Kharga Oasis and the Small Southern Oases

摘要: Justification of Outstanding Universal Value  Kharga as a desert crossroad over the millennia  The picture slowly emerging from the most recent studies highlights the importance of Kharga as a desert

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

  Kharga as a desert crossroad over the millennia

  The picture slowly emerging from the most recent studies highlights the importance of Kharga as a desert crossroad in all historical periods: a cultural landscape created by human activities based on its geographic position. At the dawn of history, the progressive desiccation of the area created the basis of the environment and landscape that we see now: population concentrated around the few available water sources, connected by trade and communication routes. The entire Sahara is crisscrossed by tracks that meet at the sparse water sources, but Kharga represents a special case, for two main reasons. First of all, it contains evidence of the human and environmental evolution that took place the last 12,000 years, and then it contains the archaeological remains of one of the most impressive operations of strategic control of a desert area: the well-preserved chain of Late Roman forts and fortified settlements described above.

  Kharga (site a) was the meeting point of two major caravan routes that crossed the Western Desert: the north-south one (nowadays called Darb al-Arba‘in), that links Middle Egypt and Sudan via the small Oasis of Bir Kiseiba, and the east-west one (named Darb Ain Amur) that linked Kharga and Dakhla via the small Oasis of Ain Amur. Strategically located at a relatively short distance from the Nile Valley, Kharga has always played an important role, mirrored by its outstanding archaeological remains dating to various periods: its role can be fully appreciated if compared with the historical evolution of the entire region.

  Outstanding value of the architectural and agricultural remains in the Kharga Oasis (site a)

  The chain of Late Roman forts and fortified settlements represents a unique ensamble of archaeological remains. They all consist of architectural remains accompanied by agricultural installations, and are important for two reasons: for their impressive level of preservation and for the possibility to study together the two sets of remains.

  Concerning the first point, the excellent preservation of the buildings is partly due to the clever building technique adopted by the ancient architects, that allowed the survival of these constructions for over sixteen centuries. The legionary fortress of al-Deir consists of a 60 m wide enclosure wall endowed with twelve 15 m tall semi-circular towers protruding all around. The smaller and compact forts of Umm al-Dabadib and Qasr al-Lebekha still stand over 10 m tall; they consist of sturdy buildings three or four level high, endowed with a a small central courtyard surrounded by superimposed lines of vaulted chambers; the south-eastern tower of the Umm al-Dabadib fort contains the perfectly preserved staircase that served all four level of the building; the chambers that acted as food storage still contain rests of food and intact storage vessels; the external wall of all the forts reveal the adoption of careful building techniques, such as a calculated reduction of the thickness of the tapering walls, the well-executed bonding among mudbricks and walls, and the separation of the walls into stable sections thanks to vertical joints in the masonry.

  Certainly the hyper-arid climate contributed in a fundamental way to the preservation of these structures, all mainly built of mudbricks. In the last 15 years, however, a slight climate change has been creating significant damages both to the standing and the collapsed structures, turning them into masses of hardened mud that are difficult to interpret.

  The desert climate is the main responsible for the astonishing preservation of the ancient agricultural systems. All Late Roman sites in Kharga were endowed with their own agricultural installation consisting of water sources (manawir and wells) and fields. Their fragmentary remains are in serious danger as they go unnoticed by unaware travellers, and are often inadvertently destroyed. Umm al-Dabadib, however, still contains the intact remains of most of its agricultural system and offers a unique chance: the possibility to be compared with its contemporary, equally intact associated settlement. The two sets of remains, in fact, were meant to function together and one could not exist without the other: in no other case they both survive in such an excellent state of preservation.

  The Late Roman chain of fortified settlements represented a huge enterprise launched at the beginning of the 4th century AD, the last of this size launched in the Kharga Oasis until the recent implementation of the New Valley Project in 1959. The historical importance of Kharga has always corresponded to the possibility to access the Western Desert network of routes that allow travellers to bypass the Nile Valley and reach faraway destinations. From Harkuf to Kamose, to the modern select tourism heading to the Gilf al-Kebir, Kharga retains its role as a major desert crossroad of civilizations, far from being an isolated spot on the map.

  Value and function of the small southern oases (sites b and c)

  The small Oases that punctuate the vast expanse of the desert to the south of Kharga concentrate in their tiny extent the entire history of a vast portion of Western Desert. First of all, they contain the invaluable remains of the prehistoric occupation of the area, before the current hyper-arid conditions set in; secondly, the represent the silent backbone of millennia of desert travelling on foot and at donkey’s or camel’s back.

