Kharga Oasis and the Small Southern Oases
Permanent Delegation of of the Arab Republic of Egypt to UNESCO
Wadi Al-Gedid Governorate, Western Desert
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Kharga Oasis (a)
NW corner: 36R 780150.50 m E - 2882738.25 m N
NE corner: 36R 285678.26 m E - 2882281.51 m N
SE corner: 36R 282536.98 m E - 2690578.57 m N
SW corner: 36R 785938.04 m E - 2690675.87 m N
Nabta Playa (b)
NW corner: 36Q 241612.93 m E - 2515159.66 m N
NE corner: 36Q 292065.13 m E - 2514259.72 m N
SE corner: 36Q 291310.98 m E - 2464508.64 m N
SW corner: 36Q 240775.05 m E - 2465193.20 m N
Dungul & Kurkur (c)
NW corner: 36Q 336143.27 m E - 2515155.53 m N
NE corner: 36R 434235.38 m E - 2672309.08 m N
SE corner: 36Q 459236.67 m E - 2633986.31 m N
SW corner: 36Q 361914.93 m E - 2573020.80 m N
The Kharga Oasis depression and its vast surrounding desert area consist of a variegated natural environment punctuated by archaeological remains of various periods that allow us to reconstruct the history and evolution of civilisation both at a regional and at a trans-national scale: acting as a crossroad for long-running caravan routes, Kharga played an important role in the historical evolution of Western and Central Africa. Its distinctive geological features represent the natural habitat of a variety of desert flora and fauna.
Located away from the busy Nile Valley, this area has been progressively discovered in the last century, starting with the Geological Survey of Egypt and thanks to the pioneering work of the Egyptian Egyptologist A. Fakhry. An acceleration of scientific research in the last 15 years yielded extremely important results that represent the foundations of this document.
The importance of the Kharga Oasis and the Small Southern Oases resides in the variety of its features: their outstanding but little-known antiquities, paired with their distinctive geological and environmental features, produce a unique combination of cultural and natural heritage (fulfilling all of the 10 criteria) to be acknowledged, preserved and transmitted to future generations, for learning and enjoyment.
From the pioneering work of Caton-Thompson (1952) until now, numerous Palaeolithic and Neolithic remains have been recorded in the entire Oasis. Their distribution reflects the environmental changes that occurred around 10-12,000 years BP: Palaeolithic sites were located at the edges of the oasis, around a large lake (see below criterion viii) that covered most of the depression. When the lake started to shrink, population moved down: Neolithic sites are in fact located at significantly lower heights. The oasis’ floor is still punctuated by groups of yardangs (also called mud-lions), remains of the ancient lake-bed that represent an important sign of the geological past of the now-desert area. In comparison with the current hyper-arid conditions, prehistoric sites speak about a significantly different environment: petroglyphs of various periods illustrate giraffes (running free and held with ropes), ostriches, crocodiles and gazelles.
On a regional scale, the archaeological evidence for the Pharaonic period is very uneven, but all the surviving fragments are extremely interesting, speak of intensive activities across the desert and suggest that future research may yield important results. In particular, recent investigation in the area of Qasr al-Ghweita retrieved evidence of agricultural activities dating to the New Kingdom, possibly relating to the production of the wine that Kharga is known to have exported in that period. The Persian Period is well represented by the earliest core of the Hibis Temple, later enlarged by the Ptolemies and the Romans. Recently restored and re-open to the public and thoroughly studied over the years, the Hibis Temple demonstrates the interest of the Persian rulers for this Oasis, also mirrored by the contemporary exploitation of the agricultural areas of al-Deir in the north and Dush in the south. Here the Persians introduced the water system called in Arabic manawir, consisting of subterranean aqueducts conveying water by gravity to the surface to be cultivated. This system proved so successful, that the Romans adopted it centuries later and used it as a basis for their large-scale exploitation of the area (see below).
On a trans-regional scale, Kharga’s strategic position was appreciated since Old Kingdom: the ‘Oasis Route’, mentioned by the officer Harkhuf to bypass a problematic portion of the Nile Valley, indicates that a network of desert tracks (most probably including the small southern Oases of Nabta Playa, Kurkur and Dungul, sites b and c) was already in use at that time as an alternative to the Valley. Old Kingdom Kings, moreover, extended their influence from Kharga to Dakhla and beyond towards the area of Gilf al-Kebir and Uweinat, as is demonstrated by the recent discovery of the name of a previously unknown Predynastic king along the route connecting Kharga and Dakhla, and of the chain of Pharaonic water stations departing from the nearby Dakhla Oasis and heading to the Gilf via Abu Ballas. The value of the Gilf al-Kebir/Uwainat area has been already crowned by the creation of a vast National Park, and a Protected Area is being created in northern Kharga: all these areas are historically connected by the evolution of the human occupation of the region and only a large-scale approach to their protection and preservation can fully grasp their deepest historical and environmental value.
