Journal: Sunday 16 January 2011
The planned early start today didn’t happen until about 9.30am, after a few hours of cleaning the apartment, breakfast, finishing packing up and then loading Abdul’s minibus for our trip to the Western Desert. Eventually we were on the road at last and heading south to Armant then turning east at el-Rizeiqat checkpoint onto the road over the escarpment.
It’s around 240km from el-Rizeiqat to the checkpoint at a village called Bagdad where we join the main road that runs through the New Valley. The desert road is straight and featureless with endless stony sand stretching as far as the eye can see, seemingly devoid of any living thing. But at least the road surface was generally good – not always the case – and we were only slowed down by spitting gravel during a few kilometres where re-surfacing was taking place. The most interesting part of the drive is coming down over the Kharga escarpment, where we stopped for a few minutes to admire the view. The Kharga depression seen from here is a far-off strip of green, a distant patchwork and the promise of civilization to any desert traveller. On reaching Bagdad we turned south to the town of Baris and then onto a new road leading to the winding sandy tarmac track that would take us to the Roman Fortress and Temple of Dush.
Suddenly the large hill on which the fortress stands was there before us and we pulled up in front of a cluster of buildings at it’s foot. I’ve been to Dush before and then, like now, I was impressed by the site of the fortress and temples on this huge sandy slope. We met the gafir and bought our tickets for 25 LE each. Although overcast, the day was warm and made warmer by our tramp up the steep slope through soft sand on a path leading up to the temple.
The Fortress, Qasr ed-Dush, was completed around AD 177 on the site of the ancient town of Kysis whose remains lie scattered around the hillside. As a border town, the fortress was strategically placed at the intersection of five desert tracks and probably guarded the Darb al-Dush, an east–west track to the Esna and Edfu temples in the Nile Valley. As a result it was solidly built from mud bricks and heavily garrisoned during Roman times. Parts of the massive walls can still be seen.
The sandstone temple adjoining the fortress was dedicated to Isis and Serapis, the Greek name for Osiris. We walked through the monumental stone gateway with its dedicatory inscription by Trajan dated to AD 116 and noted also the graffiti left by nineteenth century travellers many of whose names are now famous. The forecourt is still paved though wind-blown sand has piled up in the corners and against the remains of its five columns. A pillared hall, containing four slender columns fronts the sanctuary where an offering table still stands. The best view of the temple is from the roof which is accessible via a stone staircase to one side of the sanctuary. The gold decorations that once covered parts of the temple and earned it renown have long gone, but there is still some decoration on the inner stone walls.
The area around the temple is covered by low mudbrick walls outlining ancient buildings of the town and the sandy ground is littered by a mass of red pottery sherds. We walked across to another intriguing structure, apparently another temple built from mudbrick and with a vaulted roof. This is undecorated and little is known about the building. After a while we made our way back down the slope. I noticed a lot of recently landscaped buildings which I imagine is a new dig-house belonging to the French archaeologists of the IFAO who have been excavating here since 1976. Last time I visited here we saw only a village of tents!
Driving onwards in the minibus towards Kharga City we asked Abdul to stop so that we could photograph a series of sand dunes – the largest ones to be seen in this oasis and a good example of how nothing will stop a dune when it is marching. Telegraph poles, roads and even villages just have to be moved out of their way. After another 100km we arrived at our destination which was the Solimar Pioneer Hotel for two nights.