western desert stretches over nearly 3 million square kilometers, from the
west bank of the Nile to Libya, and from Sudan towards the Mediterranean
Sea. Despite covering over two-thirds of Egypt’s total land area, the
desert is virtually uninhabited, except for the fertile oases where
communities and crops flourish amid barren desert surroundings.
There are five oases in the Western Desert: Siwa, Kharga, Dakhla, Farafra
and Bahariya. Except for Siwa, the oases have been under the control of
the rulers of the Nile Valley since Pharaonic times, when they were
crucial stopping points on the busy caravan trading routes from Africa.
The Ptoletmaic temples and Roman forts dotted around the oases bear
witness to their past importance and ongoing archaeological work is
continually uncovering new finds. Each of the Western Desert oases has its
own unique character. While the main settlements of Bahariya and Farafra
are still villages, those of Dakhla and Kharga are large towns, surrounded
by fascinating historical sites. In Siwa, isolated near the Libyan border,
the inhabitants retain their own language and distinct culture.
In the late 1950s a plan was made to reclaim part of the desert and
relocate thousands of people from the crowded Nile delta and valley. The
area, covering Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga oases, was named the
New Valley. Although some building began, few people moved, and financial
constraints together with the questionable sustainability of the water
supply meant that the project was virtually abandoned. The Western Desert
today remains one of the few places in the world where travelers can
experience a feeling of total isolation. Its sheer scale is overwhelming.
From huge dunes to fantastical rock formations, the landscape varies
dramatically and camping out overnight in such astonishing surroundings
can be one of the highlights of a trip to Egypt.