The reunification of the Egypt state at the beginning of the New Kingdom owes something to Kharga: the King Kamose reached Lower Egypt from Thebes via the Oases, and thus managed to take by surprise the Hyksos, the foreign invaders. The large New Kingdom temples possessed estates in the western Oases, as confirmed by a recently discovered petroglyph, thus indicating the existence of economic interest at a macro-regional scale.
The Persian period show that that the role of Egypt as a meeting ground and overlap of East and West: contacts and links between Persia from the east and Greeks and Romans from the West were not confined to the Delta and Nile Valley, but extended into the deep desert and the Western Desert Oases, down to the Tropic of Cancer.
Ptolemaic and Early Roman Periods (3rd century BC to 2nd century AD)
The evidence dating to these periods is difficult to disentangle, as there must have been a sustainable continuity. The substantial remains of temples and cemeteries dating to this era are not currently mirrored by the retrieval of contemporary settlements, and this suggests that more has to be located and uncovered. Mudbrick temples in good state of preservation are located at Ain al-Lebekha, Mohammed Tuleib, Umm al-Dabadib, Ain al-Dabashiya, and al-Deir. Apart from Hibis (mentioned above), stone temples can be found at Nadura, Qasr al-Ghweita, Qasr al-Zayyan, Dush, at the remote site of Ain Amur and at the newly discovered site of Ain al-Tarakwa (see below). Many of these temples lie surrounded by mudbrick settlements that are likely to have a contemporary or slightly later origin. Cemeteries dating to this period have been located at al-Deir, Ain al-Dabashiya and Dush (that also yielded significant textual evidence), and possibly at Ain al-Lebekha and Umm al-Dabadib. All these sites have been properly studied only recently by Rossi/Ikram and Tallet (in the north) and IFAO (in the south).
Late Roman Period (3rd to 5th century AD)
The majority of the archaeological remains currently visible in the Kharga Oasis date to this historical period. They consist of an articulated chain of forts and fortified settlements, endowed with large-scale agricultural systems, consisting of subterranean aqueducts and extensive cultivations extending for several kilometres. In the north, there are: the legionary fortress of al-Deir and its extensive cemeteries (investigated by G. Tallet and F. Dunand), the checkpoint of Qasr al-Gib and its small twin Qasr al-Sumayra, that represented the first/last water station for incoming and outgoing travellers; Mohammed Tuleib, that swallowed the local Late Period Temple; and the two sturdy forts surrounded by gridded settlements at Ain al-Lebekha and Umm al-Dabadib (all investigated for the first time by C. Rossi and S. Ikram). Rectangular pigeon towers often accompany the remains of ancient cultivations: the best example is the one to be found at Ain al-Dabashiya, that was recently restored and is now open to the public.
In the central part of the Oasis, gridded settlements were built around central buildings at Qasr al-Nessim and Qasr al-Baramoudy, that have never been surveyed or studied. The first is about to be swallowed by the encroaching cultivation of palm trees, and has recently suffered substantial damage. The second contains a spectacular flower-shaped pigeon tower, for which no parallel has been documented in the entire Western Desert.
In the south, the older fortified magazines of Dush (focus of a long-running project by M. Wuttmann for IFAO) were taken over by the army and transformed into a fortified outpost, that guarded the beginning of another route linking the oasis to the Nile Valley. A number of unsurveyed Roman sites punctuate the southern portion of the Darb al-Arba‘in: some of them, such as Maks al-Qibli and Maks al-Bahari, appear to have been military outposts guarding the route; others, such as Ain Mabrouka, may have been trading centres; others, such as Qasr al-Haet, still await an interpretation.
Moving to the trans-regional scale, the advent of the Romans, especially from the end of the 3rd century AD, certainly placed Kharga in a central position within the Western Desert network of routes. In the north of the Oasis depression, the large legionary fortress of al-Deir (currently studied by G. Tallet) was built at the very end of the third century AD, at the beginning of one of the shortest tracks leading to the Valley. Twin sisters of this fortress were built in the Dakhla and Bahariya Oasis, and a similar one in the Faiyum: this large-scale operation of control of the Western Desert frontier is likely to have been triggered by the Emperor Diocletian, as the southern limes of the Roman Empire. Immediately afterwards, an impressive chain of fortified settlements were built along the Kharga crossroad, consisting of elaborated settlements and sturdy buildings with a strong military flavour. Although all the Western Desert oases yielded evidence of having flourished at the very beginning of the fourth century, none sports the presence of a similar chain of fortified settlements, thus suggesting that the function of this oasis as major desert crossroad was taken very seriously.
Further archaeological investigation and research will be necessary before a detailed reconstruction of the Roman strategy of control of the Kharga Oasis can be offered, but it is clear that the Romans made a significant effort to occupy and exploit this area, with more than one aim in mind: controlling the caravan routes meant controlling regional trade and potential invaders, as well as marking the southern boundary of the empire and stating the influence of the Roman empire on the vast expanse of the Western Desert and territories further south.