  The area of Nabta Playa is extremely important as it yielded evidence of hunter-and-gatherer settlements dating to about 11,000 BP; clear evidence of animal domestication dates to about two thousand years later. The ceramic material retrieved there is one of the earliest found in the entire North African region, and dates back to 9500-8800 BP. It shows strict links with other small oases in the area as well as with Abu Ballas and the Sudanese area, thus linking these sites to a broader network of desert settlements. Nabta Playa also contains a number of complex megalithic structures, built between 4,600 and 3,400 BC, consisting of ovals of large sandstone blocks, measuring between 5-7 meters long and 4-6 meters wide. Discovered by F. Wendorf, they have been interpreted as religious sites linked to cattle cults and reflecting stellar and solar alignments.

  Kurkur Oasis yielded evidence of continuous occupation since the late Neolothic Period to the Roman era and beyond until present days. A number of desert tracks converged to this oasis, which must have acted as a small hub to re-direct travellers towards other water sources located deeper into the Western Desert. A string of minor sites connects Kurkur with the still little-known Dungul Oasis, located deep into the desert at the junction with one of the branches of the Darb al-Arba‘in.

  These small Oases are nowadays dwarfed by the on-going, fast-paced exploitation of the deep water table, that allows the installation of vast cultivations in previously barren areas, and their fundamental function throughout millennia of desert travelling is in danger of being forgotten forever.

  Conclusive remarks on the outstanding value of the area

  All the archaeological remains described above have their own intrinsic value. However, they gain an even higher value if taken all together as a living testimony of the history of the region. Each site yields information on its own birth, life and death, and adds considerable material to our knowledge on the daily life along the desert fringes. However, the importance of these sites also resides in the possibility of looking at them all together as parts of a single system: their geographical position and their mutual relations yield unique information on the large-scale occupation and exploitation of a vast region. Every site is part of a larger puzzle, that extends north and east into Egypt, south towards Sudan and west towards the Gilf al-Kebir/Uwainat area, and beyond. Protecting the Kharga Oasis and the smaller oases located along the desert tracks that met there means protecting the evidence of 12,000 years of human activities along the edges of the inhabitable world.

  Kharga and the small southern oases form an unicum containing precious evidence of the environmental changes that shaped the Western Sahara. The geological and geomorphological features describe the passage from wetland to present desert. The roots of this long sequence date back to the Pleistocene and continues into the Holocene, and had a deep impact on the human evolution and occupation of the area. The outstanding value of the local environment, therefore, resides just in its double role: witness in itself of environmental changes, and scenario of 12,000 years of human evolution.

  The escarpments at whose feet are nested the oases described in this document therefore represent not only a spectacular landscape: allowing the water to reach the desert surface, they also represent the origin and reason for the human occupation and exploitation of the entire region.

  Criterion (i): All the human settlements in the desert challenge nature. But the Late Roman chain of fortified settlements in the Kharga Oasis represent a unique case of perfect exploitation of the environment paired with a careful strategic plan to control the area at a regional and trans-regional scale.

  Installing large communities in semi-desert areas was possible thanks to the ingenuity of the ancient engineers and builders, who managed to identify, adopt and implement the most effective method to retrieve and spread water on the fields and install large cultivations on previously barren soil. From a strategic point of view, the installation of a sequence of fortified settlements along the major crossroad of desert caravan routes that met in this oasis represented a large-scale effort to control not only the oasis itself, but also (and perhaps especially) trade and travels that had to cross it. This operation was completed by the exploitation of the local natural resources, thanks to the installation of mining areas near the main settlements.

  The chain of Late Roman fortified settlements represents a clever and comprehensive strategic operation of occupation and control of a vast area: a large-scale enterprise, and yet carefully tailored on the local conditions and resources.

  Criterion (ii): The installation of the subterranean aqueducts called manawir represent an important example of cross-cultural transmission of knowledge and know-how. This system was invented by the Persian in the 8th century BC and exported to the Kharga Oasis about two centuries later during the Persian occupation of Egypt. One thousand years later, the Romans adopted the same system, but to a much larger scale and based on a completely different concept. Whereas the Persian manawir consisted of short tunnels feeding small plots managed by private households, the Late Roman manawir reflect a different social organisation: the aqueducts were over ten times longer, were planned and built as a system and fed vast cultivated areas in a coordinated way. In other words, both the water and the canals were used by the local community as a whole.

