Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 March 2006
Issue No. 784
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Snap shots

Imagine standing in a cave with an art form as ancient as history itself. You'll wonder how shapes, curves and paints survived all those years. Join Mohamed El-Hebeishy as he rediscovers prehistoric rock art

Al-Gilf Al-Kebir (The Black Escarpment) is a gigantic plateau the size of Switzerland. It is located in the south west of Egypt's Western Desert, with Dakhla Oasis being the closest urban centre. Though this part of our planet is characterised today as hyper arid, thousands of years ago it flourished with water.

Humans as a race have a tendency to record; be it events, occasions or perhaps keeping a diary. Our early ancestors were no different and they too recorded their life, habits and surroundings in general, all in the form of rock art. Al-Gilf Al-Kebir might be all barren and deserted but it is rich with rock art.

The history of discovering such a priceless art started with Count Almàsy, the Hungarian aristocrat renowned as one of the early explorers of Al-Gilf Al-Kebir. In 1933, Almàsy was the first modern-day man to set eyes on drawings of cattle, human figures and that of swimmers in Al-Gilf Al-Kebir. No wonder the cave was named The Swimmers Cave.

The latest discovery came in May 2002 when ex-military colonel Ahmed El-Mestekawi discovered the largest rock art site in the area, later known as El-Mestekawi Cave. It is not only the most important for the number of depictions it contains, but also for the assortment of paintings and engravings. They come in a wide array of forms and shapes that range from handprints, hunting scenes and different human figures, to wild game like giraffe, Barbary sheep, Scimitar oryx and gazelle.

Unfortunately, the rock art of The Swimmers Cave has fallen prey to unintentional vandalism as irresponsible tourists flash their cameras, or more destructively spray water on the paintings to get a more vibrant photograph. Taking into consideration the nature of both the paint that had been used as well as the sandstone on which the rock art is painted, spraying water leads to accelerated fading and possible peeling off. Restoration efforts are deemed crucial to save a heritage only a few nations enjoy.

Zarzora Expedition runs trips to Al-Gilf Al-Kebir and the Western Desert. For prices and reservations, please visit

photo: Mohamed El-Hebeishy

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