Kharga represented a portion of the limes, the empire’s border. It is important to remember that the original meaning of limes is ‘(military) road’. Kharga represents a perfect example of the real nature and function of the limes: a major crossroad controlled by fortified installations. Desert routes, therefore, play a role that is as important as the one played by the sites built along them: differently from the latter, they may physically consist of elusive traces and small finds scattered along the desert surface, but there represent the reason why all the other sites exist.
Christian activities (4th to 5th century)
In the Late Roman period, Kharga witnessed the spread of Christianity that left substantial traces, both archaeological and textual. The large 5th century AD cemetery of Bagawat is one of the most famous monuments of the oasis; nearby, the slopes of Gebel al-Teir behind the monastery of Mustapha Kashef are covered by thoroughly documented Coptic graffiti. Recent investigation brought to light the existence of a series of churches: one of the oldest must be the one of Umm al-Dabadib, annexed to the already existing Roman fortified settlement.
A very interesting example is the church at Ain al-Tarakwa, discovered in 2004, built right in the middle of an ancient sacred enclosure, along the central axis and in front of the ancient stone temple, whose entrance was bricked up. Here we can see the physical transition from the Egyptian religion to Christianity. This site is covered by sand to a height of 3 m and awaits further investigation; its proximity with a fast-growing new village represents an issue to be addressed. The current state of the terrain, covered by an impenetrable scatter of sand and bushes, suggests that in Antiquity the landscape must have been different: most probably, the lowest portion of the depression was still covered by a lake, a reduced but still substantial version of the prehistoric water expanse (see below criterion viii).
In the 15th century the agricultural exploitation of the area suffered a major setback, but at the same time the importance of the Darb al-Arba‘in grew considerably: until the 19th century, it functioned as a major trade route for import and export between Egypt and the Sultanate of Darfur, and further into the heart of Africa.
The apparent absence of archaeological remains dating to this very long period may be due to a combination of factors: the progressive accumulation of sand in the deepest part of the depression, and the fact that settlements occupied always the same areas. This second phenomenon is very common in Egypt, where in fact many archaeological sites bear the prefix ‘Tell’ (mound) that refers just to its vertical growth over the centuries. In the Valley, this is due to the fact that only a few raised areas were spared by the annual inundation. It may be time to apply the same reasoning to the oases as well: here the superimposed growth of settlements may be due to the limited presence of water. Until about one century ago, when electric and mechanical pumps were adopted, water could only be retrieved at relatively low depths, thus significantly limiting the position of the inhabited areas.
Future archaeological excavations in Kharga are likely to uncover substantial remains of both the Pharaonic and the Islamic periods, currently virtually absent from the chronicles.
Kharga Oasis (site a)
Kharga Oasis (site a) occupies a depression in the southern part of the Western Desert of Egypt, extending for some 180 x 15-30 km in a north-south direction, at about 200 km west of the Nile. The mineralogy of Kharga arable soils is similar to that of Nile silt, indicating an old connection with Nile. The lowest point in the Oasis is more or less at sea level, while the highest is at 400 m asl. The natural vegetation, as well as the naturalized species and the cultivated plants in Kharga and Dakhla Oases, seem to be more or less uniform, and to deal with each of them separately would involve an overlap which may approach a mere repetition. However, the peculiarities of each Oasis will be dealt with apart. Seven vegetation types are recognized in Kharga and Dakhla, described here mainly after Zahran and Willis (1992). The scientific names of plants throughout this listing are updated after Boulos (1995, 1999, 2000, and 2002).
Like islands in the ocean, oases are islands of water in the ocean of dry sands. Specific environments host the following plants:
- (a) Aquatic Vascular Plants. Urticularia gibba and Potamogeton pectinatus in freshwater (wells, reservoirs), Ruppia maritima and Zannichellia palustris, in brackish waters of shallow ponds, often associated with pectinatus, Najus graminea and N. minor, in shallow irrigation canals, Lemna gibba and L. aequinoctialis, free floating in most water bodies.
- (b) Aquatic Green Algae: Nitella and Chara spp., submerged green algae, often forming thick masses at the bottom of the water body and are attached to the mud by rhizoids, mainly in drains and stagnant waters.
- Reed Swamp Vegetation. This vegetation type is most pronounced around ditches, rice fields, wells, and in drains and pools. The most characteristic species of this type of vegetation are: Typha domingensis and Phragmites australis, usually associated with Cyperus rotundus, laevigatus and Pycreus mundtii. Other associates which may occur on the fringes include: Panicum repens, Desmostachya bipinnata, Conyza bonariensis, Alhagi graecorum, Ambrosia maritima and Prosopis farcta.
- Halophytic Vegetation. Two halophytic vegetation types may be recognized in the salt marshes: a. Wet salt marshes: Here the dominant species are Cyperus laevigatus, Juncus acutus, Suaeda aegyptiaca and monoica. b. Dry salt maeshes: The dominant species are Cressa cretica, Aeluropus lagopoides, Imperata cylindrica and Tamarix nilotica.
