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Egypt: The History of the Farafra Oasis


The History of the Farafra Oasis

by Jimmy Dunn

The Gardens of the Farafra Oasis


Of those with an interest in Egypt, and particularly the Western Oasis, the Farafra is probably one of the least known Oasis. It is actually one of the most difficult Oasis to reach and offered the pharaohs, caliphs and kings very little, though it seem to be on the way to everywhere.

In ancient times, we believe that the Farafra experienced three specific wet phases, in about 9000 BC, 6000 BC and 4500 BC. In other words, for significant stretches of time, the desert was not the desert. This has opened up considerable chasms in our early history of the entire Egyptian civilization. In her book, Geoarchaeology of Farafra and the Orgin of Agriculture in the Sahara and the Nile Valley, Barbara E. Barich seems to believe that 10,000 years ago during the early Holocene the region experienced violent rain storms and that "Epipaleolithic groups moved along a rather extended circuit, connecting the various oases of the Western Desert with excursions toward the Saharan plains". Recent archaeological missions to the Oasis by the University of Rome have unearthed a large number of sites evidencing a relatively dense population in the Wadi Obeiyd (Ain Dalla) area during the mid to late Holocene period (7000-5000 BC). The people there kept sheep, goats, probably cattle, and perhaps ostriches. They built houses with stone foundations and hearths, and they were starting to cultivate the sorghum and millet that grew wild along the lake. These rudiments of agriculture put them well ahead of people then living in the Nile Valley.

The Farafra Museum, but  seemingly more of an art gallary

There is actually very little known of the Farafra Oasis prior to the Roman period, and even of that period only a few remains have been found. While the oasis offers a stunning desert landscape, there is little in the way of antiquities to see. According to a statue of the 5th Dynasty, Farafra, as well as the Bahariya Oasis were probably a part of the Egyptian empire during the Old Kingdom. It was known as the Trinitheos, Ta-ihw, and the Land of the Cow (in reference to Hathor). It was often invaded whenever the Libyans decided to attack Egypt, being on their way to the Nile Valley. Though we have little idea what the reference refers to, the text known as the Eloquent Peasant refers to the "rods of Farafra" in relationship to produce, giving us at least a citation to the oasis during the First Intermediate Period.

And Old Section of Farafra's main city

During the New Kingdom there is somewhat more evidence that comes to us from the Farafra Oasis. A stela was discovered in the Oasis dating to the 18th Dynasty, but it provides little information. However, we find documentary records from the reign of Ramesses II in the Temple of Luxor that he received precious stones form Farafra that were used in some of his extensive building works along the Nile Valley. However, the references does not provide information on the type of stones, and no evidence of ancient mining activities have so far been unearthed in the oasis. What is known is that during the 19th Dynasty reign of Merenptah, Ramesses II's son and successor, the oasis was captured by Libyan invaders who used it as a base to attack the Nile Valley. As a side note, the Farafra Oasis is actually closer to Libya than to the Nile Valley.

The Snowy white desert near Farafra

During the Third Intermediate Period, though little supporting evidence is available, the Farafra may have been an important way station for both armies and trade caravans. We do know that there were several major caravan routes that operated through the Farafra during this period.

Though the quantity is small, the earliest antiquities currently found in the Farafra Oasis date from the Roman Period. During that time, it probably held some real importance for the Romans because it sat at the center of their African holdings, connecting the Nile Valley to the Libyan oasis such as Jalo and Kufra. So far, the Roman antiquity sites found in the Oasis are actually at Ain Della, now often called the "Hidden Valley", which is actually a separate depression just north of Farafra, with others found at Wadi Hinnis along the main caravan route to the Bahariya Oasis, and at Ain Besay just to the south of Qasr Farafra.

