Tell me about the good old days
How can you tell when a people's culture is changing? When they build an ethnological museum. Jenny Jobbins finds things happening in Dakhla
Our drive to Dakhla took us from the White Desert, where we had camped in the open under the stars, and through Farafra, where we stopped on the roadside to eat a breakfast of fuul (beans) and ta'miya (felafel). Just as we were about to move on Saad Ali from the Badawiya Hotel drove by and invited us to the hotel for fresh lemonade. The Badawiya is a bougainvillea-filled haven and one can linger happily in the garden for hours, but we had a deadline to meet, and after our delicious lemonade we had to push on.
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Scenes of Qasr Dakhla, clockwise from top : jars beside a palm grove; wheat mill in a courtyard; doorway of the school and court house; 12th-century minaret, mausoleum of Sheikh Nasreddin
To save 35 kms of road we took a short cut, which began by swinging off the road and climbing an enormous sand dune. The sand stretched on three sides as far as the eye could see, and on the north it was stopped by a strip of sandstone hillocks. Crossing the sand was extraordinary: it was as smooth as glass, and so flat that one had the impression one was stationery, rather as when one is on a boat but can't see the waves or the shore. I'm sure we could have done the old Rolls-Royce trick and balanced an upended penny on the bonnet. We all saw a water mirage, and one of my companions swore he could see date palms on top of the sandstone and water at its foot.
As one approaches Dakhla the scenery changes and becomes more hilly. A striking thing, too, is that the oasis is very green. Fields of wheat, barsim (green fodder) and neat squares of rice all add to the rich lushness. Such fecundity also shows that modern agricultural methods are at work: the oasis has been a food producer in a traditional way as far back as the Old Kingdom, but the New Valley project to cultivate new tracks of land and help boost Egypt's food production has led to many changes. New immigrants to farm the land, new machinery and new markets, to name a few. New prosperity has brought new construction, with three- or four-storey concrete buildings replacing the traditional one-storey mud brick.
We pulled into Qasr Dakhla, the oldest town in the oasis, which has grown up over the mound of a Roman citadel and is famous for its Ottoman houses and tombs. A shaven- headed Australian was playing street football with some local boys.
It was almost a year, on 25 December, the Western Christmas Day, since I had last come to Dakhla. That day, as I tucked into rice with potatoes and tomato sauce, it was not surprising that I sometimes had to pinch myself to remember that at home everyone was into turkey and pudding and pulling crackers, but in many ways it was oddly appropriate. There were no Christmas wishes, no decorations; no one acknowledged the day. But wasn't it in just such a village as this that, unnoticed, the first Christmas Day took place? It seemed as if time had stood still.
This time, about a year later, it seemed that silent acknowledgement was about to be paid to the fact that times they are a-changing in the oasis. In a few days there would open, with scant fanfare but a good deal of enthusiasm, an "Inspirational Zone" at the Ethnographic Museum in the old town of Qasr. The existence of an ethnographic museum can mean only one thing: that someone who cares enough wants to put a certain cultural heritage on ice before it is too late. An "Inspirational Zone" seems to add a touch of even greater urgency.
That someone here in Dakhla is anthropologist Dr Aleya Hassan Hussein. The aim of the "zone" -- which will include craft workshops -- is not merely to amuse the curious, but to pass a vanishing knowledge down to younger generations. "I want to show the children here how things were done, and teach them how to do them themselves," Hussein told us, feather duster in hand, as she made the display ready for the opening ceremony.
The museum is set up in a house built in 1785 AD (1090 H) by El-Sharief Ahmed, and which Hussein leases from his descendants. She has financed the project herself, and it is clearly a vocational commitment. The walls of the house, built elaborately in mud brick, are smothered with photographs of omad (local head men) and other late residents, working craftspeople and tradesmen, costumes, and people playing traditional musical instruments or games. There are farm implements, traps and tools, cheese baskets, butter bags and weighing scales, a realistic model of a bread oven and miniature shaduuf (Archimedian screw) and a saquia (There are also baskets, pots and sculptures.) "My idea is to encourage people not to lose their crafts, but to incorporate their skills in new designs," Hussein said. "Traditional methods in modern styles." She has examples of modern-looking baskets and palm-wood beads strung into necklaces.
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Happy New Year, travellers Carry Zaghow took this picture of dawn breaking in the White Desert
As we chatted before leaving some foreign tourists put their heads round the door. "Is there a charge to come in?" one asked. "A pound," we chorused. The tourists shrugged and left. Hussein looked at us helplessly. We could only shake out heads.
Near the museum, standing alone in a small square, is the conical tomb of Sheikh Ahmededdin. I paused there long enough to spend LE10 on a fine straw hat, and from there followed the little street which runs into the heart of Qasr. Here each extended family had its own compound. The quaint old houses have thick walls, low doorways -- falling lower as the street level rises through the years -- and exquisitely-carved lintels giving the name of the owner of the house, the date and the name of the builder -- these are, in effect, the house deeds, and they literally go with the house. The oldest house in Qasr, according to its lintel, dates back to 1519 AD (924 H).
On the left is a very old minaret, all that remains of an Ayyubid mosque built in the 12th century. Sadly the rest of the mosque was destroyed to make way for the tomb of Sheikh Nasreddin. The minaret was built of hard clay of the type used to make pottery, which has helped it withstand the onslaught of time. It is 21 metres high and has three floors, but the wooden finial which topped it has been lost.
Many of the houses in the street are partly ruined, and one feels that a good dose of rain will wash them away. Further along from the Nasreddin Mausoleum is the ornate doorway of a building which stood for both school and court house: the gibbet is just outside, which must presumably have served at times as a distraction from lessons.
We spent the night at a Bedouin camp which had tasteful, mud-brick huts with mosquito nets over the beds and reed screens for windows. Unfortunately these were useless: whatever bugs invaded my sleeping space were too small to be daunted by the net, and I spent the night scratching in spite of liberal sprays of Off -- all that deet, but whatever they were, they survived. I was just falling asleep at 6am when people started to get up. Not the best start to a day, and the bites went on to itch for well over a week. The bathrooms were also a disappointment: they were furnished well enough, but sadly even the latest in plumbing style and colour doesn't make up for less than a thin trickle of water. But they did rustle up a decent supper at a moment's notice as well as a substantial breakfast.
We wished we had time to see more of Qasr, but on this trip we were just passing through. We shall certainly return soon, and in the meantime we hope to see Hussein's palm wood beads and palm frond baskets given a little fine- tuning and making their debut on the export market.
There is a lot to see in Qasr Dakhla and a whistle-stop tour is not enough. The best way to take advantage of a trip if you only have a few days is to fly to the New Valley and hire a car and driver locally.
Upper Egypt Bus Company service to Dakhla leaves Turguman Square and Giza daily at 7am and 8pm. Fare LE33 mornings, LE43 evenings. Tel: 576 0261.
EgyptAir flies to the New Valley on Sundays and Wednesdays. Fare LE298 for Egyptians, $298 for foreigners.
A basic hotel in Qasr is the Qasr Tourist Resthouse. There is more accommodation in Mut, a few kilometres from Qasr.