Bahariyya Oasis and Bawati


Ins and outs

Getting there and around

The journey to Bahariyya Oasis from Cairo, 310 km west of the Pyramids of Giza along Route 341, takes five-six hours by bus, with one stop en route, four-five hours by service taxi or four hours in a 4WD. Beware if arriving by bus as there is intense competition, and sometimes ugly rivalry, among hotel and safari touts and you may be bombarded when disembarking. If this happens, head to the tourist office and the manager will contact your chosen camp so they can come and collect you. From Siwa, it is possible to hire a vehicle and driver to make the journey along the rough road through the Great Sand Sea, arriving in Bahariyya six-eight hours later.

Bicycles are a good way to get around Bahariyya. Several camps can provide them, or ask around for Mohamed Ali who rents a few bikes from his shop on the Farafra Road.

Information

The official
Egyptian Tourist Authority (ETA)
office
 is in the government building on the main street. The manager, Mohamed Abd El-Kader, is also contactable on his mobile at any time. The
Tourist Police 
are 1 km east of town on the Cairo road.

Background

The closest oasis to Cairo in distance and the furthest in historical time, Bahariyya dates back to the Middle Kingdom and it was the thriving commercial heart of the great caravan routes from the time of the 26th Dynasty. Millions of years before the pharaohs, dinosaurs tramped through forests, swamps and saltwater, leaving their bones to be discovered in 1914 in the area around Jebel Dist. At 2000 sq km and with about 35,000 inhabitants, it is the smallest of the four depressions. The farmed areas, producing dates, olives and wheat, have been passed down through generations of small landowners, and the oasis' fortunes have waxed and waned in tandem with the availability of ground water. Throughout their history, the people of the oasis have prevaricated between independence and co-operation with the ruling regime. In the last few centuries they have cooperated fully with any government but still maintain a slightly independent stance, although they are very welcoming to visitors.

Bawati

Bawati is the oasis' main settlement, where a slightly Wild-West ambiance and mass of unfinished construction do much to obscure its immediate charms. But though the town centre is far from aesthetically pleasing, the outlying camps are delightfully restful and desert dunes and mountains are never far away. The remains of Bawati's sister village,
Al-Qasr
are to the west of town, beneath which lies Bahariyya's ancient capital. Here you will see stones from a 26th Dynasty (664-525 BC) temple reused for house building and the remains of a Roman triumphal arch that stayed intact until the 19th century. Bawati and its environs are good for walking, whether just strolling around the old town and nearby peaceful plantations, or undertaking a more strenuous hike up one of the surrounding peaks. There is a circular walk worth taking along the main road and the oasis road through the gardens, by
Aïn Bishmu
, the Roman springs, where the hot water is used for bathing and washing clothes. Cultivation of fruit - apricots, dates, figs and melons - takes place in these gardens. The women who work in the gardens also contribute to the household finances by selling embroidered goods. The hill to the southwest of the town is known as the '
Ridge of the Chicken Merchant
' as here in underground passages are small recesses, which are the burial sites of a great many mummified ibis and hawks, dating from the 26th Dynasty and clearly relating to worship of Thoth and Horus.

Excellent sunsets and views of the oasis are to be had from the top of
Jebel El-Ingleezi
, 'English Mountain' (also known as Jebel Williams after the officer stationed here), where the ruins of a First World War fortress controlled by the British are found. It's an easy walk (or jeep ride) to the top.
Jebel Dist
, the pyramid mountain 17 km north of town, presents a challenging climb to gain spectacular views of 100,000 palm trees (coming down is tough as the surface is gravely). The area around the mountain and nearby
Jebel Maghrafa
is famed for the discovery of dinosaur remains in the early part of the 20th century and again in 2001; fossils of all descriptions are found here in abundance. Also of interest here may be the Naghi family's
camel breeding farm
. You can see how camels are bred and buy camel wool blankets and products.
Jebel Ghurabi
 is a dream location in the midst of beautiful sand-dunes: it's a good, short excursion that cannot fail to impress.

Other small settlements in the vicinity are all worth visiting to see how these sturdy people combat the elements and to get a taste of real oasis life. Once on the floor of the depression (coming from Cairo) take the track to the south of the road that continues beyond
El-Harrah
(rock cut tombs) and its ponds, used by the locals for duck breeding, to the gardens around the spring of
Aïn Yousef
. Further west along the main road the ruins of
Muhrib
are out of bounds at present but a tarmacked road opposite on the right leads to
Gabala
where the encroaching sands have been spreading over the oasis gardens for the last 20 years and have covered the rest of the road. Approaching closer to Bawati, again on the right, are the villages of
Mandisha
and
Zabw
, also fighting a losing battle against the encroaching sand. The last turn right before Bawati leads to
Agouz
. A guide from the village is an asset when visiting these small settlements.

