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Desert symphony

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The banks of River Nile and the port of Alexandria have long enthralled travellers across ages. But west of the Nile Valley lies an expanse of dry and dramatic terrain of the Western Desert. Spread across 2,62,000 sq miles right upto the Egypt-Libyan border, the desert it is full of dunes, canyons, oases, mountainous plateaus, and valleys. Despite the arid and uninhabitable landscape there are oases which make haven of secluded tranquility. The prominent oases are Siwa, Bahariya, Farafra, Kharga and Dakhla. The region is best enjoyed during the winter months when the weather and temperatures are more suitable.

Shali is the main town of the Siwa oasis. The town centre is dominated by the ruins of the Shali Fortress, little further is the Temple of Oracle which is said to have been visited by Alexander the Great. There is also Cleopatra’s Pool where the famous queen is known to have taken a swim. More about the history of the region can be found at Siwa House Museum. Bahariya oasis is surrounded black hills of quartz and is home to ruins of the Temple of Alexander the Great, Ptolemaic tombs and even few ancient churches. Popularity of Bahariya catapulted with the discovery of the golden mummies, now kept at Bawiti Museum, the proximity to the Balck Desert has also been an advantage. A short hike away are Egyptian and Graeco-Roman sites, such as the Tomb of Banentiu. Touted as the most attractive oasis in Egypt, Dakhla oasis boasts over 500 hot springs as well as mud brick housing and ruins of the medieval town and village of Al-Qasr and Balat. The main town of Mut dates back to pharaonic times, today, however, it is modern tourists hub. The fifth, Kharga Oasis is the largest and most populated oasis in the region. The development in the region has also been promoted by the government in its effort to modernise of the Western Desert oases. In and around lie ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman sites, such as the Temple of Hibis, more about the history can be found at the Kharga Museum of Antiquities. The old Coptic landmarks such as Deir Al-Kashef Monastery and the Necropolis of Al-Bagawat.

The Qattara Depression, north of the Western Desert, is the lowest point in Egypt at 134 mtr below sea level. The oasis here, Moghra, is uninhabited which is unlike the rest of the oases in the region. Bedouin tribes and their livestock do however move through the area, utilising the waters and grass of Moghra for grazing. The Depression is a showcase of rock formations caused due to erosion as well as saline marshes. Qattara is the last known location where cheetahs can be found in Egypt, the Dorcas Gazelle is also found here.

Close to Bahariya is the Black Desert. The creation is attributed to the erosion of the mountains coating the desert with a black film. The English Mountain is the highest point of the Black Desert. The highlight of the Western Desert is the White Desert. Farafra is the starting point for the journey to see the wind-carved rock formations. At Farafra there is the Badr Museum, short distance away Bir Sitta hot springs and El Mufid Lake.

Aficionados of the novel ‘English Patient’ will connect with Gilf El-Kebir instantly. Made further famous with film with same name the round trip between Cairo and Gilf El-Kebir is about 2000 km. The exploration of Regenfeld, Swimmers Cave and further into the Gilf El-Kebir National park gives a new dimension to the barrenness of the desert. It is a sandstone plateau located in the southwest corner of the Western Desert. With the Great Sea Sand creeping on the plateau, the south-eastward are partially covered by sand. The ancient rock art in Shaw’s cave and El-Mestikawi cave are proof that during prehistoric time it was a green terrain.