Egypt: The History of the Bahariya Oasis

The History of the Bahariya Oasis

by Jimmy Dunn

The oldest part of Bawiti, with its narrow street

Over time, the Bahariya Oasis has had a number of different names. It has been called the Northern Oasis, the Little Oasis, Zeszes, Oassis Parva and the especially during the Christian era, the Oasis of al-Bahnasa, along with various other names. At one time, the Bahariya Oasis, as well as most of the rest of what is today referred to as the Western (or Libyan) Desert, was the floor of an immense ocean. Yet from about 3000 BC until the present, almost no rainfall graces this part of the world, so groundwater is its life blood.

Remains of stone tools found in the Bahariya oasis evidence the existence of settlements in the area as early as the Paleolithic Period. In fact, we are told that anyone with a trained eye, walking about the oasis, can spot prehistoric stone knives and and axes simply lying upon the surface of the sand.

View of the Bahariya Oasis

However, little real excavation has been carried out in the Oasis, at least until the last several years, and so we know little of the history of the Bahariya Oasis prior to Egypt's Middle Kingdom. What we do know comes mostly from the work of Ahmed Fakhry, and 20th century Egyptologist, who worked in the Oasis. Otherwise, most of the archaeological investigation has been carried out by the local antiquity authorities, and some recently by Zahi Hawass.

It is possible that during the Old Kingdom there may have been a governor appointed to the Bahariya Oasis, as there was in Dakhla, but so far we have no hard evidence that might support such an argument. In fact, we hear of a people known as the Tjehenu, who inhabited the Western Desert and were fair skinned with blond hair and blue eyes, and with whom the early Egyptian's fought. However, its seems that the Bahariya Oasis was originally inhabited by a mix of people from the Nile Valley and Bedouins from Libya. At that time, evidence suggests that the Oasis was much larger than it is now, but no settlements dating to the Predynastic, Early Dynastic or Old Kingdom have thus far been unearthed.

Mountainous Landscape near the Bahariya Oasis

Above: Mountainous landscape Below: On the path of the agricultural gardens

On the path of the agricultural gardens

By the Middle Kingdom, Bahariya was known as Zeszes, and definitely fell under the control of the Egyptian kings, though only a single scarab (inscribed with the name of Senusret) from that period has been found in Bahariya. Yet, documentary evidence provides that both Amenemhet and Senusret II began to pay considerable attention to the Oasis, probably to deflect regular attacks from the Libyans. At that time, there must have been large agricultural estates, large houses for the landowners, and even military garrisons to keep marauders at bay. Agriculture was, as it is now, of major importance to this community, and wine, as well as other goods of the Oasis, made their way from here to the Nile Valley by donkey caravans along two different routes.

Deep within the agricultural gardens

However, during the 15th Dynasty, when Egypt was under the rule of the Hyksos kings from Palestine, there was a lapse in trade with the Oasis, presumably because the trade routes were unsafe. At that time, we find only one text that refers to the Oasis, when King Kamose refers to it as DjesDjes, the word for the region's famous wine.

Part of the old city of Bawiti in the Bahariha Oasis

According to Fakhry, under Tuthmosis III, many improvements were made in the Oasis, including new water wells. His reign marked an increase in the local population. At this time, the Oasis was under the control of Thinis (Abydos), to which they paid tribute. We find visual evidence of this in the private tomb of Rekhmire, who was Tuthmosis III's vizier. One scene portrays the people of the Oasis, wearing striped kilts, presenting gifts of mats, hides and wine. However, the Oasis apparently had at least a governor who was a native of Bahariya, for the oldest tomb so far discovered in the Oasis is that of Amenhotep Huy, where his title is given as "Governor of the Northern Oasis". The tomb is dated to the end of the 18th Dynasty or the beginning of the 19th. By the 19th Dynasty of Egypt's New Kingdom, the Bahariya Oasis became even more important because of its mineral abundance. Even today, the mining of iron ore continues to be a vital industry. Even Ramesses II, in the Temple of Amun at Luxor, refers to the Bahariya as a place of mining. Of course agricultural products continued to be important in the Oasis, including dates, grapes, figs, livestock and pigeons (for food).

Modern Farmer with his goods in the Bahariya Oasis

By the time of Merenptah, Ramesses II's son, Egypt was suffering from Libyan attacks, and the Bahariya, as well as the other Western Oasis, must have suffered considerably during this time. Ramesses III defeated the Libyans, and bought back some order to the desert region. However, it was not until the Third Intermediate Period and particularly the Late Period that Bahariya emerged as a major Egyptian center.

A Statue of Ahmose II

Shoshenq I, who founded the 22nd Dynasty under Libyan rule, along with Shoshenq IV, seemed particularly interested in the Oasis. In fact, Fakhry believed that the Libyans first captured the Farafra and Bahariya Oasis to use as a base for their conquest of Egypt. They developed the region, and ordered that government officials live in the community. We hear of an official during this period named Weshet-het, holding the title "Superior Libyan Chief", who was probably a governor, as well as another named Arcawa who became governor and priest at the end of the 22nd Dynasty. Many of its known antiquities date from this period.

