In Egypt's Kharga Oasis, Archaeologists Uncover Lost Worlds

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In the Kharga Oasis, 175 miles (280 kilometers) west of Luxor in Egypt's Western Desert, surveyors are flying kites.

The oasis is in a military zone—where it is near impossible to organize private helicopter or balloon flights—so researchers use the kites, outfitted with remotely operated cameras, to help map one of Egypt's richest, least-studied archaeological troves.

A spectacular series of well-preserved Roman forts, possibly built on top of pharaonic ruins, speckle the oasis, 100 miles long and from 10 to 180 miles wide (160 kilometers long and from 15 to 300 kilometers wide). Many of the ruins have never been mapped; but looters have preyed on Kharga, and now archaeologists are racing to preserve it.

"You see these incredibly large, mud-brick walls about 50 feet (15 meters) tall rising out of sand dunes and rocky knolls," says Corinna Rossi, a fellow in Egyptology at the University of Cambridge, in England, and co-director of the North Kharga Oasis Survey.

Rossi first saw Kharga as a tourist in 1996.

"I thought this is utterly fantastic," she recalls. "When I returned to Cambridge I was stunned to find that the place had never been studied."

Ain el-Lebekha Fort

The standing remains of the fort of Ain el-Lebekha, in the Kharga Oasis, are more than 10 meters tall. To the north, lies an impressive temple and a necropolis that contains some of the most elaborate tombs in the oasis.

Photo by Richard Knisely-Marpole. Courtesy of the North Kharga Oasis Survey

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The surveyors work in the early morning and evening when the ruins, some almost completely buried, cast long shadows over the arid, rocky terrain. The aerial perspective allows the researchers to see features not obvious from the ground.

Kharga thrived during periods of strong government: 1400 B.C. to 800 B.C., during the Pharaonic Period, and 600 B.C. to 500 A.D. when a succession of conquerors—Persians, Greeks and Romans—ruled Egypt.

Roman Influence in Egypt

The region was renowned as the Roman Empire's grain basket and as a producer of dates and wine. Barley, olives, nabak berries and several strains of wheat were also cultivated, according to Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at American University in Cairo and co-director of NKOS. Ikram is also a grantee of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration.

"The Kharga Oasis was a crossroads for trade routes between the Nile Valley and Libya," says Terry Wilfong, associate curator for Greek and Roman Egypt at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "It was a hotspot for interactions between Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and nomadic North African tribes."

In the 4th century A.D. Kharga, which means "going out" in Arabic, was thought to be the southern rim of the Roman Empire. The forts may have been built during that time, when the Emperor Diocletian reinforced the Empire's boundaries.

"Romans introduced new irrigation systems, watch towers, road systems and a network of communication and control into this area," says Penny Wilson, an Egyptologist at the University of Durham in England. "Basically they made [it] bloom. Roman Egypt is a bit neglected, and there is a hell of a lot of Roman stuff in Egypt. From this point alone the area is worth a look."

The forts—whose similar architecture reflect a wide-reaching official plan—were checkpoints for import and export goods, Rossi says.

Chains of forts along desert trade routes facilitated the development of agricultural colonies, which depended upon extensive engineering works that tapped underground water supplies, says Barry Kemp, an Egyptologist at the University of Cambridge. "[These sites] deserve close study as a testimony to human endeavor in making inhospitable places inhabitable."

Churches and Temples Side-By-Side

The most impressive site in the region—which inspired the Survey and occupied the 2003 research season—is Umm el-Dabadib. Dabadib consists of a small fort in a fortified settlement with grand houses, some of them three stories tall, along with aqueducts and 10 cemeteries. The cemeteries span as many as 10 generations. The variation in tombs—carved rock, painted brick and ground—suggest that all classes of society lived in proximity.

One cemetery is only for children, which suggests to Ikram that a major disaster swept through the area—perhaps the plague.

Umm el-Dabadib also encompasses a temple with hieroglyphs and scenes of Egyptian deities, as well as a Christian church. While excavating a section of the temple wall Ikram stuck her digital camera into a tiny hole and snapped a photo. Within seconds the area around the camera disintegrated in a shower of dust. But the photo showed the arm and body of an Egyptian god, revealing the temple's roots. The temple and the church fascinate the researchers because the settlement may represent a transition point in worship.

"There seemed to be people with diverse religious beliefs living in what appears to be harmony," Ikram says.

NKOS is funded by the National Geographic Society, the American University in Cairo, Cambridge University's McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, and several other institutions.

Looters and Treasure Hunting

Kharga's value is partly its location. "In the desert the preservation of animals, plants, textiles and wood is fantastic," Wilfong says, "compared to the Nile Valley, where moisture causes things to rot."

But the extraordinary preservation of ancient buildings and materials in Kharga is increasingly threatened by looters.

"The illegal antiquities trade is rife," Ikram says, "no matter how remote the site."

About 20 years ago thieves used a bulldozer to break into the church at Umm el-Dabadib; according to legend, treasure is sealed in the church altar at the time of consecration. Before then, Rossi says, "this church was probably still intact."

Looters have invaded the cemeteries and dismembered mummies in search of gold and amulets that sometimes adorn the dead for their journey into the afterlife.

The mummies may be of Roman origin, Ikram says. In Roman fashion they still contain the brain, and the salt-dried bodies were covered in oils and wrapped in pink, red, yellow and natural-colored linen bandages. Researchers have identified Roman mummy masks by their plaster curls and eyebrow fragments.

Antiquity is fragile. Tour groups increasingly use four-wheel-drive vehicles to visit Kharga, but looters are similarly equipped.

"There are so many places in Egypt that have never been explored," Ikram says, "and we have a responsibility as archaeologists to see what is there. We need to record what is there and make these sites official."

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