- Psammophytic Vegetation .This vegetation type occupies flat expanses of wind-drifted sand (the sand plains) and sand dunes, at different stages of development. The vegetation of the plains is usually richer in plant cover. The dominant species is Alhagi graecorum, associated with Stipagrostis scoparia, Calotropis procera, Aerva javanica, Tamarix nilotica, Hyoscyamus muticus, Suaeda vermiculata, Reaumuria hirtella, and Zygophyllum album. On the older stabilized sand dunes, Tamarix nilotica and Alhagi graecorum grow in abundance and may cover the summits and slopes of the dunes. In Baris town, at the southernmost tip of the Depression, Balanites aegyptiaca (heglig, or the desert dates), and Hyphaene thebaica (dom palm) trees are seen in thickets among the dunes.
- Cultivated Land. Several hundred deep artesian wells in Kharga and Dakhla provide the only source of water for irrigation. Some wells date back to the Pharaonic era, some to the Roman era, but most date from 1959 onwards, uses modern technologies. Most wells are over-flowing, leading to the formation of salt marshes and abandoning the land to other areas. The date palm is the main cash crop of the two Oases, besides olive and other fruit trees. The date palm does not provide only dates, but also fibers, leaves, trunks, used locally or exported, for making basket, ropes, mats, sandals, furniture, building material, agricultural tools, and numerous other items. It is a culture based on and supported by the date palm. Some vegetables are also cultivated for local consumption. Rice (Oryza sativa) is cultivated on a small scale, besides some other cereals such as millet (Pennisetum violaceum) and sorghum or broom corn (Sorghum bicolor). Some other grasses are cultivated for fodder, such as Sudan grass (Sorghum x drummondi). No wheat and barley re cultivated due to soil salinity.
- Waste Land. In the vicinity of cultivated ground, vast areas are usually abandoned and neglected. The major elements of this habitat type are: Zygophyllum coccineum, Tamarix nilotica, and Alhagi graecorum, which reflect the rather saline soil. Among the associated species are Hyoscyamus muticus, Sporobolus spicatus, Fagonia arabica, Cyperus laevigatus, Aeluropus lagopoides, and Polypogon monspeliensis.
- Xerophytic Vegetation. This type occupies the desert ecosystem, mainly around the Oases, and is particularly part of the Western Desert flora, with an extensive list of vascular desert plants, which is outside the scope of this brief description; but it is dominated by Tamarix, especially on sand dunes, Acacia spp and Hyphaene thebaica. Endemic Species. Compared to other areas in Egyptian deserts, there may be few endemic species restricted to Kharga and Dakhla Oases. They are: Ducrosia ismailis and Pimpinella schweinfurthii Asch., both in the Family Umbelliferae, in Kharga. Melilotus serratifolius Täckholm and Boulos (Leguminosae), is endemic to Dakhla Oasis. A rare species is Rhazya stricta Decne. (Apocynaceae), known in Egypt only from Kharga Oasis. Its occurrence in Kharga represents the westernmost locality in its geographical range of distribution, which extends eastwards to Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, and southwards into Sudan. The above three endemic species, as well as the rare Rhazya, are known only from one or very few collections, and are therefore to be classified as threatened species.
The Kharga Oasis, in particular the western area, currently not inhabited, represents one of the last outposts where Dorcas Gazelles live free in the oases area. Another one may be located in the area of Kurkur and Dungul Oases (site c, see below).
Among the peculiarities of the local fauna to be highlighted, there is certainly the endemic oligochaete (an earthworm) Nannodrilus staudei, discovered in the Nile region and described by Michaelsen in 1887, was re-discovered in 1959 by S. Ghabbour from Ain Khosh, in the south of the Kharga Oasis. Its presence indicates an ancient connection with the Nile. Another interesting species is a vividly coloured grasshopper (warning colouration), that feeds on Calotropis procera, whose leaves contain a poisonous latex.
Nabta Playa, Kurkur and Dungul Oases (sites b and c)
All these small oases are currently uninhabited, and this so far allowed the natural preservation of both the natural and the cultural features.
This area hosts substantial and untouched evidence of the climate changes that occurred in the Western Sahara. The geological features that have been identified and analysed allowed to reconstruct the alternation of dry and wet periods and the ensuing shaping of the landscape. The climate changes are strictly connected with the evidence yielded by the archaeological remains (see above Value and Function of the Small Southern Oases).
Kurkur and Dungul
These oases are located in the vicinity of spectacular escarpments from the Nubian Tableland to the Lower Nubian Plain in the southern part of the Western Desert. They lie at the edge of the Sinn El-Kaddab Plateau. The distance between the two relict Oases is about 60 km. Kurkur Oasis is considerably larger than Dungul, which consists of two parts: Dungul Oasis proper and Dineigil Oasis. Dineigil is located at the very edge of the escarpment in a high position while Dungul is in a lower position in the Wadi Dungul. Both Oases receive their water as a result of the blockage of drainage lines of an artesian aquifer.
