Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
17 - 23 December 1998
Issue No.408
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Bagawat Christian cemeteries Bagawat Christian cemeteries in the Kharga Oasis

Dune song

By Aline Kazandjian

I am neither a desert freak nor a train buff, but a four-day train trip across the Egyptian desert seemed like a good idea.

Our journey was to start at the Red Sea port town of Safaga and cut across the Eastern Desert for 230km to Qena in the Nile Valley. From there the train would continue its journey westward for another 450km to Qasr Kharga, in the Western Desert oasis of Kharga. This line is a relatively new addition to the Egyptian railway network. Started in 1856, it is the first railway system in the Middle East and ranks second oldest in the world after Great Britain's.

train
train The new train line which links the Red Sea resorts with the ancient treasures of Old and New Valley is expected to attract dozens of tourists to Egypt
Originally the aim of the line was to transport phosphate from the mines of Abu Tartour in Kharga Oasis to Safaga on the Red Sea, from where it could be shipped all over the world. By the time the construction of the first section of the line from Safaga to Qena was accomplished in 1989, at the cost of LE180 million, it was discovered that, for a variety of reasons, it would not be easy to market the phosphate. The government, however, decided to go ahead, continuing the line from Qena to Kharga at a cost of LE1,635 million. The line crosses the Nile at Qena on a 1,175m bridge, which cost another LE200 million. This section was opened in 1996.

It was believed that the line would be useful in transporting freight from the provinces of Upper Egypt, as well as accommodating the pilgrims going to Mecca during the Hajj season. Unfortunately, the line could attract neither, and for the time being it snakes idly through the desert, awaiting customers.

One prospective client is ORASCOM, the Egyptian construction corporation that also invests in tourism. The tourist resort of Al-Gouna, close to Safaga, belongs to the company, which is now studying the prospects for operating a charter train on this line. "We are interested in it because we think it could be a successful venture," said Samih Sawiris, one of the partners in ORASCOM. "We will be utilising an existing investment," he said. The trip would combine a desert safari adventure with a visit to the splendours of Egypt's ancient legacy, and a little bit of socialising on the train along the way.

I was part of a group of foreign journalists who had the privilege of experiencing such a journey. We departed from Safaga at 8.00am on a bright and sunny morning. Safaga, however, struck me as a desolate place, hardly an appropriate starting point. Once out of Safaga, things got worse. The jagged peaks of the purple and red mountains on our right looked inhospitable and forbidding. These mountains, some as high as 2,000m, soar abruptly upwards from the edge of a flat plateau that runs along the seashore. Our train chugged its way south along the coastline for around 40 minutes, then turned right into the mountains.

Despite their barren aspect, these mountains are rich with minerals. Quarries have existed here since Roman times. White granite and purple porphyry imported from quarries in the area embellished Roman palaces. We stopped at one such quarry, called Mons Claudianus. We needed buses to reach it and then climbed a short distance on foot before reaching a Roman ruin. Columns lay on the ground, testimony to Mons Claudianus's busier days. Here too are the remains of the quarters which used to house the quarry workers. They left behind graffiti and shards of the pottery used to store their food and wine.

Water is very scarce in these regions, where the average annual rainfall is only 100mm. Despite the harshness of nature, however, some Bedouin tribes have managed to make a home for themselves in these mountains. Mara'i Mossalam is the son of the sheikh of the Ma'aza tribe who dominate part of this region. He lives in the resort city of Hurghada nearby and earns his living organising all sorts of desert adventures for tourists. He has everything from four wheel drives to camels to air balloons. "When there is no work I go up to visit my family in the mountains," says Mara'i. Although many Bedouin still roam these mountains, his father the sheikh has a permanent house near a spring and around 200 families live there with him. Mara'i was quick to note that "the houses are not crammed close to each other because we like to leave space for the cattle, the camels and the women".

It seems that the government also allows the Bedouin some elbow room. "We don't have any schools or hospitals," said Mara'i, "so why should we pay taxes?" Security is also mainly their responsibility, as is justice. "There is no death penalty here. The ultimate punishment would be banishment. That's worse than death for my people," said Mara'i. Looking at the desolate landscape around us, it was easy to understand why.

As we moved closer to the Nile Valley, the colour of the mountains gradually turned to a light beige. Their height decreased, and their peaks became more even and flat. We passed through a clearing where water had accumulated on the limestone bed, creating a green pond. Apparently during the rain season several ponds are formed here and the area is called "mountain lakes". After having crossed the mountain range, we were out on flat lands, heading to the green Nile Valley.

