The History of the Dakhla Oasis
by Jimmy Dunn
If Kharga is the administrative center of Egypt's New Valley, than the Dakhla Oasis would be its breadbasket. It is a very lush region brimming with orchards and produce, and this is nothing new, for 10,000 years ago, when the climate here was similar to that of the African Savanna, it was teaming with buffaloes, elephants, rhinos, zebras, ostriches and hartebeests. There was a vast lake here, and on its southern shores were also human communities. However, as with most of the rest of the Western Desert, this wet era passed, and with it many of the people mostly migrated south and to the east, where they helped populate the early Nile Valley, as the sands slowly covered their ancient way of life.
At various times known as al-Wah, the Inner Oasis, Oasis Magna and Zeszes, place of the two swords, today the Dakhla oasis is giving up some of its past secrets as the very sand that hid its ancient settlements is eroding to reveal them once more.
The Oasis apparently remained at least marginally populated throughout history, for there have been over one hundred ancient cemeteries unearthed by the Dakhla Oasis Project, which has been operating in the area since 1978. These cemeteries cover a span of time from prehistory through the Roman period, though the oasis was populated as early as the upper paleolithic period.
During Egypt's Old Kingdom, the Dakhla may have in fact been its most important oasis, with a direct link by way of Darb al-Tawil to the Nile Valley. The Institut Francais d'Archeologie Orientale believes they may have found the Old Kingdom capital of the Oasis (at Ain Asil). There, the palace of the oasis governors under the 6th Dynasty pharaoh, Pepi II have been unearthed. The oldest inscribed object found at this specific location may be dated to the Old Kingdom reign of Teti, but continuing archaeological work seems to be revealing more and more Old Kingdom activity. We also find evidence of the First Intermediate Period, as well as at least one painting dated to the Middle Kingdom at this oasis. Later, during the New Kingdom, the capital moved to the village of Mut, further west. Later, during the 22nd Dynasty, a stele of Shoshenq I explains that he sent a representative to the oasis (the two lands of wahat) in order to regulate disputes over water rights. Apparently there was also a "cadastral register" of the wells and orchards was also made. During the fifth year of this same king's reign, we further hear that he sent a royal relative to "restore order in the Oasis-land, after he had found it in a state of war and turmoil". Of course, all of the oasis were difficult to control, though we have records from the Nile Valley of taxes collected in wine, fruit, minerals and woven products from both Kharga and Dakhla.
Interestingly, while a few Ptolemaic structures have been found in the Oasis, little evidence (though more evidence is surfacing as archaeology efforts continue) exists for any heavy Greek population in the Dakhla Oasis, though by Roman times it appears to have been heavily populated. In fact, Roman farms, villages and cemeteries have been found throughout the oasis, with major sites unearthed at Smint, Amheida and Qasr. The lush Dakhla, while an agricultural area on the very fringes of the Roman Empire, was undoubtedly expected to provide a major part of the grain that Rome demanded of Egypt, even though it was not as overall important as the Kharga Oasis during that period. Kharga was important in order to protect Rome's trade routes, but the Fayoum Oasis was treated harshly as simply a breadbasket, and as it became depopulated, this role shifted to the Daklha, which for similar reasons, also lost much of its population during this era.
However, during the Christian era we see much more activity in the Oasis. in AD 249 the Roman Emperor Decius set in motion a particularly harsh two-year attack against Christians with the goal of extermination. During this period Christians may have fled notable cities, such as Alexandria, in the delta region with high concentrations of non-Egyptian Christians to places far removed from heavy Roman authority, such as Dakhleh. Abandoned Roman sites were reoccupied by the Christians, and there are ruins of Coptic churches and communities that have been dated as late as the seventh century.
We are provided with little information to suggest that, like some of the other desert Oasis, the Dakhla was a place of banishment. A number of early, prominent Christian leaders were banished to several of the other oasis for various reasons, but perhaps the Dakhla had ties that were too close to the Nile Valley during this period for it to have been a practical place of banishment.
During the fourth century AD, Kellis seems to have been both the economic and political hub of Christian Dakhla. During the 1996 field season, the archeological expedition from Monash University in Australia uncovered a Coptic Christian Church at Kellis that had been in use between 350 and 400 AD, and perhaps even earlier. At that time, the community probably had a population of several thousand people. There was apparently a fairly rich trade between the oasis and the Nile Valley during this period, which also offered an opportunity for population flow into and out of the Oasis.
In fact, archaeologists believe that the ruins of this oasis may reveal considerable information about the transition between the Roman and Byzantine periods. It is notable from papyrus recovered from private dwellings at Kellis that during the "Christian period", there was actually a diversity of religious convictions in the oasis, including paganism, popular magic, Christianity and Manichaeism (Gnosticism).
However, Islam seems to have come to the Oasis earlier than many to most of the other Oasis. We find buildings in Qasr Dakhla that may be dated as early as the Ayyubid Period. The archaic Islamic period, after about the seventh century, saw many changes in the Western Oasis, mostly as a result of the lawless desert raiders who plundered these remote settlements, and the Dakhla was no exception. Arab, Tebu and Tuareg raiders would swoop out of the west and completely plunder villages, sometimes taking camels, women and children. Interestingly, one of their weapons was an iron boomerang, called a kurbaj. These annual raids, called ghazyas (or Razzia by the English) might even result in the complete destruction of both the villages and the surrounding orchards.
It was during this period, as the oasis was threatened by invaders from both the south and west, that fortified towns like Qasr Dakhla, Qalamun and Budkhulu were built. These towns, built on easily defended hills or cliffs, were divided into quarters with secure gates that could be locked at night against the threat of raiders.
Still, this seems to have not been sufficient, for during the Mamluk era, the raids became so severe that the government established a military colony of Surbaghi (Chourbghi) at Qalamun in order to protect the population. At that time Qalamun became the main administrative center of the oasis, as well as a source of Turkish influence. This garrison was tasked to stop the raids, and they apparently did well at this by destroying the wells along a caravan route leading to the west out to a distance of seven days travel.
It was, as with other Oasis, during the reign of Muhammad Ali, often described as the founder of modern Egypt, that the first Europeans arrived in the Oasis. We here of various visitors, perhaps most prominent of which was Rohlfs. it was from here that, in 1873, he ventured out to cross the Great Sand Sea to Kufra. Muhammad Ali managed to extract taxes from this oasis, that by the end of his reign, required no more than four or five soldiers in order to collect.
The Dakhla seems to have faired better than many of the other oasis during the British occupation. They were less troubled by the Mahdist uprising in the Sudan, and while the suffered a few Dervish raids, threats to the oasis seem to have been alleviated by the rebuilding of the Mut fortifications. The Sanusi, a powerful political and religious force elsewhere in the Western Desert built a zawya (basically a school) in this oasis, but they seem to have not established themselves as well as in some of the other desert regions. As with other Oasis, the British promptly drove the Sanusi out of the oasis, capturing 181 of them, during World War I. During this colonial period, the Dakhla was open to automobiles, but the journey took some nine hours. By camel, the trip took three to four days from Cairo.
What is certain is that at least to some extent, because of the considerable archaeological efforts taking place in the Dakhla Oasis by a number of different teams, the oasis history will undoubtedly undergo considerable refinements, if not out and out modifications. In addition, this work is providing new insight to residential life for here, unlike in the Nile Valley, many such ruins are in much better condition.
Today, Dakhla is part of the New Valley project, and so is rapidly being assimilated into our modern world. There are modern hotels, and considerable attractions to attract tourists, who are beginning to visit the oasis in number.
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Last Updated: June 9th, 2011