Contributing editor Carla Hunt, with two traveling companions,
struck out across Egypt's Western Desert earlier this year on a
journey that got her a look at some of the newest and most exciting
mummy finds ever made in this desert country.
BAHARIYA OASIS, Egypt -- Archaeologists excavated a vast
cemetery revealing (so far) four elaborately painted tombs
containing 105 mummies. The largest cache ever found in a single
Egyptian site, the excavation has been under way since their
discovery in 1998.
The area, called the Valley of the Mummies, is in the Bahariya
Oasis, 230 miles southwest of Cairo.
Two friends, as drawn to this region as I, joined me for a
weeklong caravan whose destinations would be the five major oases
-- Siwa, Bahariya, Farafra, Dahkla and Kharga -- in this part of
the northern Sahara, which Egyptians call the Western Desert.
The newest mummy finds include men, women and children, some
resting in human-shaped pottery coffins or bound in linen. Others
are decorated with gilded masks and Egyptian deities painted on
their cartonnage (mummy cases of linen and papyrus).
The Bahariya cache is from an era that probably began with
Alexander the Great's conquest in 332 B.C. and ended in the fourth
century, by which time Rome had ruled Egypt, and its settlers had
adapted to Egyptian ways, including mummification for its
Many examples of antiquities from this period are on view in
Alexandria, where one finds fantastic Roman catacombs and where
archaeologists are excavating Antirrhodos Island, believed to be
the site of Cleopatra's palace.
Alexandria's archaeological museum offers a useful introduction
to history and culture along the Western Oases route; the
antiquities generally date to the Greco-Roman period, rather than
the more ancient world of the pharaohs we are accustomed to along
We set out from Alexandria, with a long day's drive west along
the Mediterranean coast to Marsa Matruh. We then headed south into
the Western Desert to Siwa, capital of the 50-mile-long oasis.
Here, indeed, is a figurative garden of Eden, with groves of
date palms, lush fruit and vegetable fields, hundreds of springs
and a small sapphire-clear lake where you sip tea beneath the palms
and watch magical sunsets.
Siwa's mostly Berber-speaking inhabitants live in mud-brick
houses and preserve their traditions, which include keeping women
shielded from public view behind blue-gray shawls, often with
brightly colored dresses peaking out below.
The center of town is dominated by the remains of the 13th
century fortress of Shali. On the outskirts are the rock tombs of
Gebel al-Mawta (Mountain of the Dead). The most beautiful paintings
are those in the tomb of Si-Amun, where colored reliefs portray the
dead man, thought to be a wealthy Greek landowner.
The center of the oasis was once farther west at the fortress of
Aghurmi, 20 minutes away, where travelers still can see the remains
of the 26th Egyptian dynasty Temple of the Oracle, a pilgrimage
site visited by Alexander the Great.
We stayed at the modern, if institutional-looking, Arous al-Waha
Hotel in Siwa. Accommodations come with bathrooms, hot water and
ceiling fans -- amenities not always available in Western Desert
Hotel restaurants along our path were always more than adequate
for breakfast; we shopped the markets for bread, cheese, great
tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs for picnic lunches en route, and
asked desk clerks for dinner recommendations at local cafes. This
is not gourmet tour territory.
On the way out of town, we discovered one of two really good
hotels along the whole circuit: the Siwa Safari Paradise Hotel,
tucked into a palm grove with bungalow accommodations, some with
air-conditioning, a TV and a refrigerator as well as a pool and a
good little crafts shop.
Military checkpoints -- not for security but to ensure that the
few trucks and cars traversing this desolate stretch get through
safely -- clock travelers along the glorious and desolate road
connecting Siwa to the Bahariya Oasis.
During the six-hour drive, we met, at most, a half-dozen
oncoming vehicles and four Israeli tourists, motorcycle-bound on a
roundtrip ride from Tel Aviv.
That night, we ate under the stars around tables on the terrace
of our little hotel, Ahmed's Safari Camp, set in a pretty grove of
fruit trees and date palms, just above the hot springs of the
Dressed for dinner in every warm piece of clothing we had, we
retired to bed similarly attired and buried ourselves beneath heavy
blankets, for in winter (we traveled in January), temperatures drop
to the low 40s in the desert at night.
Fellow guests included two Italian couples (the only other
foreign tourists we saw) who were headed the next morning to see
five of the newly excavated mummies, the only ones generally
available for viewing at this time. They are at the archaeological
administrative center near the excavation site.
Our trio was able to join them and their guide, who had
"arranged" entry to one of the four off-limits excavated tombs, and
what a glory: multiroom chambers carved from sandstone, painted
with ceremonial scenes of the dead being prepared for burial.
Rightfully, those tombs should remain out-of-bounds to tourists
until excavations are more complete and guards are in place to
protect the antiquities.
After Bahariya, the terrain becomes more mountainous en route to
Farafra, and the road passes through the extraordinary White
Desert, whose chalky sand looks like snow and is often wind-blown
into gigantic mushroom-shaped or animal-like formations --
depending on your viewpoint.
The sprawling village of Farafra is distinguished by only two
attractions: the Badr Museum, which resembles a Foreign Legion
desert fort and is a showcase for the expressive paintings and
sculptures of local artist Badr, and the comfortable Al-Badawiyya
Safari Hotel, offering spacious rooms, big and modern baths,
attractive lounge areas and the best dinner of our trip.