During the Roman Byzantine Period, the oasis mostly converted to Christianity and remained Christian far into the Islamic era, even though it was, according to Cailliaud, the first Western Desert oasis conquered by the Arabs. Little evidence exists that it became a place of banishment like the Siwa and Kharga Oasis, but it is likely to have been, given its remote location. We do find a number of Coptic inscriptions in the oasis, as well as clearly Christian houses and cemeteries dating to the 10th century.

The Main City in the Farafra Oasis

The Main City in the Farafra Oasis

Actually, the Islamic religion did not enter the Farafra Oasis from the Nile Valley, but rather from North Africa. Our first reference of the oasis during the early Islamic period is the Kitab al-buldan by al-Yaqubi written during the 9th century. It says of the Farafra that the oasis was inhabited by people of "all descents". This document was written at about the time that the oasis really began to be converted to the Islamic faith.

Beautiful view and wildlife at a watering hole

The Arab rulers of Egypt maintained a relatively large army in the desert. Unfortunately, this was a difficult period for many people in the Western Oasis, and like elsewhere, the Farafra was almost depopulated by the Mamluk rule of Egypt. The people of the Farafra, always subject to desert raids known as ghazwas, seem to have been completely besieged during this era. Not only were raids carried out by nomadic desert people, but sometimes even by rampaging government troops, stationed in the region to protect the local people and to collect taxes. It was often a case of the poor robbing the poor, for as often as not, the only valuable commodity that could be stolen was the dates, apricots and other food items.

Leaving al-Hayz near the Bahariya Oasis, the first European known to have visited the Farafra Oasis was Frederic Cailliaud. It took him 32 hours to reach the oasis, where he found a mere 180 people ling in a single village, Qasr Farafra, in February of 1820. These poor souls had mostly lived in neglect and poverty, and continued to be besieged by roaming marauders who would come in the night to ravage their garden. His visit was followed by that of Pacho, and in 1843, Wilkinson.

A local hot spring at  Farafra

However, by 1850 the Sanusi had founded one of their zawyas in Farafra. The Sanusi represented a powerful force within the Libyan desert made up of a religious order established by Al-Sayyid Muhammad bin Ali al-Sanusi Khatibi al-Idrisi al-Hasani. They opposed contact with the west, and were viewed as a threat by Europeans. When Rohlfs, who visited a number of the Western Oasis, came to this one in January of 1873-1874, the Sanusi remained very evident, and they remained in the oasis until World War I when they were basically chased from the desert by the British. Yet, many of the people of the Farafra continue to carry Sanusi surnames, and the cultural heritage of the Sanusi is even evident today, and was very strong as little as a decade ago.

The Gardens of the Farafra Oasis

Rohlfs, who arrived in the oasis with 100 camels and 100 people, discovered that the oasis was basically divided into two groups consisting of the Sanusi and those that were not Sanusi, with the Sanusi being by far dominate over the others. In fact, they seem to have owned the best wells, the best land and the best gardens, as well as almost all of the livestock.

Today, Farafra has not just entered the new world, though its essence remains elusive and mysterious, the oasis is scheduled to add new chapters to world history. As a part of the visionary New Valley Project, soon Farafra will change forever. With many incentives for Egyptian families to move to the New Valley in order to elevate overcrowding in current urban centers, there are many more villages in or near the Oasis then a short time ago, and each is provided with a school, a hospital and a mosque. Industry is also arriving in the oasis in the form of Fiber optics!

The Farafra is also being developed for tourism, and while there are few ancient artifacts in the region, the desert is wonderfully diverse. People, such as this writer who has hitherto had little interest in desert travel, will find it both tranquil and interesting.

Along a Street of Modern Farafra

Along a Street of Modern Farafra

References:

Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir

1980

Les Livres De France

None Stated

Egypt

Various

1994

Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

ISBN 0-679-75566-7

Egypt: Eyewitness Travel Guides

Various

2001

Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc.

ISBN 0-7894-8022-0

Western Desert of Egypt, The

Vivian, Cassandra

2000

American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 527 X

Last Updated: June 12th, 2011

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