Egypt's Widan Al-Faras: The world’s oldest road all but forgotten

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Saturday 22 Feb 2014

Close to Fayoum lies the world’s oldest surviving paved road, threatened by oblivion and neglect

Qasr al-Sagha
Qasr al-Sagha

“The pyramids and temples of the Egyptian Old Kingdom (early mid-third millennium BC) are testament to an epoch of global significance in the evolution of monumental stone architecture. The basalt quarries of Widan Al-Faras and gypsum quarries of Umm es-Sawan (…) were key production sites in the foreground of this transformation to largescale stone quarrying.” — Elizabeth Bloxam and Tom Heldal

You can think of it as an ancient cultural landscape, or you can think of it as a fossil landscape. One thing is certain: it is the world’s oldest surviving paved road, and — if nothing is done to protect it — it will eventually vanish completely.

Widan Al-Faras quarry road was built some 4,500 years ago in the area situated north of present-day Lake Qarun.

As we approached Widan Al-Faras area ("ears of the mare"), easily recognisable by its twin peaks, we knew we had a tough task ahead: locating a road in the middle of nowhere and stretching into infinity. The road was built for moving blocks of basalt from the Widan Al-Faras mines to the shore of the ancient Lake Moeris, the bigger ancestor of Lake Qarun. The road ended in a quay not far from Qasr Al-Sagha Temple, an Old Kingdom temple still standing north of Lake Qarun. From there, the basalt was moved via Bahr Youssef to the Nile, and from there to the Giza Plateau, where it was used in building sarcophagi and floors of mortuary temples around the Giza Pyramids.

Case study on recklessness

We felt the wind run beneath our ears like a ribbon of silk. I am not sure if this is how the Ancient Egyptian mine workers felt as they laboured under the desert sun. We finally located the quarry road, and we were silently experiencing a cascade of mixed feelings: contemplating something that old and that magnificent, we were awe-inspired, then camera crazy.

Nevertheless, as we traced the quarry road that stretched across the North Fayoum Desert like an ancient serpent god, we quickly came to realise two important — and saddening — things. First, the road is neither protected nor signposted. Second, and as a consequence of the absence of any protection, large stretches of the road have disappeared completely. Desert safaris by four-wheel drive vehicles, and uncontrolled tourism, have done obvious damage to the road, while irresponsible "trophy hunters" have carried away fragments of the road as souvenirs, adding to the problem. Together, these factors did to the road what over 4,000 years of weathering and erosion did not do.

Road less traveled

Building an 11-kilometre road in the desert and having it equipped to move massive basalt blocks thousands of years ago sounds like mission impossible, but when you remember the other architectural feats of Ancient Egypt, everything becomes imaginable. The Ancient Egyptian workers had to use not only slabs of limestone and sandstone, but also logs of petrified wood to stabilise the road. Moreover, desert sand keeps encroaching and burying everything.

The road is about two metres wide. The petrified wood logs are brilliantly black. The whole area is one unique example of what experts would call an industrial landscape (in this case, a quarry landscape) where one can get the full picture of the mining process. You can visit the mines where they cut the stones, the purpose-built quarry road used to transport them,  traces of encampments, and the final stage of the road (the quay) close to Qasr Al-Sagha site.

Nevertheless, you would need to visit to Giza Pyramids if you want to understand the "final use" of the Widan Al-Faras basalt: the floor of the Khufu (Cheops) funerary temple is a good example, and so are the mortuary temples of Userkaf, Sahure and others.

Exotic itinerary

Back in Widan Al-Faras, our visit had to follow the "logical" sequence of things in the region. That meant a visit to Midde Kingdom temple of Qasr Al-Sagha (built on the site of an Old Kingdom one) followed by a visit to the Greco-Roman city of Dimai (Dima, of Ptolemaic origin).

The massive stones of the otherwise insignificant Qasr Al-Sagha and the mudbrick walls of the abandoned Dimai seem to defy time, standing against all the odds and bearing witness to the shifting shores of the lake over the millennia. Several other attractions can be visited around the lake.

The entire zone of Gebel Qatrani Area and Lake Qarun Nature Reserve is on the "Tentative Lists" of UNESCO alongside tens of other Egyptian sites. The submission was made in 2003 with the description: “(The site) allows for insights into the enormous feats of mass stone transportation during the pyramid age and its connection with ancient Lake Moeris.” Over 10 years have passed since the submisison, but little — if anything — has been done to protect the area.

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