Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 March 2006
Issue No. 787
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Surface evidence

A chance trick of the light has provided proof that the town of Al-Qasr in the Dakhla Oasis was once a Roman fortress. Jenny Jobbins witnessed the evidence

Click to view caption
Top: The Beit Al-Qureishi in the foreground, with the smaller Beit Al-Qadi in the rear; Fred Leemhuis and the lost wall photos: Jenny Jobbins

A chance trick of the light has provided proof that the town of Al-Qasr in the Dakhla Oasis was once a Roman fortress. Jenny Jobbins witnessed the evidence

The town of Al-Qasr, otherwise known as Qasr Dakhla, lies in Dakhla Oasis deep in the Western Desert 450kms due west of Luxor. Despite its remote setting it has had a colourful history: Romans exploited the oasis for agricultural produce; Libyans, including the Sanusi, made conquering raids; and it was not far from the infamous Darb Al-Arbain slave route. In the picturesque mediaeval section of the town narrow, partly covered streets wind past heavy ancient doors topped with elaborate lintels, and here and there through an open doorway can be glimpsed old grinding stones or a staircase leading to a crumbling roof.

Al-Qasr is the older of the two towns in Dakhla -- the other being Mut -- and was built on top of a tell, that mound of crumbled debris that marks the site of an ancient structure or settlement and which over time, since any collapsed buildings are composed largely of mud brick, settles into the natural landscape.

Archaeologists have long supposed that beneath the foundations of Al-Qasr are the remains of a Roman citadel. Fred Leemhuis, professor of Islamic Studies at Groningen University and field director of the Qasr Dakhla Project -- part of the Dakhla Oasis Project (DOP) -- told this author two years ago: "Undoubtedly there was a fortress there in Roman times, or even a Ptolemaic one. The Romans probably built a structure to surround the well, and I would be surprised if there was nothing Roman. But we have simply not found any evidence."

Leemhuis said then that a good quantity of datable potsherds or coins at a lower level would be enough to determine a Roman provenance. "Al-Qasr is the only tell in Dakhla. It has at least three levels of occupation," he said. "There might have been something before that, but we can only hazard a guess. Some time I'm going to excavate, but right now I'm too busy."

In the end, by a quirk of fate, he didn't need to. It happens to most of us: the mislaid glasses you find have been wearing all along, the lost car keys which were under your nose. Like those keys, the evidence was right before his eyes. "Archaeologists had been walking past it all the time," Leemhuis said this week. "They just didn't notice it."

What caught his eye was an outcrop of what had always been thought -- if any thought was given to it at all -- to be an outcrop of dried mud beneath a disused mosque on the edge of the old town. One morning this February Leemhuis was walking past the "rock" when he noticed that the sun caught a distinct line that appeared to be a course of brickwork. He called in the project's chief restorer, Rizq Abdel-Hay Ahmed, and local inspector Affaf Saad Hussein, and together they examined it more closely. Under the veneer of sun-baked mud they could distinguish several such courses. Far from being hardened earth this was mud-brick, and, moreover, the size of the bricks -- each 8x16x33 cms -- corresponded exactly to bricks in other Roman fortresses in the Western Desert. Since then other experts, including Roger Bagnold of Columbia University -- who has also walked past it many times -- have agreed the wall is Roman.

The brickwork continues on the other side of an open street which was at some point driven through it, and it went on again behind the mosque. This last piece of the wall, which still stands more than four metres high, was evidently a gateway and abuts what appears to be a circular or hexagonal tower. The wall has proved to be six metres thick and the stone foundations to have been dug down one metre. "Now we know it's there we can't think how we missed it," Leemhuis says. "And we didn't have to do anything."

Further excavations will have to be carried out before the wall can be dated with accuracy, but one historical conundrum now appears to be solved. Agricultural accounts from the Roman town of Kellis, the site of which lies between Al-Qasr and Mut, show records of grain and wine being sent to a place named, in Greek, "Takastra". Up to now no one has known where this might be, but now it can be surmised that Takastra, "the camp" from the Latin castra (military camp), later became Qasr, making its etymological link with the Arabic qasr (fortified town) obscure.

The discovery sets the seal of what has been a successful season for the Qasr Dakhla Project, which has also seen the completed restoration of the second of two adjoining houses at the centre of the town: the Beit Al-Qureishi, which belonged to a prominent local family. Unlike its neighbour the Beit Al-Qadi (the house of the judge), which was restored two years ago, the Beit Al-Qureishi was a ruin with only the façade left standing. Both houses have now been rebuilt using the traditional methods of the original construction: mud bricks with wooden supports and with roofs of palm logs and fibres. The window frames and doors are made of acacia wood. The houses have steep staircases -- two in the case of the Qureishi house -- leading to the upper floors. These stairwells have niches for oil lamps to compensate for what might be a gloomy interior, the main source of light being the small upper windows.