The two Oases and the area inbetween comprise a great variety of landscape features and habitat diversity. Of special importance is the fascinating white limestone erosion-bounded Dineigil and Dungul Oases.
In spite of almost rainlessness, these two Oases are rich in biodiversity. Palm groves (three species: two are the common Phoenix and Hyphaene) and extensive growth of Acacia groves form the main framework of the perennial plant cover. The highlight of the floristic characteristics is the occurrence of the third palm, the long forgotten palm Medemia argun, which was abundant in Ancient Egyptian times but exists now in Dungul and in another spot in northern Sudan. It can thus be considered in modern times to be endemic for the Nubian Desert, and also threatened with extinction, although some young individuals are still growing there.
The fauna of this area needs further studies. There is some evidence that these Oases (as the Kharga Oasis, see above) are the very last refuges of viable populations of the highly threatened dorcas gazelle Gazella dorcas, and maybe also the highly vulnerable and extremely rare Sand Cat Felis margarita, thought to be the ancestor of the domestic cat, in the Western Desert of Egypt.
Justification de la Valeur Universelle Exceptionelle
Kharga as a desert crossroad over the millennia
The picture slowly emerging from the most recent studies highlights the importance of Kharga as a desert crossroad in all historical periods: a cultural landscape created by human activities based on its geographic position. At the dawn of history, the progressive desiccation of the area created the basis of the environment and landscape that we see now: population concentrated around the few available water sources, connected by trade and communication routes. The entire Sahara is crisscrossed by tracks that meet at the sparse water sources, but Kharga represents a special case, for two main reasons. First of all, it contains evidence of the human and environmental evolution that took place the last 12,000 years, and then it contains the archaeological remains of one of the most impressive operations of strategic control of a desert area: the well-preserved chain of Late Roman forts and fortified settlements described above.
Kharga (site a) was the meeting point of two major caravan routes that crossed the Western Desert: the north-south one (nowadays called Darb al-Arba‘in), that links Middle Egypt and Sudan via the small Oasis of Bir Kiseiba, and the east-west one (named Darb Ain Amur) that linked Kharga and Dakhla via the small Oasis of Ain Amur. Strategically located at a relatively short distance from the Nile Valley, Kharga has always played an important role, mirrored by its outstanding archaeological remains dating to various periods: its role can be fully appreciated if compared with the historical evolution of the entire region.
Outstanding value of the architectural and agricultural remains in the Kharga Oasis (site a)
The chain of Late Roman forts and fortified settlements represents a unique ensamble of archaeological remains. They all consist of architectural remains accompanied by agricultural installations, and are important for two reasons: for their impressive level of preservation and for the possibility to study together the two sets of remains.
Concerning the first point, the excellent preservation of the buildings is partly due to the clever building technique adopted by the ancient architects, that allowed the survival of these constructions for over sixteen centuries. The legionary fortress of al-Deir consists of a 60 m wide enclosure wall endowed with twelve 15 m tall semi-circular towers protruding all around. The smaller and compact forts of Umm al-Dabadib and Qasr al-Lebekha still stand over 10 m tall; they consist of sturdy buildings three or four level high, endowed with a a small central courtyard surrounded by superimposed lines of vaulted chambers; the south-eastern tower of the Umm al-Dabadib fort contains the perfectly preserved staircase that served all four level of the building; the chambers that acted as food storage still contain rests of food and intact storage vessels; the external wall of all the forts reveal the adoption of careful building techniques, such as a calculated reduction of the thickness of the tapering walls, the well-executed bonding among mudbricks and walls, and the separation of the walls into stable sections thanks to vertical joints in the masonry.
Certainly the hyper-arid climate contributed in a fundamental way to the preservation of these structures, all mainly built of mudbricks. In the last 15 years, however, a slight climate change has been creating significant damages both to the standing and the collapsed structures, turning them into masses of hardened mud that are difficult to interpret.
The desert climate is the main responsible for the astonishing preservation of the ancient agricultural systems. All Late Roman sites in Kharga were endowed with their own agricultural installation consisting of water sources (manawir and wells) and fields. Their fragmentary remains are in serious danger as they go unnoticed by unaware travellers, and are often inadvertently destroyed. Umm al-Dabadib, however, still contains the intact remains of most of its agricultural system and offers a unique chance: the possibility to be compared with its contemporary, equally intact associated settlement. The two sets of remains, in fact, were meant to function together and one could not exist without the other: in no other case they both survive in such an excellent state of preservation.
