Restoration and Archaeology Project
How a 1930's Tragedy Created A Unique Time Capsule
By Adel Murad in London
A restoration project of medieval quarters in the Dakhleh Oasis in the Egyptian Western Desert took an unexpected turn when workers started to clear the rubble of an adjacent plot. The archaeological finds drew a unique picture of vibrant life and a highly organized and active society, throughout the Middle Ages, in the Dakhleh Oasis.
Professor Fred Leemhuis, of the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, fascinated his large audience at the Egyptian Cultural Bureau in Mayfair in London, when he described how the restoration of Beit El Qadi (House of the Judge) in Dakhleh, a building which dates back to Ottoman times, impressed the locals so much that many of them wanted to move back to the old traditional, mud-brick buildings of their ancestors.
In a lecture entitled Archaeology And Restoration at El Qasr in the Dakhleh Oasis, organized by the British Egyptian Society, he described the process and methods of restoring the old building by a team of local builders. The lintel on the main door has the date of the house inscribed as 1113 Hijra (1702 AD). There were cracks in the walls and the roof was totally missing.
In order to support the outside wall, scaffolding had to be erected on the next plot of land which had heaps of rubble more than three meters high. But clearing the rubble uncovered a big surprise for the team.
Buried deep in the rubble was a treasure trove of household items, jars, bowls, baskets and more than 500 documents! On further investigation, it turned out that the items were left in a hurry and some were in excellent condition, although dating back to 1890. Various sources revealed that the house collapsed in the 1930s, and its inhabitants had to run for their lives with little time to rescue their possessions. The incident happened after an internal wall was carelessly removed to make more living space for the growing Qurashi family living there at the time.
It is not known how many of the Quarashi family perished in the tragedy, but their mishap spurred a new direction for the Dakhleh project: to retrieve the Qurashi documents and investigate the history of the site and reconstruct it after clearing 800 cubic meters of rubble.
The long list of items recovered includes letters, Quranic leafs, legal contracts, shoes (curiously only left shoes were found!), magical texts (called Higabs) to ward off evil, oil lamps, cooking pots, galabyas with embroidery, wooden spoons and some foreign pottery fragments, from France, China, Holland and Memluk Times.
But most interesting of all was a signature seal bearing the name of Halima Othman. Although it was clear that the seal carries the name of a woman, locals disputed that fact by saying that in the past, only men carried seals.
With a smile, Professor Leemhuis then displayed a 1907 Tax Form bearing the tax account for the same woman, which was clear to read (in Arabic). Her full name: Halima Othman Mohamed Saleh Al Qurashi. She was up to date with her taxes and paid the equivalent of 18 Egyptian piasters in taxes for the year 1907. An impression of her seal was there on the side of the document!
More than 80 folded documents dating back to 1579 were also unearthed, including a very long legal document, which had to be framed to preserve it. The documents convey an overall impression of a highly developed social structure in this desert oasis, which prospered many centuries ago.
Further excavations revealed several strata of habitations, with the deepest layer dating back to Fatimid times (9th century AD). One item was a green glass weight for gold, with the inscription of the Kaliph Al Mustansir Billah Al Fatimy (1036-1094).
The Qurashi house has now been rebuilt by the same traditional methods of wooden supports and mud bricks, with roofs of palm fibres and mud.
In comments exclusive to Tour Egypt, professor Leemhuis said the project will be on-going for a few more seasons, and will include the whole of Al Shihabiya quarters, covering a block of gated districts, with buildings two and three stories high. The project is financed mainly by Groningen University, and the Dutch Embassy in Cairo. The total budget is some 40 million Euros ($52 million).
The Dakhleh Oasis lies some 320 km west of Luxor. In fact it is a cluster of oases in a depression surrounded by hundreds of miles of Sahara sand and stone desert. Water is in short supply and wells are dwindling fast, and have to be dug now to greater depth. The photographs taken of the region show a fragile environment, with sands advancing onto green fields.
The photographs also show that in the past 30 years large segments of the mud-brick structures were ruined.
The restoration project is vital to save the oasis, and there are other studies and fieldworks going on in other parts of the Dakhleh Oasis.Teams of natural scientists, anthropologists and archaeologists, from various countries, are working together to study aspects of history and life in the oasis.
The region has been inhabited since 6000 BC, and when Egyptians from the Nile Valley arrived about 2300 BC, they introduced agriculture and irrigation methods, that continue to be used to this day.
In addition to the El Qasr project, there are conservation efforts in other parts of the Dakhleh Oasis, including Deir el Hagar and Kellis. In Deir el Hagar, the main project is a reconstruction of a 1st century AD temple of Amun, which was discovered as a pile of stones in 1908 by H E Winlock. In Kellies work is going on restoring temples and old churches, and studying mummies. The area has some of the oldest churches anywhere in the world dating back to the 3rd century AD.
Professor Leemhuis confirmed that visiting these sites, including Beit Al Qadi and Beit Qurashi, is possible for tourists. All they need to do is notify the local tourist office in the oasis on arrival, so that escorts to these sites may be arranged. The lecture was introduced by Professor Alaa Elgindy, Cultural Councellor and Director of the Bureau, who thanked the efforts of the British Egyptian Society.