The reconstruction has been so successful that many of the local families who once lived in the maze of houses that makes up Al-Qasr, are thinking of doing up their old houses and moving back in. The project has brought about a revival of old building skills: master craftsmen whose expertise was about to die out have trained younger men, and now there are several master builders, the youngest aged 33, who know how to build in the traditional way.

The original residents of the Ottoman houses of Dakhla were fairly prosperous locals whose assets may have been gained from professional services or commerce. As the two restored houses show, they could afford comfortable accommodation, and while they had no running water -- which would have been brought in by a water carrier -- their sleeping rooms (of which most houses had several) had inside locks for privacy. The open windows would have been closed with outer shutters. The interior walls, daubed to a smooth finish with wet mud, remained unpainted. There would have been little furniture: rugs, reed mats and a low round table for the serving of food were the norm. Possessions were stored in baskets.

Leemhuis first came to Dakhla in 1991 on a duty visit as director of the Netherlands Institute in Cairo. "The road through Bahariya and Farafra was almost non-existent," he says of that first visit. He returned to the Netherlands in 1995, but in 1998 he was invited by DOP director Anthony Mills to conduct its Islamic section. In 2001 he paid a short visit to Qasr Dakhla and, with the help of the Supreme Council of Antiquities chief inspector, selected a house to restore. Since then he has been staying in Dakhla for part of the DOP's annual season, which usually spans October to March.

The chosen house, the Beit Al-Qadi, which dates from 1702, had been used as a stable and it took several weeks to clear it of rubble and debris. Most of the top floor had to be rebuilt: some walls were damaged, and the tops of the arches had disappeared. Thanks to meticulous pre-planning and drawing of plans the actual reconstruction of the Beit Al-Qadi in the 2003-04 season took only two months.

Throughout the restoration the house was visited by Dakhla residents and school classes who showed great interest in the procedure. "Local residents are always more interested when they can relate to something," Mills says.

"It's their own past and there's a link to their present life," Leemhuis adds. "People want to know if there were pigeons on the roof, and they remember the plans of their grandparents' houses." When remains of small enclosures were found on the roof of the Beit Al-Qadi three of the workmen debated whether these had been used to keep pigeons or rabbits. After 10 minutes of heated discussion they settled on pigeons because of the size of the accommodation, so they went out and acquired new pigeon pots for the roof. "The craftsmen admire the houses. They really like what they are doing," Leemhuis says. The continuity with the past impressed them: the simple finishes and the open summer sleeping room are just like those in use today.

In order to repair cracks in the walls of the Beit Al-Qadi scaffolding was set up next door in the Beit Al-Qureishi, but so that it could be erected safely the Beit Al-Qureishi first had to be cleared of debris. In the process of the clean- up several interesting items emerged. Only an hour after the first load of rubble had been carted away one of the workmen found a scrap of folded paper which proved to be a personal letter dating from 1890. By an extraordinary coincidence the workman realised that the letter was addressed to his great-grandfather. This focussed the attention of all those working on the project, and over the course of the initial clearance the team turned up 180 documents, almost 120 of which dated from before the 20th century. They encompassed land, water and marriage contracts, hegabs (magical charms), leaves of manuscripts, accounts, personal letters and Quranic texts. Interestingly, one such text was written using consonants without diacriticals, a style normally connected with the Hijaz. "We don't know if these [belonged to] one family, but it was the Qureishis, members of the family of the prophet, who probably came here because of a blood feud. They were well-to-do and could afford a plot of land," Leemhuis said at the time.

It was soon realised that the Beit Al-Qureishi had collapsed all at once in about 1930, capturing the contents in a time capsule. There was beautiful basketry, as well as brand-new ceramic bowls still in their shop wrappings, cooking utensils and fragments of French, Chinese and Dutch porcelain, make-up bags and a French lady's purse, and lots of shoes -- intriguingly all for left feet. There were embroidered galabiyas of good quality. There were also several leather amulets containing written charms. In one corner was an abundance of folded legal documents as fresh as if they had just fallen out of a cupboard. So far more than 500 documents or fragments dating from 1578 to 1930 have been recovered from the house. They include transfers of land and property, agricultural and water matters, share cropping contracts, fatwas (religious injunctions) and some articles of litigation, presenting a record of family relationships over several generations. Many of these are now being examined by Ruud Peters, Islamic law professor at the University of Amsterdam. One document Peters has studied is a marriage contract drawn up in Cairo between a Qureishi and a former white slave who had been freed by her late master, a low-ranking army officer. The contract promised that the bridegroom would support her and her small daughter, and would pay a bride price of 15 piastres "This was not an inconsiderable sum in those days, since for the same amount he could have purchased a small plot of land with a couple of date palms," Ruud says. Five years later, the records say, this wife was left in Cairo with an annuity while he returned to Dakhla and took another wife, for whom he paid 30 times as much.