Around six hours from the start of our journey, we had reached the Valley. The green fields greeted us like a breath of fresh air. The farmers were tilling the land and animals were grazing as children played barefoot in the dirt roads alongside the narrow canals.

I was soon reminded of life in Cairo when we entered Qena, which has the highest birth rate in Egypt. We were back to concrete apartment blocks, cars, noise and crowds. The best thing about getting to Qena is that from there you can go anywhere else on the Nile Valley by train. There are countless monuments in nearby towns. We visited the newly restored temple of Abydos north of Qena. Afterwards we went south on the Nile Valley line to Luxor where we spent the night at the Winter Palace Hotel.

The next leg of our journey was across the Western Desert. Just as the green fields had suddenly appeared when we were coming from the east, so did we leave them behind heading west, as though we had crossed some invisible threshold. The Western Desert spreads over 2.8 million square kilometres, engulfing two thirds of the area of Egypt. Forty per cent of it is covered with sand dunes. This is The English Patient country, although the most spectacular vistas are further west, in the Great Sand Sea.

Cassandra Vivian's book Islands of the Blest tells of entire armies disappearing in these barren sands, inhabited since the dawn of history. During World War II, British soldiers travelled through the dunes to spy on the Italians in Libya. There are lost oases waiting to be found, like the oasis of Zerzura. There are caravan trails that brought goods and slaves from the heart of Africa. The most famous is the Darb Al-Arba'in or Forty Days' Route, that comes from Fasher in Darfur province in the Sudan and winds north for 1,721km to Assiut on the Nile Valley. This route is still used today by camel traders. Along the Darb Al-Arba'in, fortresses were built to guard the caravans from marauding bands. The desert was also a convenient place to send anyone who rocked the rulers' boat up in the capital. A Pharaonic inscription in Kharga Oasis read "oasis to which we deport". The notorious modern-day high-security prison nicknamed Scorpion is located on the outskirts of Kharga.

The Roman Emperor Constantinus also chose Kharga to deport Athanasius, the patriarch of the Christian church in Egypt, during a time of turmoil for the Egyptian church. The Bagawat Christian cemeteries and Gebel Al-Teir churches and hermitages, which are among the earliest known Christian religious buildings, show that large Christian communities used to live here.

Kharga is situated in a depression bordered on one side by an escarpment running from north to south. It was 5.00pm when our train reached the edge of the escarpment and, for the first time in my life, I looked down on the sun as it set on the horizon. This is the moment when "I saw the light", and was forever converted to a desert devotee.

We spent that night in Qasr Kharga, the capital of Kharga Oasis. Unfortunately, nearly nothing of the old town is left. The mud brick houses have been replaced by match box apartment blocks and asphalt roads. This is part of a government plan to develop the New Valley region, which started in the '60s. It has recently been reactivated and President Mubarak has inaugurated a new extension of the train link from Qasr Kharga to the oasis of Paris another 42km south. This extension is expected to connect Paris to the Toshka region west of Lake Nasser, where extensive development is taking place.

On the last day of our journey, we took the train to Paris. By now I had learned the different shapes of sand dunes. The most common in this area are the crescent-shaped Barchan dunes. With a good wind, dunes can reach as high as 156m and can move at a rate of 10m a year, engulfing entire villages on their way. But the sand is not the only thing the wind moves in the desert. It frolics with the clouds as well, so that the sky is just as pleasant to watch as the earth below.

Red Sea mountains Scene from the Red Sea mountains
When we reached the tiny oasis of Paris, we took buses to visit the fortress and temple at Dush. Along the way, we could see lush green oases springing from the ground like a mirage in the desert. Some of these wells and springs have been running for thousands of years. On this road I also saw a few villages with narrow dirt alleys and mud brick houses fenced in by mud walls with dry palm leaves stuck in them, like feathers in the crown of a Masai king.

But the jewel of the crown was Dush, the fortress standing majestically on a hill overlooking the Darb Al-Arba'in. From a nearby hill I could see the fortress standing tall in the desert spread out in front of me. There was no sound but that of the wind. Suddenly I heard a clicking behind me. It was getting closer by the second. I looked back and saw a tiny white object being blown in circles by the wind. It quickly rolled away for as far as my eyes could see. When it disappeared all I could think of was the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, hurrying off to some mysterious rendezvous with the Queen of Hearts. The desert had finally captured my heart.