The Late Roman chain of fortified settlements represented a huge enterprise launched at the beginning of the 4th century AD, the last of this size launched in the Kharga Oasis until the recent implementation of the New Valley Project in 1959. The historical importance of Kharga has always corresponded to the possibility to access the Western Desert network of routes that allow travellers to bypass the Nile Valley and reach faraway destinations. From Harkuf to Kamose, to the modern select tourism heading to the Gilf al-Kebir, Kharga retains its role as a major desert crossroad of civilizations, far from being an isolated spot on the map.
Value and function of the small southern oases (sites b and c)
The small Oases that punctuate the vast expanse of the desert to the south of Kharga concentrate in their tiny extent the entire history of a vast portion of Western Desert. First of all, they contain the invaluable remains of the prehistoric occupation of the area, before the current hyper-arid conditions set in; secondly, the represent the silent backbone of millennia of desert travelling on foot and at donkey’s or camel’s back.
The area of Nabta Playa is extremely important as it yielded evidence of hunter-and-gatherer settlements dating to about 11,000 BP; clear evidence of animal domestication dates to about two thousand years later. The ceramic material retrieved there is one of the earliest found in the entire North African region, and dates back to 9500-8800 BP. It shows strict links with other small oases in the area as well as with Abu Ballas and the Sudanese area, thus linking these sites to a broader network of desert settlements. Nabta Playa also contains a number of complex megalithic structures, built between 4,600 and 3,400 BC, consisting of ovals of large sandstone blocks, measuring between 5-7 meters long and 4-6 meters wide. Discovered by F. Wendorf, they have been interpreted as religious sites linked to cattle cults and reflecting stellar and solar alignments.
Kurkur Oasis yielded evidence of continuous occupation since the late Neolothic Period to the Roman era and beyond until present days. A number of desert tracks converged to this oasis, which must have acted as a small hub to re-direct travellers towards other water sources located deeper into the Western Desert. A string of minor sites connects Kurkur with the still little-known Dungul Oasis, located deep into the desert at the junction with one of the branches of the Darb al-Arba‘in.
These small Oases are nowadays dwarfed by the on-going, fast-paced exploitation of the deep water table, that allows the installation of vast cultivations in previously barren areas, and their fundamental function throughout millennia of desert travelling is in danger of being forgotten forever.
Conclusive remarks on the outstanding value of the area
All the archaeological remains described above have their own intrinsic value. However, they gain an even higher value if taken all together as a living testimony of the history of the region. Each site yields information on its own birth, life and death, and adds considerable material to our knowledge on the daily life along the desert fringes. However, the importance of these sites also resides in the possibility of looking at them all together as parts of a single system: their geographical position and their mutual relations yield unique information on the large-scale occupation and exploitation of a vast region. Every site is part of a larger puzzle, that extends north and east into Egypt, south towards Sudan and west towards the Gilf al-Kebir/Uwainat area, and beyond. Protecting the Kharga Oasis and the smaller oases located along the desert tracks that met there means protecting the evidence of 12,000 years of human activities along the edges of the inhabitable world.
Kharga and the small southern oases form an unicum containing precious evidence of the environmental changes that shaped the Western Sahara. The geological and geomorphological features describe the passage from wetland to present desert. The roots of this long sequence date back to the Pleistocene and continues into the Holocene, and had a deep impact on the human evolution and occupation of the area. The outstanding value of the local environment, therefore, resides just in its double role: witness in itself of environmental changes, and scenario of 12,000 years of human evolution.
The escarpments at whose feet are nested the oases described in this document therefore represent not only a spectacular landscape: allowing the water to reach the desert surface, they also represent the origin and reason for the human occupation and exploitation of the entire region.
Criterion (i): All the human settlements in the desert challenge nature. But the Late Roman chain of fortified settlements in the Kharga Oasis represent a unique case of perfect exploitation of the environment paired with a careful strategic plan to control the area at a regional and trans-regional scale.
Installing large communities in semi-desert areas was possible thanks to the ingenuity of the ancient engineers and builders, who managed to identify, adopt and implement the most effective method to retrieve and spread water on the fields and install large cultivations on previously barren soil. From a strategic point of view, the installation of a sequence of fortified settlements along the major crossroad of desert caravan routes that met in this oasis represented a large-scale effort to control not only the oasis itself, but also (and perhaps especially) trade and travels that had to cross it. This operation was completed by the exploitation of the local natural resources, thanks to the installation of mining areas near the main settlements.
The chain of Late Roman fortified settlements represents a clever and comprehensive strategic operation of occupation and control of a vast area: a large-scale enterprise, and yet carefully tailored on the local conditions and resources.
Criterion (ii): The installation of the subterranean aqueducts called manawir represent an important example of cross-cultural transmission of knowledge and know-how. This system was invented by the Persian in the 8th century BC and exported to the Kharga Oasis about two centuries later during the Persian occupation of Egypt. One thousand years later, the Romans adopted the same system, but to a much larger scale and based on a completely different concept. Whereas the Persian manawir consisted of short tunnels feeding small plots managed by private households, the Late Roman manawir reflect a different social organisation: the aqueducts were over ten times longer, were planned and built as a system and fed vast cultivated areas in a coordinated way. In other words, both the water and the canals were used by the local community as a whole.
