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Monday, 21 August 2017

Exploring Egypt: The fascinating face of El-Wadi El-Gadid

It is a long and arduous bus trip where you see non-stop desert on both sides of the road. However, the trip to El-Wadi El-Gadid guarantees exposure to a rich and unique part of Egypt's history

Doaa El-Bey, Sunday 21 May 2017
	El-Wadi El-Gadid. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)
El-Wadi El-Gadid. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)
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When we approached El-Kharga oasis, we started to see sporadic patches of green areas and palm trees.

Our guide explained that the biggest problem in the governorate is the scarcity of water. Whenever a well is discovered, the land around it can be cultivated and palm trees can be planted.

El-Wadi El-Gadid, or the new valley, covers nearly 48 percent of Egypt, though its population is only around 245,000.

The goverorate, which lies in southwestern Egypt, has some 2,000 monumental sites, only 38 of which are open to public.

Former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser established the governorate in 1959, which is why many of the villages there carry the name of Arab capitals like Kuwait, Baghdad and Algiers.

Although many people from Upper Egypt and the Delta have moved there, it is still an under populated and widely unexplored land that needs much attention and care from the state.

Local traditions

Most of the houses were originally built with traditional mud brick, though the majority of them have been rebuilt using cement and concrete.

Unlike the people of Siwa, its inhabitants do not have their own distinct language.

Education is very important for the locals, with illiteracy not exceeding 3 or 4 percent, and in areas like Mut, illiteracy is 0 percent.

Wedding ceremonies last for three days. The cost is divided between the bride and groom.

The main economic resource for the oases is agriculture, with the most important product being dates. Their products, however, are not as famous as those of Siwa.

There are also various industrial areas in El-Wadi El-Gadid, with factories that manufacture plastic, paper, dates and onion products.

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Green areas and palm trees grow in the middle of the desert in El-Wadi El-Gadid. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)
 

"I found it completely different in El-Wadi. There are monuments from different eras in addition to the beautiful landscape. Besides, the people are very different. The village life here is free from any complications," said Roland Unger, a German travel writer and physicist I met during the trip who likes to explore remote places in Egypt.

El-Wadi El-Gadid consists of three depressions or Oases: El-Kharga, El-Dakhla and El-Farafra. We visited the first two during our trip.

El-Kharga Oasis

El-Kharga is the biggest oasis in Egypt and the capital of El-Wadi El-Gadid. It is 600km from Cairo and is home to some 70,000 people.

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The Necropolis of Al-Bagawat, El-Kharga Oasis. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)
 

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The Necropolis of Al-Bagawat, El-Kharga Oasis. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)

The Necropolis of El-Bagawat

The Necropolis of El-Bagawat is one of the oldest and most impressive Christian cemeteries in Egypt and the world.

Christians who escaped the persecution of Roman Emperors in the 3rd and the 4th centuries AD went to the remote area and built their own villages.

There are some 1,200 tombs in the area, mostly unadorned mud-brick crypts from which the area derives its name.

The Arabic word for crypts is kabawat, pronounced bagawat in the local accent.

The area was excavated in 1976, though it had been looted in previous years. A few of the tombs still have well-preserved biblical scenes etched on the walls.

There are two outstanding and well-preserved chapels named the Exodus Chapel and the Peace Chapel.

The dome of the first, located in the heart of El-Bagawat, is decorated by biblical scenes including those of Adam and Eve, Moses leading his followers in the exodus, Jonah and the Whale and Noah's Ark.

The dome of the Chapel of Peace is decorated with images of grape vines and birds. Around the dome is a series of biblical scenes including the annunciation of the Virgin Mary.

The area was famous for red pottery during the Old Kingdom, which is why you can still find many broken pieces of red pottery on the ground in El-Bagawat.

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The dome of the Peace Chapel that is adorned with grape vines and birds. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)

The Museum of El-Wadi El-Gadid

The museum is a three-storey building established by the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The ground floor has a large foyer that is opened on the second and third floor.

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Pottery vessels and jars painted with floral and geometric designs from the Coptic period. The Museum of El-Wadi El-Gadid. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)

The museum houses various remarkable displays that date back to the Pharaonic, Graeco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic periods, including some statues of the sphinx and a statue of Horus.