"Society in Al-Qasr in the 20th century, and certainly in the 19th, was literate," Leemhuis says. "This doesn't mean everyone could read and write, but there were a sufficient number of people around who could. Most contracts we have found have been witnessed by four or five witnesses, all signed with a clear and distinct hand."

Although the door lintel -- an elaborately- carved record naming the house's owner, builder, carpenter and the date -- had disappeared, all the local residents agreed on the name "Qureishi". Indeed a photograph of the original lintel exists and was published in 1981 by the French Archaeological Institute in the course of their survey of all the lintels of Qasr Dakhla. It might subsequently have been stolen or even used as firewood, but a handsome replica is now in place.

During reconstruction a study was made to see how the house fitted in to the town. "It's now clear that Qasr Dakhla was a planned city," Leemhuis says. "It is clearly in a rectangle, and appears from the outset to have been divided into regular, rectangular parcels. Somewhere towards the end of the 17th century the derelict buildings there were cleared, because the first half-metre is fill." This suggests the ground was levelled. The town walls were gated, and the inner town was divided into quarters, each of which was also secured with gates. "It was probably already a qasr in Fatimid times," Leemhuis adds. "The only thing we know from Arabic geographic literature is that Qasr Dakhla was a fortress." It was mentioned by the Arab explorer Ibn-Hauqal (943-969 AD) and the geographer Al-Bekri (1040-1094), who while he never left Cordoba drew on accurate information from merchants and travellers. In the 11th century the residents were described as Christians, but the minaret of the mausoleum of Sheikh Nasreddin is most probably Ayyubid dating from the 12th century. Early records also mention that the public water source was in the centre of the town. This supply dried up some time ago, but there may have been a trickle of water up to the late 1970s when most of the residents abandoned the old quarters.

"There is water under the ground, but it's trapped in aquifers which are unconnected with each other and with the surface," Mills says. "It's good water when it's tapped." Mills adds that the present water level is lower than the houses, so that seepage does little damage.

Two thousand years of building and rebuilding have left some interesting marks. Although most of the materials are mud and wood, a stone foundation course is visible. Doors may even be flanked by stone posts emblazoned with hieroglyphs, probably, according to Mills, carried by donkey from the nearby temple at Amheida. The inspector and restorer have discovered at least nine new lintels on the outskirts of Al-Qasr, either plastered over or obscured. Trial trenches dug in 2003 and 2004 revealed a glass weight -- used as a measure against gold coins -- with the name of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Mustansir Billah (1035-1094 AD), as well as a good deal of pottery, some of it Fatimid, and some lower-level doorsteps.

The reconstruction of the Beit Al-Qureishi has taken three seasons and 120,000 bricks, all thrown up in the time-honoured way without modern equipment. The topping-off ceremony was performed with a palm frond and Pepsis rather then a fir tree and beer as in the Netherlands, but the party was memorable and now the members of the workforce are looking forward to their next building project. Their pride and enthusiasm and the interest of residents have been motivating factors.

The Qasr Dakhla Project is funded by the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Cairo and Groningen University and Vodaphone Egypt. Leemhuis now hopes to raise enough funds to restore the central quarter of the city with a view to enabling former residents to move back to accommodation vastly cooler and more comfortable than the concrete boxes they have been living in since they left. A proviso would be the supply of electricity and water, not sanctioned under the restoration scheme but unavoidable in human circumstances. "What would be the point of restoring the houses if not for habitation?" Leemhuis asks. The greatest problem would be disposal of water, but plans are being drawn up to construct a septic tank to hold wastewater and prevent underground seepage and consequent damage to the town's foundations.

Since the work will reproduce original structures it will meet with higher costs than ordinary modern building. The total cost of restoring both the Beit Al-Qadi and the Beit Al-Qureishi amounted to ê35,000, but for an oasis that as part of the once-fertile Sahara has had half a million years of human habitation, that has seen ancient Egyptians, Romans, Sanusis, and Arabs come and sometimes stay, and which has ancient links to the Nile Valley, Sudan, Khufra in Libya and the Mediterranean Sea, this seems a small price to pay to promote the cultural continuity of a heritage town.

A visit to the houses can be arranged by contacting the local tourist office.

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 787 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Iraq Special | Economy | International | Opinion | Press review | Readers' corner | Culture | Features | Heritage | Living | Sports | Cartoons | Chronicles | Encounter | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map