The fusion of different cultures and the interchange of human values is also mirrored by the management of the entire operation of installation of the local communities and by the composition of the local population: a large-scale enterprise certainly ordered by high Roman authorities, it was carried out by local officers that clearly had a deep knowledge of the environment and the terrain; the sites may have been born thanks to a Roman initiative, but the inhabitants were Egyptians, thus suggesting that this entire large-scale operation was a joint and coordinated initiative, meant to more efficiently exploit the resources of the Kharga Oasis.
Criterion (iii): The Late Roman chain of fortified settlements in the Kharga Oasis plays a double role as a testimonial of civilization.
First of all, it casts light on how the Romans dealt with the installation of newly-founded communities. This, in turn, yields important information on two fronts: it increases our knowledge on the ancient Roman method to install a community, but also offers an extremely interesting contribute to a long-debated issue, that is, the installation itself of communities along the frontiers of the Roman empire. This type of operation, known from later sources from the northern parts of the empire, is deeply intertwined with the subject of another heated discussion, namely on the nature of the Late Roman strategy of defence of the empire’s frontiers. From a historical point of view, the Kharga sites represent the crucial link of the chain connecting Diocletian, Constantine, the changes that took place in the administration and the army, and the installation of the so-called limitanei along the empire’s frontiers, that is, the major changes that took place in the Late Roman administration of the empire between the 4th and the 5th centuries AD.
From a wider historical perspective, it is worth reminding that the installation of planned settlements in a semi-desert environment is a complex endeavour that requires a combination of skills, knowledge and resources. The Late Roman settlements and their associated agricultural systems represent a unique case in which all these elements survived, can be studied and visited. Just as in the Late Roman period, nowadays the exploitation of hyper-arid environments represents the new frontier to sustain growing needs from a growing population: the necessities are similar, the tools are different but the environment is the same. Preserving traces and evidence of the past success and failures represents an important element to plan the future of these areas.
Criterion (iv): The Later Roman chain of forts and fortified settlements that punctuate the Kharga Oasis belong to a single project, extremely important from two points of view: for the underlying strategy that they materialised on the terrain (as discussed above), and for their architectural design. The ancient architects appear to have drawn a number of architectural elements from a common set of building solutions: these elements were combined in different ways, and determined the construction of buildings that are all different and yet similar. This is true for both the domestic units and the forts; in particular, the latter are extremely important as Late Roman forts are notoriously difficult to classify. This building technique allows the implementation of a general strategy, mitigated however by the possibility of individually characterising each site thanks to different aesthetic choices. This is one of the most interesting characteristics of this group of sites, and clearly reflects the existence of a precise and articulated project, not only of mere physical occupation of the area, but also of visual appropriation of the space and political propaganda. No other area in Egypt shows the same building programme, nor anything that could be compared to this.
Criterion (v): The majority of the archaeological remains of the Kharga Oasis need attention. Apart from a few well-protected monuments such as Hibis Temple and Bagawat, located very close to Kharga Town, all the others are located relatively far from the inhabited parts of the oasis, and thus are difficult to monitor. In particular, superficial remains such as ancient fields and aqueducts are in danger of being obliterated by the passing of unaware vehicles and by the installation of modern plots. Another issue to be addressed is the recent increase of the local rainfall that takes its toll on the ancient mudbrick ruins.
Both Kharga and the smaller southern oases are facing a significant change due to the modern exploitation of the deepest water sources. It is certainly necessary to find a balance between legitimate modern activities and the preservation of the evidence of 12,000 years of human activities.
Criterion (vii): The escarpment that outlines the northern edge of the Kharga Oasis is strikingly beautiful, as it consists of horizontal layers of sandstone of a variety of colours: brown, yellow, orange, pink and violet. The escarpment forms the background of the landscape and, at the same time, represents the reason why Kharga exists: water is available just because of this drop in the desert floor. The aesthetic value of the local sandstone is especially visible at the Cave of the Colours, an outstanding natural hollow located near Umm al-Dabadib, discovered in 2003 by C. Rossi and S. Ikram. Accessible from the side of a barren wadi covered by shining white stones, this striking natural cave displays horizontal stripes of amazingly vivid colours, in a far more concentrated version than the combination visible in the escarpment.
Criterion (viii): In general, there are scores of oases in North Africa, yet only a few (the Egyptian ones) are related to a great river, namely the Nile. This neighbourhood marked the geology, the geomorphology, and the biogeography of the Bahariya, the Kharga, the Dakhla Oases, and even Siwa Oasis. Kharga, being large and near to the Nile, shows the best and clearer the everlasting effect of this connection. The case of Fayoum can be included in this comparison, but it has a different story, because its connection with the Nile was never interrupted.