The most impressive display to me was that of the various mummies that are still in their full cartonage, including the two sarcophagi for a man and his wife that were discovered near Paris Oasis.

"On a tomb that was discovered intact from the ancient Egyptian period, the phrase 'I didn’t steal, I didn’t fornicate and I didn't pollute the Nile's water' was encrypted. That is an indication of the gravity of the crime of polluting the Nile in Pharaonic culture," said Ahmed Fakhry, the director of the museum.

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Colourful necklaces made of various materials, from the Ottoman era. The Museum of El-Wadi El-Gadid. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)
 

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The Temple of Hibis. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)

The Temple of Hibis

The Temple of Hibis, built in the 6th century BC, is the largest and most well preserved temple in the Kharga Oasis. It is the finest example of a Persian period temple in Egypt built during the 26th Dynasty.

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The entrance of the Temple of Hibis showing part of the sphinx avenue with the only sphinx that remains intact. The old tree that is located close to the entrance is in the background. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)
 

The temple was originally constructed on the edge of a small sacred lake and dedicated to the Theban triad of Amun-Ra, Mut and Khons. A large tree that is hundreds of years old is all that remains at the site of the lake.

The temple has a series of gateways that lead to the inner section. There are still some remains of the sphinx-lined avenue built in the 3rd century in front of the temple.

The temple reliefs are very well preserved because it was buried in the sand for many centuries.

In 2000, the Ministry of Culture started a huge restoration process.

It abandoned an original plan to dismantle the temple and reconstruct it in a more suitable and drier place some 400 metres away from its present location. The plan proved to be unsuitable because it was likely to accelerate the rate of decay of the temple.

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In villages like Genah Village, it is normal to see the tip of a palm tree. The rest of the tree and the whole village is covered under sand. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)
 

El Wadi el Gedid
The village built by the famous architect Hassan Fathi.

Genah Village

It is not an unfamiliar thing to see a whole village like Genah that is entirely covered in sand because of the wind. The wind carries with it a lot of sand that over the years covers complete villages in El-Wadi El-Gadid.

We climbed the sand mountains under which Genah village lies and watched the spectacular sun set.

On our way down the mountain, the villagers who live in the few houses that are not covered in sand welcomed us with dates and their traditional tea served in small glasses.

El Wadi el Gedid
The Temple of Dush. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)

Paris Oasis

Paris Oasis is one of the beautiful oases in El-Wadi El-Gadid, located about 90km away from El-Kharga Oasis.

On the way to Paris, we stopped by a village built by the famous architect Hassan Fathi.

Fathi was famous for his dome-shaped designs and traditional courtyards that provide houses with natural cooling.

Although the village was built in the early 1970s, it is still uninhabited because it does not have any utilities. It is a shame that these beautiful houses are deserted, which is a sign that the place is neglected.

El Wadi el Gedid
The Temple of Dush from the second floor. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)

The Temple of Dush

Built for Isis and Serapis, the Roman Temple of Dush is entirely surrounded by a mud-brick fortress. It was built during the first century and was a religious, military and civilian complex.

Entering the temple through any one of its several gates takes you to the barrel-vaulted sanctuary, which is made up of two connecting rooms and has a vaulted ceiling. The two rooms were used for prayer, but they are now empty.  

On either side of the sanctuary are chapels.

The temple used to lie at the intersection of five major trade routes, and was a staging point for caravans that headed to either Assiut or Esna.

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Girls working at the rug-making factory, El-Kharga Oasis. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)

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The products of the pottery factory, El-Kharga Oasis. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)

A visit to the pottery, rug and date factories

At the rug-making factory, you have a chance to see the young women weaving hand-made rugs. Talk to them and learn some rug-making skills if you are interested.

Visiting the factory shop at the end of the tour guarantees that you will buy at least one rug.

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Pottery making, the pottery factory, El-Kharga Oasis. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)

At the pottery factory, you can learn from the pottery maker's experience in shaping pottery and painting it after it dries.

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The machine that washes the dates in the dates factory, El-Kharga Oasis. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)

As for the visit to the date factory, it provides an opportunity to witness the process of packing dates.

It starts by separating the good dates from the bad, washing them, adding syrup, and putting the right weight in each packing bag before sealing it.

The factory shop sells packed dates in addition to date jam and syrup.

Stay tuned for part two of this story, which will take you on a tour on El-Dakhla Oasis.

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