Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 February 2009
Issue No. 933
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The road less travelled

Amira El-Naqeeb explores the vicinity of Lake Qaroun, leaving her own trail of footsteps

photos: Klas Lindberg Click to view caption
Clockwise form top; a spectacular view of the Arab Fortress; travellers; a view from inside Deir Abu Lifa; the oldest paved road as it stands defiantly along the years; remains of the Golden Fortress; two views for Dimeh of the Lions photos: Klas Lindberg

For me Fayoum has always been a destination at arm's reach, and I won't hesitate to drop by for a one-day trip whenever there's a chance. My visits had one of two purposes. I would either make for Wadi Al-Rayyan, a protected area, for quick landscape refreshment, enjoying the little bit of everything the scenery provides, be it the solitude of the desert, the breeze of the greenery or the purity of the water running through the verdant landscape. Or, I would visit the rural part of Fayoum and watch the fishermen spreading their nets in Lake Qaroun, walk in the fields or play with a herd of sheep. I never knew there was a mystical part of Fayoum yet to be discovered. Places where time stood still.

Egypt's largest oasis, Fayoum, is located only 80km from Cairo. My guide and co-adventurer on this trip was desert veteran and the owner of Desert Adventures safari company, Hani Amr, with whom I share a passion for the desert -- which I am sure is my natural habitat. Also accompanying us was Klas Lindberg, a Swedish friend and freelance photographer, and Am Ahmed, a driver and a guide in his own right. Our plan was to explore some long-abandoned relics.

First day:

ACTION PACKED DAY: We set out at 8am in a brand- new Land Rover Defender 2008, taking the Fayoum Desert Road. A right turn on 6 October Highway leads to the Bahariya (Al-Wahat) Road. After 100km, past the oil refinery, we took a left turn and drove off-road in the direction of north Lake Qaroun, known locally as Birket Qaroun.

Once 2,250 sq km but currently sized down to 214 sq km, the lake lies 45m below sea level in the lowest part of the northern section of the Fayoum depression and stretches 40km from east to west. There are many stories connected to the popular character from which the lake derives its name. Qaroun is mentioned both in the Bible and the Quran, and was known as a wealthy man who lived in the area. In the Quran ( Surat Al-Qasas, verse 76), he appears to be a man "exultant in his riches". When advised by pious people to pay God a tribute for granting him his wealth, he arrogantly refused. Finally he met the wrath of God by being swallowed up in the earth with all his possessions as a punishment for his greed and ingratitude. His treasures are still believed to be hidden in the lake and some believers go the extra mile of conducting a search, but up to now no trace of buried treasure has been found.

We drove for a while on the flat sand which stretched away on both sides. Amr suggested a tea/coffee break beside a small hill on the way before we carried on any further. Parking beside the hill, he pointed out that it made a good toilet stop. The tea kit was very basic, but the drinks were well-prepared and catered for every taste. Amr had everything ready in advance: small, well- packed sandwiches, savoury and sweet; various herbal teas; Nescafé, milk, and a thermos for hot water. I took a walk holding a sandwich in one hand and a plastic cup filled with hot chocolate in the other.

"Why is the sand so compact here," I asked, checking the sand under my feet.

"We are almost 350 metres above sea level, and it rains here a lot, and rain makes the sand more compact," Amr explained.

As we were driving, the earth was changing faces. At one time we were driving on hard sand covered with small stones and pebbles, but once our vehicle touched the tracks they would reveal a fine line of soft, yellow sand. Then we would go to another part where the sand was soft, golden and pure, totally unblemished. "It's very important to read the ground you're treading on so as not to get stuck," Amr advised, smiling at my awe-struck expression as he shifted and moved smoothly between patches of ground.

MY DESERT DRESSED IN BLACK: Our first stop was at the basalt quarry. The quarry is located in Gabal Qatrani, which sits atop the northern scarp surrounding the Fayoum depression, which is a vast area with open basalt mines. The whole plateau of Gabal Qatrani is topped by thick basalt rocks, which are primarily used for paving roads. During the Pharaonic period the basalt was one of the chief materials for making sarcophagi and statues. According to Amr, mining in this area is still going on. The miners crack and cut the black rock that covers the surface of the mountains, stretching into the distance.

"I call this the Pyramid and the Sphinx." I followed Amr's pointed finger, as Lindberg started to adjust his camera ready to take a picture. I looked at the pyramid- shaped hill with the pointed top stationed right in the middle of the open basalt quarry. The black stood in contrast to the almost pure white sand covering its lower part. Standing beside the pyramid a rock formation that looked like the Sphinx, Amr said both were shaped by erosion. Coming closer to the edge of the scarp, I could see that the formation was not really a sphinx, but it did have a very strong resemblance to one.

