Egypt: Al-Deir in the Kharga Oasis

Al-Deir in the Kharga Oasis

By Jimmy Dunn

A general view of the fortress at al-Deir in the Kharga Oasis in Egypt

Al-Deir (El-Deir, also known as Deir el-Ganayim) is really a series of sites, though the main one consists of a Roman fortress tucked into a picturesque setting about twenty kilometers northeast of Qasr Kharga in the Kharga Oasis. It is also very accessible and the fortress is one of the most impressive in the North Kharga. It sits at the end of a once paved road just north of Gebel Umm al-Ghanayim at the terminus of the Darb al-Deir, a major caravan trail from the Nile Valley.

The imposing Diocletian fortress, as most fortresses were, is made of mudbrick, but while such structures along the Nile and in the Delta are almost nonexistent due to deterioration, here in the desert they are better preserved. The building is square, measuring 73 by 73 meters and has twelve towers, one round one at each corner and two semicircular ones within each 3.6 meter thick mudbrick wall. Of the walls, the southern one is the best preserved. Entrances to the fortress were located on the northern, eastern and western walls.

A view of one of the towers in the fortress at al-deir in the Kharga Oasis

The towers are connected by a gallery atop the ten meter tall walls, accessible by way of staircases inside the fortress. The interior of the fortress, where a well once provided water, is almost totally gutted except for rooms along the southern wall. However, here in room after room on their plastered walls is some wonderful graffiti, most written by soldiers who were stationed in the Western Desert, and not just during the Roman Period but long afterwards.

They include drawings of Turkish soldiers with tarbushes, airplanesand tank from British regiments, and many names in Arabic, Coptic, Turkish and English.

The deep water well, located in the central courtyard of the fortress apparently provided considerable water, and there was a system of conduits that are no small Roman engineering marvel in themselves. The water was channeled through three tunnels to the outbuildings and fields.

A drawing of the Griffiti in the rooms of the fortress

Trenches were dug and then large flat slabs of stone were placed over the trenches before everything was covered up again. This allowed for free-flowing water. A system was also put in place to block the entrance to the tunnels in the well so that the water level would rise enough for use within the fortress. Then, to allow the water to reach the outlying areas, the tunnels were simply unblocked. This existence of these water systems were unknown until they were unearthed by accident at the beginning of the 1900s.

After the decline of the Romans the site was probably used as a Christian monastery, which would account for the name, al-Deir, which means "monastery". There are also the remains of a church to the west of the fortress, as well as a necropolis. Evidence suggests that the church was used during World War I by the British when they were defending the oasis from the Sanusi of Libya. There are additional buildings from a modern British settlement nearby which was abandoned when the well in the courtyard of the fortress finally went dry in modern times.

A town that was once connected with the temple stands a kilometer north between the fortress and the ancient church. Also unexcavated, it is though that this site was occupied from the Ptolemaic Period or earlier through to the 4th century AD. Two buildings are still standing.

One, toward the escarpment and about 1.5 kilometers north of the fortress, is a small, mudbrick temple which was later used as a church. It is thought to date to the 2nd or 3rd century AD. It consists of an antechamber with benches along its sides, a hypostyle hall, an offering chamber and a vaulted sanctuary. It contains some Coptic, Greek and Arabic graffiti in the sanctuary. The purpose of the second building is so far unidentified. A great number of pottery shards litter the ground, but the remains of any actual dwellings heave yet o be unearthed.

A close up of one of the precarious towers of the ruins at the fortress of al-Deir in the Kharga Oasis

Although never excavated, the fortress is thought to date from the reign of Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century AD. However, assessments for the consolidation and restoration of the remains are currently being undertaken by a French team. Their work in 1997 recognized the existence of three areas of burials to the south, north and east of the fortress. During excavations of the southern sector in 1998, eight plundered tombs were unearthed and wooden sarcophagi, human remains and traditional funerary equipment was found. Afterwards, excavations in the northern sector have revealed 35 tombs and 19 white limestone sarcophagi, some containing well-preserved mummified bodies buried in an Osiris posture with arms crossed over the chest. These burials are believed to date to the 3rd and 5th century AD. During the team's 2002 excavation season, several re-used tombs were found to contain the bodies of a large quantity of mummified dogs. They probably represent votive offerings to the canine deities Wepwawet or Anubis who were worshipped in the Aysut to Abydos regions from where desert tracks led out to the Oasis.






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None Stated

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