Western Desert; Cairo can have its pyramids, and Luxor can retain its temples – here is the desert of deserts, an incomprehensible natural beauty like no other. The Western Desert of Egypt runs from the Nile and the Mediterranean to the Sudanese and Libyan borders, indifferent to any bounds put on a map.
The Great Sand Sea begins here, a mighty khaki ocean undulating with some of the world’s most enormous dunes. This arid terrain is broken up by five large oases,
each with its freshwater source and sustaining islands of luxuriant foliage.
The valley bottoms are dotted with decaying Roman forts that once towered over old caravan routes that weaved through North Africa.
Flourishing palm plantations surround ancient cities, while the mysterious rock formations of the White Desert, a dreamscape of eroded, snow-white pinnacles, may be found here out west.
Nearby, you may explore the Black Desert’s burned mountains and soak in countless crystal-clear springs that stream from the valley bottom.
Siwa, a quiet sanctuary of springs and old ruins heavily carpeted with date palms, sits delightfully separated from the busy desert circuit route.
Few visitors deviate from the famous Nile Valley itineraries to undertake the dusty journey west. It’s a pity. Paved roads now link the oasis, and although driving in this area is time-consuming, the Western Desert provides some of Egypt’s most breathtaking landscapes and picturesque adventures.
The Western Desert, like the Sahara and other deserts that spread across northern Africa, was formerly a savannah that supported a diverse range of species.
Giraffes, lions, and elephants grazed here during the Palaeolithic period, when the area resembled the African Sahel. Everything you see in the desert — enormous swaths of sand, massive gravel plains, fossil beds, and limestone cliffs – were once joyful hunting areas for nomadic tribes.
Gradual climatic change caused desertification, transforming this large region into the dry landscape observed today. Only depressions on the desert floor provide sufficient water to sustain animals, agriculture, and human settlement.
The ancient Egyptians knew the desert’s character, which they associated with death and exile. Here was claimed to reign Seth, the god of chaos who slew his brother Osiris.
Despite their anxieties, it is thought that the ancient Egyptians maintained relations with the oases throughout the Pharaonic period, but there is minimal evidence of this prior to the Third Intermediate Period, with the exception of Dakhla Oasis.
With the arrival of a Libyan dynasty (22nd dynasty, 945–715 BC), the emphasis shifted to the west and the oasis, with caravan routes to the Nile Valley.
This era is represented by many monuments in Al-Kharga and Bahariya. During Roman times, the oasis experienced a period of enormous wealth as new wells and better irrigation led to a massive rise in the production of wheat and grapes for sale to Rome.
Prosperity was also aided by regional army units, which were mainly made up of non-Romans serving under Roman leaders and guarded the oasis and trade routes.
Garrisoned strongholds may still be seen in the desert in El-Kharga and Bahariya, while Roman-era temples and tombs can be found throughout the oasis.
When the Romans left Egypt, the trade routes became dangerous and became a target for nomadic tribes. Trade faltered, the oasis declined gradually, and settlement populations dwindled.
By the Middle Ages, nomad invasions were serious enough to send Mamluk garrisons to the oasis.
Dakhla (Al-Qasr, Balat) and Siwa still have fortified villages designed to safeguard the populace (Shali). Even the gradual halt of invasions and the rising influence of the pashas in Cairo throughout the nineteenth century, however, were unable to restore ancient Egypt’s wealth.
Although the oasis remained key fortifications against any danger to Egypt’s western flank, the difficulties of transit across the desert meant that they remained isolated agricultural villages until the introduction of motor cars and paved highways.
The most significant alteration to the oasis after the Romans left happened in 1958, when President Nasser established the New Valley to ease population pressure along the Nile. Roads were built connecting the previously isolated oasis, and an administration was set up.
The New Valley Governorate is Egypt’s biggest and one of the least densely populated: although the circumstances were favourable for people to relocate to the New Valley, there was never enough job to attract a considerable number of people.
The Western Desert is best visited in late fall or early spring. During the summer, temperatures may reach 52°C, and despite the lack of humidity, the heat can be oppressive.
Winter is fairly comfortable, with typical daily highs of 20°C to 25°C, however it may be very chilly at night (down to 0°C at times). Winds, especially the hot, dry wind known as the khamsin in April, may be quite problematic for desert visitors.