In particular, Kharga Oasis offers a rare combination of geological and geomorphological features relating to the evolution of the local environment. Several areas, both in the north and in the south, contain groups of yardangs, last vestiges of the huge lake that in prehistory covered the entire depression. The lake, to a reduced scale, existed well into the historical period, shaping the oasis’ archaeology (cf. Culture: Prehistory and Christian Activities). The previous wet conditions of this region are also witnessed by 45,000- to 450,000-yr-old tufa deposits from fossil springs. Research on groundwater reservoirs in the Kharga Oasis revealed significant on-going geological processes and climatic fluctuations in the history of the region, leading to major significant geomorphic and physiographic features that tell us about the history of its present landforms.
Criterion (ix): The isolation of Oases in the Nubian Desert allowed two important features of biodiversity: (1) retention of some species that disappeared and are in their areas of origin, and (2) appearance of new species that evolved within the Oasis. Research on Kharga dogs has thrown light on the origin of dog domestication in Africa and Asia. The Medemia palm survived in the isolation of the Dungul Oasis while it disappeared from the rest of Egypt. The Nannodrilus earthworm is cut off from its original homeland in the Nile Basin (or rather its waterland). These are outstanding examples representing significant on-going biological processes in the evolution and development of plants and animals in the deserts of North Africa.
Criterion (x): Kharga Oasis and the small Oases near it contain springs and miniature permanent lakes that constitute important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation. As already mentioned above, it is worth repeating once more that they represent one of the last natural habitats of the endangered Dorcas Gazelle.
Déclarations d’authenticité et/ou d’intégrité
The archaeological sites listed above have been studied by recognised academics and the results acknowledged by the academic community. The exploration of Kharga and the surrounding desert started about 100 years ago; the scientific study of its antiquities started about 50 years ago; the first major archaeological projects date back to 30 years ago; the last 15 years have seen a significant increase of archaeological investigations and a first attempt to grasp the full picture of the role of this oasis within the surrounding region.
The chronological classification and historical attribution of the sites that have been excavated and surveyed are firmly established on the basis of the evidence collected. No discrepancy between the data has been observed. Further refinements of the dating criteria will be possible in the future after further excavations will be carried out.
Major (modern) archaeological excavations have been carried out only at al-Deir (French Missions of Strasbourg and Limoges) and Dush (IFAO). Some portions of these sites have been restored in full accordance with the criteria set by the Supreme Council for Antiquities (now Ministry of Antiquities). The cemetery of Bagawat has been long open to the public, whereas the Hibis Temple underwent a significant restoration and is now fully accessible.
Other sites (Mustapha Kashef, Nadura, Qasr al-Ghweita, Qasr al-Zayyan) were partially cleared in the past. Modern small scale excavation have been carried out by the Supreme Council of the Antiquities at a few sites (Maghatta, Umm al-Qusur, Beleyda, Ain al-Lebekha). No specific measures of conservation have been implemented at these sites.
Concerning the sites located at the periphery of the Oasis depression, the northern constellation (Umm al-Dabadib, Ain Amur, Ain al-Lebekha, Mohammed Tuleib, Ain Gib, Qasr al-Sumayra, Maghatta, Ain al-Tarakwa and Ain al-Dabashiya) has been recently fully surveyed (Cambridge University, American University in Cairo, University of Napoli Federico II and Politecnico di Milano); no excavation has been carried out and the sites are intact (apart from the occasional acts of vandalism). No survey yet exists of a number of Roman sites located all over the Kharga Oasis.
Concerning the Small Oases in the south, Kurkur and Nabta Playa have been thoroughly studied in the last 20 years, whereas Dungul still awaits a proper archaeological investigation.
The threats impending on these sites depend on two factors: the fast-paced expansion of the land reclamation projects and the deliberate damage inflicted by looters. The first danger concerns the entire area, and might cause the involuntary destruction of fragile sites such as Nabta Playa; the second type of danger concerns all sites, minor and major, and need a detailed conservation and valorization plan.
Each archaeological site is individually protected by the Ministry of the Antiquities/Supreme Council for the Antiquities. The Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency is developing a protection scheme in the Kharga Oasis that will cover the northern portion and will include sites of natural and historical importance. The richness and complexity of the area in terms of both environment and heritage requires the adoption of a multi-layered approach to its conservation. The way forward is the implementation of a large-scale protection scheme, able to integrate the efforts made at local scale with a comprehensive view of the outstanding value of the entire region both from a natural and a cultural point of view.
Comparaison avec d’autres biens similaires
The Kharga Oasis, its chain of Late Roman installations, the caravan routes that crossed this and the smaller southern oases and their natural characteristics have no parallel among the other WHS recognised in Egypt.
The closest parallel is Wadi Rum, in southern Jordan, that also shows a combination of natural and cultural features and testifies the human evolution over a long span of time. In addition, Kharga contains a unique chain of Late Roman forts that has simply no parallel.
No other mixed cultural-natural WH site in Africa and around the Mediterranean can be compared to Kharga in terms of life-span and variety of features.