Yet it was not until the 25th and 26th Dynasties that the Bahariya Oasis florished as an important agricultural and trade center. Specifically, by the 26th Dynasty, Bahariya prospered with its own governors who were natives of the oasis. They apparently continued to report to Abydos, where there apparently remained a governor over all of the Oasis. By the time of Ahmose II (570-526 BC), the importance of the Bahariya Oasis was fully understood. He sent troops into the Western Desert to defend Egyptian interests against the Greeks and Libyans, and acted vigilantly to protect this Oasis. To honor him, two temples were erected, along with a number of chapels near Ain el-Muftella (near El Bawiti). These temples were embellished even into Egypt's Persian period.

During the Persian period that followed a series of takeovers by the Nubians and Assyrians, a strong military presence and garrison were established in the Bahariya Oasis. They may have been responsible for some of the antiquities that have been attributed to the Romans. However, they could not stop the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, once he decided to make Egypt his own.

Greek Period tombs  in the Valley of the Golden Mummies

It is very possible that Alexandria the Great traveled through the Bahariya Oasis on his way to the Oracle of Amun at Siwa. At first, Egypt was a organized under a centrally controlled government headed by Alexander's commander, Ptolemy, and the Bahariya Oasis immediately began to prosper. Not only were trade routes reestablished, but the Greeks used the Oasis to establish control over the rest of the Western Desert. In fact, they set up an extensive, permanent military garrison to protect the trade routes. During the Roman and Greek Periods, we seem to know more about the Bahariya Oasis than from any other period of time, though, as more archaeology is investigated, we stand to know much more. It was during the Greek period that the cemetery known as the Valley of the Golden Mummies came into existence.

A Greek Period  Golden Mummy from the Bahariya Oasis

During the Greek period, we know that Thoth was worshiped in the Oasis, particularly in his Ibis form, while Hathor is referred to as the "Lady of Bahariya Oasis". Khonsu, the moon god and Amun were both called "Lords of the Bahariya Oasis", though Amun was dominant. Attesting to Thoth's popularity is Qarat al-Farargi (Hill of the Chicken Merchant) which in actuality is the burial gallery of the Sacred Ibis, and one of the most extensive antiquities in the Bahariya Oasis. Its name comes from the fact that the local inhabitants once believe the mummies were those of chickens.

We now know that at the end of the Greek Period, perhaps when the Greeks and Romans were battling for control of the Oasis, the irrigation systems fell into somewhat of a state of decline. Even after the Romans establishing their rule over Egypt, life in the Oasis was a harsh period, when marauders often roamed about terrorizing villages, and life was very dangerous. However, the Romans were also hard on those residing in the Nile Valley, and recent evidence suggests that people in the Bahariya Oasis may have suffered their rule more comfortably than other Egyptians. The Romans made many improvements within the Oasis, building an impressive series of aqueducts (possibly) and wells, several of which are still used in Bawiti and Izza today. This oasis was important to the Romans as a breadbasket, and we find many tombs dug into the sides of the Bahariya mountains during Roman times. There were public works projects, new agricultural communities were formed, roads were cut, and thousands of mud-brick buildings were constructed. Roman soldiers often moved between Oxyrhynchus in the Nile Valley and Bahariya, where there was a major occupation in the northern part of the Oasis east of Bawiti.

The Church of Saint George at El-Hayz

During the Christian period, when Egypt continued under Roman rule, Bahariya was known as the Oasis of al-Bahnasa. This was apparently not particularly a safe time for the Oasis. We know that a Roman commander by the name of Hadrian oversaw the military forces at Bahariya around 213 AD, but we also hear of a Libyan invasion by the Nobatai people who destroyed many of the Oasis villages. By 399, additional Roman and now Byzantine military camps bordered the Oasis.

It has been suggested that the Oasis was never fully Christianized, as was much of the rest of Egypt. However, though the pagan gods may have lived on, perhaps even into the Islamic era, there was enough of a Christian community that the oasis had its own Bishop. Notably, Coptic tradition holds that St. Bartholomew, one of Jesus Christ's original twelve Apostles, was sent to the oasis in order to convert the local population. However, Abu Salih tells us that Bartholomew was martyred in the oasis, though others say he died on the sea coast. Regardless, Abu Salih tells us of many churches in the area, including a church named after Saint Bartholomew.

As late as 1931, Dugald Campbell tells us of a monastery that still stood in Bawiti, the Oasis' capital. He refers to it as Dar al-Abras, the Lepers' Refuge, and says that it had engraved crosses on the walls, paintings, and contained many old writings. At that time he says the Christians called Bahariya Mari Girgis (St. George). He further records the discovery of "old baked-earth coffins of the kind made in Carthage during the Punic period", each with the figure of a Libyan man on the lid. Apparently he took some of these, discovered in the Bahariya rock tombs, back to the Cairo Antiquities Museum.