Sights

At the time of writing, the following sights in Bahariyya are officially open to the public: the Temple of Alexander, Aïn Al-Muftillah, the tombs of Zad-Amun ef-Ankh, Banentiu and Amunhotep Huy and the Antiquities Inspectorate's 'museum' that houses the acclaimed Golden Mummies (the actual Valley of the Mummies remains officially off-limits). One ticket purchased in the Antiquities Inspectorate makeshift museum covers admission to all sights; note that it is valid for one day only. Cameras require an additional ticket (or hefty
baksheesh
inside the tombs).

Museums

The
Antiquities Inspectorate Museum,
 known to some as the Bawati museum, and to others as the Mummy Hall, shelters some of the finds from surrounding ruins. Among the 10 on display are four of the acclaimed 'golden mummies', so dubbed for their gilded coffins, badly displayed yet still extraordinary for their lifelike representation of the deceased, complete with curly locks and long eyelashes. The
Oasis Heritage Museum
 highlights the artwork of Mahmoud Eed, a local self-taught Bedouin artist. Clearly inspired by the old-timer, Badr of Farafra, Eed moulds clay to depict his experience of life in the oasis. The museum also houses dioramas that offer a view of daily life in Bahariyya. At the store, you will find beautiful embroidered dresses and locally made silver jewellery.

Tombs and temples

In Bawati village, nestled on the small hill of Qarat Qasr Salim, are
the tombs of
Banentiu
, a wealthy merchant and
Zed-Amon-Iuf-Ankh
, his father, both from the 26th Dynasty. A steep descent leads to Banentiu's hypostyle hall where the four columns, unusual in that they are square, are painted on all sides with deities while the ceiling presents a fantastic winged sun-disk motif. In both tombs the decorations remain intensely colourful and clearly portray the gods at work carrying out the mortuary rituals.

The
Tomb of Amenhotep-Huy
, mayor of Bahariyya oasis in the 18th-19th Dynasty, rests on a ridge called Qarat Hilwa, a few kilometres northwest of town. It's quite hard to spot without a guide and, though not visually remarkable, is the most ancient tomb in area.

The
Temple of Aïn El-Moftella
, 2 km west of town, was built in the 26th Dynasty during the reigns of Kings Apries and Amasis (Ahmose II). The temple has four ruined chapels protected with a new roof, decorated with scenes depicting the king presenting offerings to 18 different gods.

The
Temple of Alexander the Great
, at Al-Qasr Allam built in 332 BC and occupied perhaps until the 12th century AD, stands at the northern end of the site where the golden mummies were discovered. The temple is unique in being built to honour a living person and was begun after Alexander visited Bahariyya on his way back from consulting the Oracle in Siwa. Behind the temple the priests' houses were built. The administrator lived to the east of the building and to the front were 45 storerooms made of mud brick where a small statue of the priest Re was found. The temple itself is constructed of local sandstone. A granite altar over 1 m in height was erected to the south of the entrance, inscribed with Alexander's name and now on view in the museum in Cairo. In the inner sanctuary Alexander, with the mayor who built the temple, is shown in bas-relief making offerings to Amun-Re and other gods.

One of the delights of visiting Bawati is a soak in one of its sulphury steaming
hot springs
.
A couple of camps have springs nearby , or try
Bir el-Mattar
, 7 km northeast of Bawiti, though it is not particularly beautiful as the cool water pours out of a viaduct into a small cement pool. Men bathe here by day, and women by night.
Bir Al-Ghaba 2
, 7 km further down the road, is extremely hot.
Bir Sigam
, 7 km east of town on the Cairo road, is definitely the best place to bathe in Bahariyya. Locals often splash around here when the sun's out, but come night, men and women travellers can soak undisturbed in stunning moonlit environs.

Bahariyya to Farafra

Just 12 km beyond the outskirts of Bawati is the
Runi shrine of Rene Michael
, the Swiss explorer who lived in the village for seven years, rediscovered the area and was so enchanted by the beauty of the place that he wanted to be buried here in the desert. Beyond lies the
Black Desert
, the pebbles of dolerite darkening the land, and the road begins to rise out of the Bahariyya depression through a bright rainbow canyon. On the plateau are numerous erosion features known locally as 'lions'. Of special note are the small mountains of calcite. One, just 10 m to the left of the road, is called Jebel El-Izza or
Crystal Mountain
, more like a big hill and with a flower-like growth of crystal formations sprouting forth around the small arch in the centre. The road cuts through the escarpment and descends towards the Farafra depression. Of the flat topped outliers, two are particularly prominent to the east of the road, and are known as the
Twin Peaks
.

Beyond is the fabled
White Desert
(Sahara Al-Beida) the reason why most tourists have come so far. By moonlight, the eerie wind-sculpted landscape has been compared to the Arctic wasteland, and sunrise here is the highlight of many trips. The luminescent glow of the white rock, whipped by the wind into peaky meringues, against the drifting sands is truly other-worldly. These strange shaped rocks have caught the imagination of countless travellers - intrigued by them and inspired by them. Geologists will delight in the huge calcite crystals, the chalk fossils and the accumulations of pyrites. To the north of Jebel Gunna a road goes west to
Aïn Della
(Spring of the Shade).

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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