Journal: Friday 7 November 2003
We all form pictures in our mind of the places we will visit and even though I’ve seen photographs of the fortress of Dush, it seemed very different to how I’d imagined it. For a start the drive from Kharga was much further than I’d thought – at the very southern edge of the oasis, Dush is an outpost at about 100km from the city and we drove past several crescent-shaped Barkan sand-dunes and yardangs, or mud-lions, on the way. As we turned off the main Kharga road onto a sand-covered tarmac track we finally found the Roman fortress rising from the high ground ahead of us, while a group of little white tents belonging to the French IFAO excavation team were clustered below on the plain.
It was quite a climb up the slope of soft sand to get to the temple, which was built from stone and was bigger and better preserved than I had imagined. This area in ancient times was known as Kysis and comprised several villages surrounded by cultivation with quite a sophisticated irrigation system of underground pipes, which has been investigated by recent excavators. The sandstone temple, dedicated to Osiris and Isis, butts onto the side of the fortress, within its outer walls and was probably built by the Emperor Domitian, with further additions and decoration by Trajan and Hadrian. There is a dedicatory inscription of Trajan on the large stone entrance gate and this is dated to 116 AD. Inside there is a courtyard with remains of columns, a pillared hall and further chambers leading to the sanctuary. Some of the walls in the inner temple have lovely reliefs depicting Roman emperors and deities. The walls were reputedly once partially sheathed in gold leaf, which must have looked amazing. We went up a staircase onto the roof from where there are wonderful views across the once-cultivated area which the desert has now reclaimed. In 1989 a hoard of treasure was discovered in one of the store-rooms in the temple. Known as the ‘Dush Treasure’, now in Cairo Museum, a collection of superb religious artefacts was buried for safety probably during the 5th to 6th centuries AD. I made a mental note to look for it in Cairo.
From the stone temple we could see mudbrick ruins of a second temple across the sloping hillside. When we walked over the pottery-covered sand to the site we could stand inside the tall walls and look up at the barrel-shaped vaulted roof, but there was no plaster or decoration remaining here and little to give us any information. This structure is also probably Roman but little else is known about it. We spent quite a long time in the mudbrick temple, an eerily romantic setting, before moving on to our next destination.
Back towards Kharga City, a little way off the main road, we came to the ‘fortress of the small garden’, Qasr el-Ghueita. This is another imposing Roman fortress, perhaps once a garrison headquarters, that commands wonderful views from the top of a hill over the surrounding desert. The settlement which dates back to at least the Middle Kingdom was called in ancient times Per-ousekh and was renowned for its grape cultivation and wine and is mentioned in many Theban tombs. Within the Roman fortress walls is a large yellow sandstone temple probably dating from the Persian Period or perhaps even earlier and dedicated to the Theban Triad. We walked between the screen walls of a Ptolemaic pronaos into a courtyard. I liked this temple even more than Dush and its richly decorated hypostyle hall with beautiful floral columns was a joy. Most of the decoration here appeared to be Ptolemaic with the usual scenes of Nile Gods and nome symbols lining the lower registers and I saw several cartouches as well as unusual-looking deities. There were three small sanctuaries here which would have once held the cult statues of Amun, Mut and Khons but the decoration was blackened with age. From the roof we could see another structure with screen walls and columns, perhaps a mammisi or birth-house.
Our next stop was Qasr el-Zayyan, just a little further towards Kharga and close to the main road. One of the largest and most important settlements in the oasis Qasr Zayyan is another link in the chain of Roman fortresses that guarded the trade routes. The Greeks called the settlement Tchonemyris, which means ‘The Great Well’ and the well itself can still be seen within the massive well-preserved mudbrick enclosure walls. This major source of water would have given the place a great deal of importance in ancient times and it would have probably functioned as an overnight stop for travellers. Inside the enclosure is a sandstone temple dedicated to one of the major oasis gods, ‘Amun of Hibis’ (the Roman Amenibis) and constructed during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. A large stone gateway, partially covered by blown sand, fronts the temple and on the lintel above a dedicatory text has a Greek inscription dated to 140 AD: ‘To Amenibis the great god of Tchonemyris and to the other gods of the temple, for the eternal preservation of Antoninus Caesar, our Lord and his whole house . . .’ and goes on to name the governor and officials involved in the restoration. Inside the small temple there is a courtyard that leads to a sanctuary.
We wanted to get back to Kharga as early as possible today so that our drivers could break their Ramadan fast at the proper time. At 6.00pm all went out into town to a local restaurant where Abdul had pre-arranged a table for us straight after the Itfar meal for the locals had ended. This was a typical Egyptian restaurant with long tables and bench seats. The scrubbed wooden tables already contained stacks of local flat bread and metal jugs of water when we were seated and the only menu choice was beef or chicken. Fortunately this was accompanied by my usual Egyptian vegetarian diet of rice and vegetables, but it was very good. We have been accompanied today by an Indian lady called Mina, a solo traveller who we met in our hotel this morning. Unfortunately having an extra unscheduled person with us has caused problems for the drivers with both the tourist police and the minibus company so it looks like she won’t be going any further with us. After our meal a few of us sat in a coffee shop for a couple of hours. It’s great to chill out and talk about the day’s sites with like-minded people, but before Midnight we reluctantly walked back to the hotel, while Kevin told us about something quite unidentifiable but disgusting he found in the fridge in his room. I am thankful that this will be the last night sleeping here because I still haven’t identified those insects that were in my bed last night.