Journal: Wednesday 12 November 2003
Leaving the Farafra hotel after breakfast this morning we set off in the minibus to drive to our next destination and the last oasis in the New Valley, Bahariya. We climbed up over the high chalky-white Farafra escarpment and onto the plateau, past the solitary hill called ‘Twin Peaks’ that is a Farafra landmark. At a point about 65km from Farafra, we found Gebel el-Izaz, also known as Crystal Mountain.
Stopping at the side of the road we all got out to have a walk around this area where many lumps of sparkling quartz crystal are lying about on the sand. The main feature here is a large rock with a hole through its centre like an arch and all the surrounding rocks contain a large proportion of quartz – a geologists heaven!
After spending last night in the White Desert, we now approached the Black Desert, an large area of desert that is covered with black stones, and it reminded me a little of the drive from Aswan to Abu Simbel. It also reminded me of the slag-heaps littering the mining areas of north-east England half a century ago. We were aiming for el-Hayz, but Sam wasn’t sure if the road to the little oasis would be passable in our minibus as it was in poor condition last time she was there. When we reached the turnoff however, we found that the road had been re-made. We were in luck.
El-Hayz, the collective name for several small hamlets, is an important area of mostly Roman remains that has been under excavation by the Czech Institute of Egyptology at Prague’s Charles University, for the past few seasons. It is possibly the ‘Fourth Oasis’ of the seven that are mentioned at Edfu Temple, lying on the main ancient caravan route between Farafra and Bahariya. There are springs, ancient settlements with elaborate underground irrigation systems, old orchards and remnants of agriculture. The largest settlement was at Ain el-Ris, where remains of a Roman mudbrick fortress can still be seen and this was probably once a major and wealthy Roman camp and an important stopping place on the desert trade routes. There is also a large and well-preserved early Christian church which was described by Belzoni and Cailliaud in the early 19th century, but the paintings and frescos have deteriorated even since Ahmed Fakhry wrote about it in the 1930s. The now-roofless church is a basilica type, constructed in two stories of mudbrick and was probably dedicated to St George, suggested by descriptions of a man riding a horse in the paintings, he was a popular saint in the oases. Fakhry suggested that the date of the church was no later than the 5th to 6th century and it is the only well-preserved early Christian Church in the Western Desert.
Eventually in the late afternoon we arrived in Bawiti, the main town in Bahariya Oasis and checked into the Oasis Panorama Hotel where we had pre-booked rooms. This was a big new hotel described in the Rough Guide as ‘… a Red Sea hotel half-way up the Black Mountain’. It is indeed nestled into the side of a mountain that looms up behind it. I was not very impressed however as it is large, basic and anonymous with lots of concrete and could not be called picturesque. Kevin dubbed it the ‘Tacky Hilton’ because of its big neon sign that showed up for miles. We had an early dinner in the hotel and some of us then went to a coffee shop in town where we sat and chatted to the friendly locals.