Valley of Mummies holds Egypt's past

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 upper-class families.

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 the Nile.

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 oases towns.

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 Bahariya Oasis.

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 Bahariya.

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 antique bellows.

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 commerce.

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 and chapels.

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 and orange.

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 Libyan border.

Travel Tips

  • Who 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.

    Misr Travel
    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]

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