When we next stopped it was almost 11am and the weather was getting warmer. We drove off the plateau to the second escarpment and took a left turn, heading towards Widan Al-Faras (The Horse's Ears). Standing beside it for a side view, I didn't have to ask where the twin-peaked hill got its name. It was quite obvious that erosion had done a very good job in carving these beautiful rocks. According to Cassandra Vivian, author of In the Islands of the Blessed, a guidebook about the oases, this place was once an Old Kingdom quarry where the Pharaohs' ancient stone workers worked. What is fascinating about the twin peaks is not only their shape, but rather their colour. Pink and yellow hues cover their surfaces in regular stripes, except for the top which is basalt. Amr explained that we were on what is called the Qatrani range, 250 metres above sea level. This is a very important landmark on this road, and it was given its name by the workmen who lived here beside the basalt quarry.

EXPLORING PERFECTION: We decided that since our main aim on this trip was to explore, we would stop every time we saw a beautiful spot. The next halt was my idea of continuous bliss. "The carving, the rock formation, the colours; I'm familiar with that scene," I said. Amr knew what I was talking about, "The road from Taba to Nuweiba." "Yes," I shouted with enthusiasm as I urged them to stop. I hopped out of the car and did a little exploring of my own.

We parked on top of the valley close to a slope with an easy descent. As I went down I touched the walls of the valley, which turned out to be made of sandstone and what looked like clay or mud, carved by erosion. The soft sand down the valley was so smooth you could slide on it as if it were made of silk. I picked a picturesque spot that was shaded and surrounded by these big carved rocks on three sides, and sat down. I was protected from the wind and soothed by the soft sand underneath me; I allowed it to slip between my fingers. I don't know how long I sat there so still, trying to merge this extraordinary palette inside my head. The combination of very fine lines and shades of green, with light purple, sandy yellow, brick and orange were tuned to perfection.

THE OLDEST PAVED ROAD: It was after one in the afternoon when we reached the oldest paved road in the world. Amr parked the car perpendicular to a thick heap of extended line of sand, about 50cm in width; with logs of petrified wood set on top of it. "This barely looks like a road to me," Lindberg said. Yet the story has it that in the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt, a time of grand architecture beginning about 4,600 years ago, the demand for stone for building pyramids and temples led to the opening of many quarries in the low cliffs near the River Nile. To make it easier to transport the heavy stones from one of these quarries, the Egyptians laid what may have been the world's first paved road; a seven-and-half mile stretch of road covered with slabs of sandstone and limestone and even petrified wood. And on that spot of history we stood.

I walked on the wooden logs, imagining the donkeys dragging the stones and walking on this road. Walking on it was not easy and since you had to struggle to keep your balance. I could not help but wonder how they managed back then.

We were descending all the time, from the highest level of the escarpment 300 metres above sea level, which hosts the basalt quarry, to the second escarpment at Widan Al-Faras. Now we were leaving the third plateau and the paved road and heading for Deir Abu Lifa (The Monastery of Father Lifa).

PUSHING THE LIMITS: Indeed, part of the fun of our trip was the confident and competent driving of our guide, which added more thrills to our adventurous quest in the desert. To go to the Monastery of Father Lifa we took another step down the escarpment. There we parked at the foot of the mountain to begin our adventure of exploration.

"This is going to be a bit of a hike, any problems?" Amr asked. Lindberg and I shook our heads in denial, and started walking towards our target. I can't say it was a tough hike, but of course without Amr's guidance as to where to put our feet it would have been much more of a hassle. The mountain was made of sandstone, so it was relatively smooth. We had to look closely to where we were stepping. Some people use a rope to go up, Amr told us. At the stage before the final one a small cave was carved into the mountain that had room for only one person to sit on its ledge and enjoy the open view, which of course I took. This was one of the privileges of being the only female on this trip.

We made one more climb up to reach the monastery. When we got there we could find nothing that gave a hint that this was a monastery, unless one knew a bit about its history. The entrance is cut into the mountain, forming two holes. The monastery is made up of two chambers and a water well that looks like a tomb, approximately six metres deep. "So if anyone falls here, there is no chance of anybody coming to their rescue," Lindberg said. "That's why we take people here, so they know about the place," Amr replied, but his answer didn't wipe the concerned look off Lindberg's face.

