, Dakhla, Farafra, and Kharga; also the account of some excavations at Ayn Asil, Dakhla Oasis.
- Kuper, Rudolph. Forschungen zur Umweltgeschichte der Ostsahara. Cologne, 1989. First results of the environmental studies in the desert; English summaries.
- Wendorf, Fred, R. Schild, and A. E. Close, eds. Cattle Keepers of the Eastern Sahara. Dallas, 1984. Contains a series of essays on prehistoric work in the southern Western Desert.
- Winlock, H. E. Ed Dakhleh Oasis: Journal of A Camel Trip Made in 1908. New York, 1936. A brief account of the standing monuments of the Dakhleh Oasis.
- Winkler, H. Rock Drawings of Southern Upper Egypt. London, 1939. Contains reproductions of and commentary on the petroglyphs of the Western Desert.
Anthony J. Mills