The oldest Islamic Mosque in the City of Bawiti

Bahariya was known as the Northern Oasis, or sometimes as Waha al-Khas during the early Islamic period. How exactly the religious pecking order of the Bahariya was made up during the Christian and Islamic periods is unclear, but it is evident that the Oasis had a considerable Christian community until the 16th or 17th century. Amir Ibn el-As, the commander of the Arab army that conquered Egypt, sent troops under Uqba Ibn-Nafea to insure political stability within the Western Desert, but apparently the more remote areas did not immediately adopt Islam. Islam migrated into the Oasis from two different directions, both from Libya and the Nile Valley. It has been theorized that, at least during its earliest phase, those converted to Islam were not Christians, but left over pagans from the old religions. During this period, the oasis suffered considerably, as did most places in the Western Oasis. We here of sand dunes covering cultivated land, and gone was the trade in wine due to the edicts of Islam. Taxes were now levied against dates and olive oil. Much of this period is relatively unknown to us, but the Fatimids, who had affiliations in Libya, may have crossed the desert in the conquest of Egypt at Bahariya.

Muhammad Ali, often sited as the founder of modern Egypt, made claim to the Bahariya Oasis, including Farafra and Hayz, as early as 1813, before bothering with any of the other oasis. He executed a tribute of 2,000 Spanish piasters annually, and Wilkinson says he later raised this to 20,000 reals. Apparently, this created problems, because unlike Kharga, Bahariya required a large force of between 400 and 500 men to maintain peace within the oasis.

Ancient doorway in  the city of Bawiti in the Bahariya Oasis

However, once Muhammad Ali applied his rule to the Oasis, travelers began to visit the area. The first documented modern westerner to visit was the adventuring strongman, Belzoni. He called the Oasis Wah al-Bahnasa, or Wah al-Mendeesheh, and traveled there from the Fayoum in May of 1819, about the time Muhammad Ali was beginning his conquest of the other Western oasis. However, Belzoni actually thought he was in Siwa. Thereafter, a number of explorers visited the Oasis, including Gailliud in 1820, who recorded a number of monuments that no longer exist, including the Roman victory arch at El Haiz. The Roman arch, as well as other monuments may have suffered from an earthquake that was recorded as a level eight disturbance in the Fayoum Oasis in 1847. Hyde visited the Oasis in February of 1820, Pacho and Muller between 1823 and 1824 followed by Wilkinson in 1825, the Rohlfs expedition which arrived in 1874 and Captain H. G. Lyons in 1894. In 1897, John Ball and Hugh Beadnell produced maps of the territory.

Probably the Valley where the British fought the Sanusi

However, at this time the Sanusi, a power 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, was on the rise. They were opposed to contact with the west, and were viewed as a threat by Europeans. During World War I, they sided with the Turks. In 1916, the Sanusi sent an army to the Bahariya Oasis, where they already had a strong presence. It stayed there for ten months, but the British, aided by Sudanese soldiers, were determined to drive the Sanusi out. A confrontation in the pass above Hara took place, where the majority of the Sanusi army was encamped. One local tradition holds that the British bomb a heard of cattle, thinking them to be the Sanusi, but it is evident that the Sanusi were forced out of Bahariya, as well as the rest of the Western Desert. It was during this period that Captain Williams kept a lonely vigil atop the mountain that bears his name, where part of his outpost is still visible. After the campaign against the Sanusi, the British established martial law and a new set of rules to govern the people of the oasis.

Remains of Captian Williams' lookout post

Today, Bahariya's history continues, more detailed than before. Besides archaeologists who seem to have an ever increasing interest in the Oasis, a genealogical history is also kept by several Sheikhs. They not only record births, and deaths, but also surprising events, such as an encounter with a jinn or other supernatural creatures. Three books are kept, including one in Bawiti, another in Mandisha and a third in the area of El Haiz.

Wonderful landscape in the nearby desert

Owing to a marked drop in agricultural land bought about by the declining water table under Bahariya, the Oasis suffered a sharp decline in population during the 1950s. It reached a level of no more than about 6,000 residents, but by 1986, the population increased to 20,000 and today there are about 27,000 people living in Bahariya. This is mostly due to a new paved road system established in 1973 over the old caravan routes, allowing a better lifestyle as well as an increase in tourism. Yet the Bahariya Oasis, though the closest to Cairo in kilometers, remains the most distant in time. It has been slow to move into the modern world, a facet that is changing, but for at least the moment, this Oasis offers the visitor a step back in time into medieval streets and a rare, ancient culture.

See also :


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
2000 Years of Coptic Christianity Meinardus, Otto F. A. 1999 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 5113
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400 MacMullen, Ramsay 1984 Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-03642-6
Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neigbouring Countires, The Abu Salih, The Armenian, Edited and Translated by Evetts, B.T.A. 2001 Gorgias Press ISBN 0-9715986-7-3
Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000 Thames and Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05100-3
Egypt after the Pharaohs (332BC-AD642) Bowman, Alan K. 1989 California University Press ISBN 0-520-06665-0
Egypt in Late Antiquity Bagnall, Roger S. 1993 Princeton University Press ISBN 0-691-1096-x
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Valley of the Golden Mummies Hawass, Zahi 2000 American University in Cairo Press ISBN 977 424 585 7
Western Desert of Egypt, The Vivian, Cassandra 2000 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 527 X

Last Updated: June 12th, 2011