Little is known about the monastery, but most probably it was founded by St Panoukhius. According to some locals, the monastery was in use from the seventh to the ninth centuries. The monks who lived in the monastery in the Roman era were taking refuge from official persecution. Since the sandstone was very brittle, the monks plastered the ceilings to prevent them from falling down. On the ceiling are some Syriac inscriptions -- the old language of the Bible. "A few years ago the monastery was raided by thieves who thought there was hidden treasure here, buried by the monks of Fayoum when they abandoned their monasteries," Amr said. That explains the extra holes that are dug out and that lead to nowhere, along with the broken rocks and new heaps of sand.

Adventure is an essential ingredient on a safari trip. Well, I literally held my breath in the upcoming part. While climbing to the monastery was an ego boost to my climbing skills, exiting the monastery was pushing my luck.

"Stick your back to the wall, and carry yourself up. Don't move your feet before lifting your body," Amr advised.

"But where shall I put my feet when there's hardly any space?" I asked.

"Just follow my feet, look for small grips for your toes to hang on, and then lift yourself up," Amr instructed.

Dreading the thought of slipping, we followed the instructions thoroughly.

Then it was time for a bit of a turn, and we put our feet one on each side of the two walls trapping us. That was a surge of adrenaline. Amr went up before me, and I put my feet one on each side then he pulled me up.

When we got down it was time for our lunch break. We were exhausted from the climb. Our lunch came in recycled- paper bags, neatly wrapped. Two big baguettes, one with salami and the other with cheddar cheese, coleslaw, an apple, a packet of crisps and pineapple juice. Quite a compensation for the climb, I thought.

NOT ALL THAT GLITTERS: We were one step down the plateau at the bottom of Deir Abu Lifa Mountain. We were on our way to Qasr Al-Sagha, also referred to as the Golden Fortress. We made a turn around the mountain and then went up to the plateau again and straight on to the Golden Fortress, which is approximately 8km away.

The Golden Fortress is a temple that stands on a natural, flat platform. The rectangle slabs of limestone are fitted together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It dates back to the Middle Kingdom, but according to history books the precise dates are impossible to trace as there were no statues or inscriptions found in the temple. It consists only of one corridor and seven open chambers.

THE MAJESTIC DIMEH: After leaving the Golden Fortress we drove straight on for almost 8km until the lonely ruins appeared on the horizon.

Standing graciously was Dimeh of the Lions, also known by its Ptolemaic name of Soknopaiou Nesos (from the old Egyptian Sobek-en-Pai). The Ptolemaic town built of mud- brick and sandstone lasted for 600 years from the third century BC to the third century AD. The site is currently 2.5km from the water's edge. It was the Ptolemies who reduced the size of the lake to provide land for the settlement of Macedonian soldiers and their families. During the Roman period, when Egypt was the bread basket of the Roman Empire, it was usual to collect custom fees from people passing through with goods from Fayoum on their way to Rome. The walls of Dimeh tower 10 metres high and sometimes five metres wide, and are still abstract shapes of magnificence. Some of the walls are half buried beneath the fine sand. "The walls were discovered during recent excavations, you can see the fresh walls dug out. Sand is the best way of preserving the walls because it's dry," Amr said. I found it really hard to leave the place. It had a magical aura, a fleeting glimpse of superiority of a monument that makes time stand still. I stood with arms flung wide on part of the ruins, trying to embrace the sunset. "Try to capture the sun between your hands," Lindberg said.

HOME SWEET HOME: After biding Dimeh farewell, it was time to head towards our final destination for the day: our camp site. Since the whole area was empty, it was hard for me to grasp why we were not setting our camp up just anywhere. "We are looking for a spot with small hills, and soft sand," Amr explained. The small hills I understood, because we were using them as a hide-behind toilet-stop throughout the journey. The sand should be soft, Amr continued, for several reasons; it was more comfortable when sitting and sleeping to have soft sand under you, free from rocks or pebbles. Moreover, it was easier to dig tent pegs into loose sand so they could go in deeper. Soft sand is also particularly important if you have children, because they usually play and walk barefoot. You can also see footprints and spot the trail of a snake or other reptiles. According to Amr, we should also camp as far away as possible from any bushes as they trap insects and reptiles, especially in the summer.

We found an appropriate spot with our back to the wind to set our windbreaker. Am Ahmed and Amr set the wind breaker by tying it with a rope to the car, and meanwhile Lindberg and I pitched the tents.

AROUND THE FIRE: This part is very exciting for me, ever since I started going camping when I was 15 years old. There are a lot of schools on how you should do things when it comes to camping in the desert. However, Amr's technique on how to build a bonfire was one of the fastest and easiest I have ever seen. While we sat around the fire enjoying its warmth, Amr started on our four-course gourmet meal. "What are we having for dinner today, sir?" I asked. "Lentil soup with mushrooms, courgettes, rice, and grilled chicken marinated in herbs," Amr said. We all sat around the fire, with something to drink, chatting, and waiting for our banquet.

