The Bahariya Oasis, Part II: El Haiz
by Jimmy Dunn writing as Brian Rosewood
The area of El Haiz, about 30 miles southwest of El Bawiti in the Bahariya Oasis, is an interesting area and promises to reveal much about the Romans in Egypt, as well as Egypt's conversion to Christianity. The area was apparently investigated by Fakhry during the 1940s, and more recently surveyed by Dr. Zahi Hawass, who is now the director of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). In part II of our series on the Bahariya Oasis, we will explore the ruins at El Haiz around Ain el-Rees, the largest of four local springs in the area. El Haiz marks the limit of the Giza governorate and the beginning of the New Valley. It is the last of the major oasis between Bahariya and the Farafra Oasis. In this area are located a Roman fortress and palace, a wine factory, a Coptic basilica as well as several cemeteries.
However, I would like to point out that visitors to the area may not easily explore all of these structures at this point in time. Organized tours to the area that specifically have arrangements to visit these ruins are probably the tourist's best chance to visit the sites. Otherwise, it will take some effort and time for an individual to arrange a tour, for example, to the basilica. The area is basically guarded by locals, so one may not even approach the outside of some of these ruins without formal permission.
The Roman Fortress
The Roman fortress is probably the most prominent ruins at Ain el-Rees. Two of its ancient walls still rise above a sandy hill that overlooks the modern village (if it can be called a village). As with most of the structures in the area, including many of the more modern ones, the fortress was mostly built of mudbrick, and apparently served as a large garrison. In fact, this is the largest of any Roman fortresses found in the Western Oasis and it probably housed a large contingent of soldiers, as well as local rulers in order to protect Egypt from desert attacks, as well as securing the well established trade routes through this region. Near the fortress is a cemetery that acted as the military counterpoint to the one closer to El Bawiti that we now call the Valley of the Golden Mummies.
The Roman Palace
One reason we believe that the Roman Fortress was a very important garrison is because of the size of a nearby structure covering some four acres of land which is believed to be a Roman palace. In fact, Dr. Hawass tells us that it is probably the largest Roman palace ever discovered in Egypt! It consists of a maze of mudbrick walls surrounded by an enclosure wall. While excavation is not nearly complete, we know that many of the walls of the palace were covered on both sides with plaster and painted with hunting scenes and various colored plants. There were also a row of columns also painted with scenes. This palace residence is believed to have been the home of the local Roman ruler.
The Wine Factory
It seems that wine has always been produced around the Bahariya Oasis. Though no longer an official export of the Oasis, it continues to be produced in smaller quantities, but in ancient times, the local wines were well known and ancient inscriptions in various parts of Egypt make reference to Bahariya wine. In fact, this trade was probably responsible for the accumulation of wealth that allowed residence of the oasis to be buried in gilded gold coffins. In fact, during the Greco-Roman Period, wine from the Bahariya Oasis was considered one of the best wines in all of Egypt.
In 1988, a wine factory was discovered just west of the Roman fortress very near the palace at the Ain el-Rees spring in El Haiz. It was a particularly important discovery because this is the first ancient winde factory that has been unearthed in the oasis. This particular wine factory would have most likely specifically served the needs of the Romans garrisoned in the fortress, as well as the local administrators at the palace. It, like the other local ruins, dates to the Roman period.
Most of the building's architectural elements have been uncovered, though there were excavation problems on its west side. The layout of the structure is not unlike ancient Roman baths, and the existence of hot springs directly beneath the area add to the possibility that parts of the structure was also a bathhouse. The structure consisted of mudbrick walls mounted upon a foundation cut into the local sandstone. The walls were then covered in a thick layer of plaster, probably meant to prevent the grapejuice from soaking into the walls during fermentation.
The largest room in this complex, located in the northwest corner of the building, was probably the location used to receive, clean and sort the grape crops prior to processing. There are apparently a number of small processing rooms. The first one discovered was about twelve feet square with two feet thick walls of approximately ten feet in height. In the center of the room was a depression where the grapes were probably pressed and the surrounding floor is sloped in order to allow the juice to flow out. From here, the wine was probably carried through a narrow channel into a collector basin. Though the structure is far from being completely excavated, evidence suggests that the juice was transported to three different basins where different types of wine were produced. One of the basins contained the ashes of burned plants, perhaps indicating that the type of wine produced in it must have been fermented by heating.
Near the fortress, Fakhry also found the remains of a Coptic church built in a classical basilica style. Built of mudbrick, with whitewashed walls covered in a sort of solidifying mud and straw, it has two levels connected by staircases and was probably built at the end of the 5th Century AD. The walls originally had paintings, but none survive today.
The floor plan of the church is very similar to many modern cathedrals. The main entrance to the church leads into a foyer with alcoves carved into the walls where icons where probably once mounted. Within, a series of arches is similar to Byzantine architecture runs along the central sancturary. A staircase to each side of the narthex communicated with balconies that offered a view of both the sanctuary, and the valley below. A well surrounded by a circle of stones may still be found very near the church and is still in use by local residents.
Beside this basilica, Fakhry also found the remains of a much older building that he believed was a place of Christian worship, perhaps built even before the legalization of Christianity by the Romans. Unfortunately, nothing remains of these ruins today, though Fakhry tells us of crude paintings found of a bearded Christ and a large cross in the center with a depiction of either the head of Christ or a saint.
The ruins at El Haiz have much yet to reveal to us, and having explored the area to some degree, I can say that it is entirely possible that other ruins may yet be discovered. Historically, this area may prove very useful, because of its desolate location in the western desert and the possibility that it may reveal much about the late Greek period, and particularly the Roman era with its conversion to Christianity.
Last Updated: June 12th, 2011
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