The 190-mile drive to our next stop, the Dakhla Oasis, an area
set amidst farms and orchards, takes about four hours.
Overnight accommodations were in the town of Mut at the Mabarez
Hotel; it is nothing to write home about, but some rooms with bath
are available. It is located on the road out of town and a short
walk from the popular Ahmed Hamdy's restaurant, which serves up
tasty grilled meats and Egyptian salads.
What is commanding in this oasis is the medieval village of
Al-Qasr, for me perhaps more spellbinding than the mummies of
You step back centuries into narrow alleys threading among the
mud-brick structures of the old town: four- and five-story houses
(dating to Ottoman times) with wooden-grill windows and lintels
carved with verses from the Koran; a mosque with a 12th century
minaret; a little renovated school of Koranic law, and workshops
still handcrafting mud bricks, pottery and metal worked with an
Two miles beyond Al-Qasr is the desolate Al-Muzawaka burial
site, where two beautifully painted tombs dating to the first and
second century are open to the public; a custodian also points the
way to mummies tucked into a smaller rough-cut tomb.
Prehistoric paintings of giraffes, antelope and fish decorating
the sides of strangely shaped rock formations are the surprise
along the 125-mile route between Dakhla and Kharga, our last stop
on the oasis circuit before the four-hour ride to east Luxor.
Al-Kharga is the oasis capital, modern and faceless, built in
the l960s as the center of the less-than-successful New Valley
project to bring the oases into the mainstream of settlement and
One place to hang your hat here is the 32-room Hamad Allah
Tourist Hotel, where lodgings come with a bath, a refrigerator, a
TV and breakfast.
There are several things worth seeing, including the museum,
which houses an excellent collection of regional archaeological
finds, ranging from prehistoric displays to artifacts of the
Pharaonic, Ptolemaic and early Christian eras.
A mile out of town is the Temple of Hibis, dedicated to the god
Amun and built mostly by the Persian emperor Darius I in the sixth
century B.C. A mile farther on is the fascinating necropolis of
al-Bagawat, a Coptic Christian burial ground dating from the fourth
to seventh centuries. Its mud-brick mausoleums cover several small
hills, and many have domes decorated with primitive frescoes
depicting biblical scenes.
The site is well signposted with visitor information, but only
the local guides seem to have the keys to the most colorful tombs
We made one significant mistake in trip planning: We did not
spend at least one night camping out in the White Desert, to catch
the sunset and sunrise turning the eerie terrain to shades of pink
For when all is said and done, the main attraction of the oases
is the Saharan desertscapes that bind them.
Along the surprisingly good roads that connect these oases, we
found vast groves of date palms; easily accessible Roman temples
and tombs; mud-brick fortresses protecting historic caravan routes;
Bedouin tending goats and camels, and, above all, mesmerizing
landscapes of towering sand dunes stretching all the way to the
Travel TipsWho should go: This is a trip for visitors who are seasoned
travelers, enjoy the adventure of new cultural horizons, are not
overly concerned with top-of-the-line creature comforts and can
sustain long but scenic desert driving. This is the perfect trip
for repeat travel to Egypt.When to visit: The best time for the Western Desert is November
to April; daytime temperatures are pleasant, nights are cold.What to take: Basics are a hat with a visor, sunglasses,
sunscreen and walking shoes. A flashlight, towel, washcloth, soap
and toilet paper are recommended; a separate water carrier may be
useful, but there is bottled water for sale everywhere. A warm
sweater or jacket is needed at night. Women should wear long-sleeve
shirts and long trousers, respecting the modesty of an Islamic
culture.Taking photos: Camera equipment should be carried in sealed
bags to protect it from sand and dust; take plenty of film (low
ASA), for little is for sale en route. Ask permission to take
photos of people; women, in particular, do not like being
photographed.Information: The most informed guidebook on the Western Oases
is Lonely Planet's "Egypt."
How to arrange an Oases trip
The basic elements to oases trip-planning are: Land Rover or
Desert Cruiser transportation; an English-speaking driver/guide who
knows the Western Desert, and advance reservations for hotel rooms
that are in short supply.
In the U.S. market, I could find no tour operator with an
established tour program to the Western Oases. The area is more
familiar to European travelers, whose arrangements almost always
include some camping.
I worked with Misr Travel in New York, which is developing a
Western Oases program for seven nights, including Siwa, with
departure from Alexandria, and for five nights, with departure from
Cairo and/or Luxor and not including Siwa. Itineraries and prices
will soon be finalized.
For a sampling of the region, Mountain-Travel Sobek introduces
some of the Western Oases on its 13-night Adventure Egypt tour,
which includes three nights in Cairo; one night in Alexandria; a
day's drive to the Siwa Oasis and two overnights, plus an overnight
in the Bahariya Oasis.
The tour returns to Cairo and continues by air to Abu Simbel,
Aswan and Luxor. Departures are Oct. 28, Nov. 18 and Dec. 18. Land
cost is $3,690 for 10 to 16 members, and $3,990 for four to nine
members. Domestic air ($590) is additional.
Phone: (800) 223-4978 or (212) 582-9210
Fax: (212) 247-8142
E-mail: [email protected]
Mountain Travel Sobek
Phone: (800) 227-2384 or (510) 527-8100
Fax: (510) 525-7710
E-mail: [email protected]