The view from around the fire can't get any better; the stillness of the velvet night, the dispersed stars in the sky, and soft sand caressing one's feet. It was also quality time. It's the time when you feel that blocks and frontiers between your fellow human beings have fallen down, and it's these places in nature that dissolve all differences in race, colour, sex, religion and culture. It is an intimate time.

Amr started up his company 10 years ago, and never had a mentor. "I'm self educated," he says. "You can call the form of service that I offer barefoot luxury; a safari combining luxury with simplicity."

It was very hard to leave this setting, but my fatigued body and the promise of warmth inside the tent lured me into sleep. I excused myself to near the fire. I was sleeping in a sleeping bag, covered with another one and a blanket, but I still felt cold. It took almost two hours of tossing and turning before, exhausted by the cold, I finally, fell asleep.

Second day:

THE PUREST OF ALL PLEASURES: It was almost six in the morning when I opened my eyes. I fought my way through the layers of covers looking for my shoes so I could go out and receive the day. Everyone else was asleep, and I was glad they were. I wanted to enjoy the morning mist alone, I wanted to stand still and be a part of this God-made painting. I wanted to feel one with the sand, the early light of dawn, the small hills scattered on this terrain, and the whistling wind. I wanted to take every thing in, absorb every corner, every sound, and every element and keep them inside me to feed my soul when I yearned for the desert with nostalgia. I don't remember how long I stood there, but I was awakened from my trance by the sound of Am Ahmed getting up.

We were crossing the western end of Lake Qaroun on our way to see the Arab fortresses. We walked on the same long stretch of the familiar sand, for almost 15km before taking a turn on a paved road. This road is only accessible if you are coming from the desert on the north side of the lake. The main Fayoum road is parallel to this one, but because the road we were on is not complete it cannot be taken from the main road. We took a right turn and were now on the main road that would take us to the Wadi Al-Rayyan protectorate. We took the direction of Hitan (Whale) Valley; and drove for 15km before going off-road again. Cruising in the Defender we trod on different terrains; sometimes the sand was yellow and fine, and at others it was hard with a thin black crust.

I can't explain exactly how suddenly we entered the sea bed zone. It is like walking on the moon. This area was a sea 45 million years ago. Everywhere is strewn with fossils called nummulites, which are the size and shape of a coin but in different shades of beige, light grey and pearl.

The Arab Fortresses, as the locals call them, are made up of slabs of sandstone blocks carved by erosion. We cruised round, looking for a path to take us closer to the fortresses that were in our line of vision. (Amr said it would take at least 50 years for our car tracks to be erased). As we came closer, the picture became clearer in my eyes. The soft lines and hints of colour were made by brush strokes, standing in contrast to the faint blue sky. It was a canvas with all the grids intertwining to form one big painting.

Then we were driving south to go to Deir Abu Maqar. On our way we wanted to stop at Darb Al-Fayoumi, one of the oldest of caravan routes, which dates back hundreds of years. We actually saw camel tracks said to be 300 years old. The darb was used for trading donkeys, dates and olives and for transferring goods between Bahariya Oasis and Fayoum. We continued until we reached the Magic Spring, aka the Spring of Father Laishaa, named after a monk who once camped there. A modern monk whom we waylaid after spotting him in a field told us the story. He said Father Laishaa had camped here in 1961, the year the monastery was founded.

ENLIGHTENMENT: Deir Abu Maqar was founded in 1961 and it was where Father Laishaa resided along with other monks. We were greeted by a handsome and friendly priest and taken to the monastery's guest room, where Father Adel gave us some words of spiritual wisdom to consider in regard to our lives. The priest's words of wisdom filled the air with serenity and peace. When it was time to leave, Father Adel bade us farewell. "Can you all see the sun rays and how they spread their warmth evenly on us?" he asked. "Such is God's love for his subjects."

The trip costs $240 per person for two days, minimum four people. It includes transport, guide, camping and food. For reservations contact Hani Amr, Tel: 002 010 190 5999. E-mail:

THE ESSENTIALS: Loose cotton clothes, preferably trousers. Lip balm and skin moisturiser to protect your skin from cracking, since it is very windy and dry. Hiking shoes, if possible; if not you can use walking shoes. A personal tent and a sleeping bag. Very warm jacket, gloves, and scarf. Wet wipes and toilet paper.

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