  The fusion of different cultures and the interchange of human values is also mirrored by the management of the entire operation of installation of the local communities and by the composition of the local population: a large-scale enterprise certainly ordered by high Roman authorities, it was carried out by local officers that clearly had a deep knowledge of the environment and the terrain; the sites may have been born thanks to a Roman initiative, but the inhabitants were Egyptians, thus suggesting that this entire large-scale operation was a joint and coordinated initiative, meant to more efficiently exploit the resources of the Kharga Oasis.

  Criterion (iii): The Late Roman chain of fortified settlements in the Kharga Oasis plays a double role as a testimonial of civilization.

  First of all, it casts light on how the Romans dealt with the installation of newly-founded communities. This, in turn, yields important information on two fronts: it increases our knowledge on the ancient Roman method to install a community, but also offers an extremely interesting contribute to a long-debated issue, that is, the installation itself of communities along the frontiers of the Roman empire. This type of operation, known from later sources from the northern parts of the empire, is deeply intertwined with the subject of another heated discussion, namely on the nature of the Late Roman strategy of defence of the empire’s frontiers. From a historical point of view, the Kharga sites represent the crucial link of the chain connecting Diocletian, Constantine, the changes that took place in the administration and the army, and the installation of the so-called limitanei along the empire’s frontiers, that is, the major changes that took place in the Late Roman administration of the empire between the 4th and the 5th centuries AD.

  From a wider historical perspective, it is worth reminding that the installation of planned settlements in a semi-desert environment is a complex endeavour that requires a combination of skills, knowledge and resources. The Late Roman settlements and their associated agricultural systems represent a unique case in which all these elements survived, can be studied and visited. Just as in the Late Roman period, nowadays the exploitation of hyper-arid environments represents the new frontier to sustain growing needs from a growing population: the necessities are similar, the tools are different but the environment is the same. Preserving traces and evidence of the past success and failures represents an important element to plan the future of these areas.

  Criterion (iv): The Later Roman chain of forts and fortified settlements that punctuate the Kharga Oasis belong to a single project, extremely important from two points of view: for the underlying strategy that they materialised on the terrain (as discussed above), and for their architectural design. The ancient architects appear to have drawn a number of architectural elements from a common set of building solutions: these elements were combined in different ways, and determined the construction of buildings that are all different and yet similar. This is true for both the domestic units and the forts; in particular, the latter are extremely important as Late Roman forts are notoriously difficult to classify. This building technique allows the implementation of a general strategy, mitigated however by the possibility of individually characterising each site thanks to different aesthetic choices. This is one of the most interesting characteristics of this group of sites, and clearly reflects the existence of a precise and articulated project, not only of mere physical occupation of the area, but also of visual appropriation of the space and political propaganda. No other area in Egypt shows the same building programme, nor anything that could be compared to this.

  Criterion (v): The majority of the archaeological remains of the Kharga Oasis need attention. Apart from a few well-protected monuments such as Hibis Temple and Bagawat, located very close to Kharga Town, all the others are located relatively far from the inhabited parts of the oasis, and thus are difficult to monitor. In particular, superficial remains such as ancient fields and aqueducts are in danger of being obliterated by the passing of unaware vehicles and by the installation of modern plots. Another issue to be addressed is the recent increase of the local rainfall that takes its toll on the ancient mudbrick ruins.

  Both Kharga and the smaller southern oases are facing a significant change due to the modern exploitation of the deepest water sources. It is certainly necessary to find a balance between legitimate modern activities and the preservation of the evidence of 12,000 years of human activities.

  Criterion (vii): The escarpment that outlines the northern edge of the Kharga Oasis is strikingly beautiful, as it consists of horizontal layers of sandstone of a variety of colours: brown, yellow, orange, pink and violet. The escarpment forms the background of the landscape and, at the same time, represents the reason why Kharga exists: water is available just because of this drop in the desert floor. The aesthetic value of the local sandstone is especially visible at the Cave of the Colours, an outstanding natural hollow located near Umm al-Dabadib, discovered in 2003 by C. Rossi and S. Ikram. Accessible from the side of a barren wadi covered by shining white stones, this striking natural cave displays horizontal stripes of amazingly vivid colours, in a far more concentrated version than the combination visible in the escarpment.

  Criterion (viii): In general, there are scores of oases in North Africa, yet only a few (the Egyptian ones) are related to a great river, namely the Nile. This neighbourhood marked the geology, the geomorphology, and the biogeography of the Bahariya, the Kharga, the Dakhla Oases, and even Siwa Oasis. Kharga, being large and near to the Nile, shows the best and clearer the everlasting effect of this connection. The case of Fayoum can be included in this comparison, but it has a different story, because its connection with the Nile was never interrupted.

  In particular, Kharga Oasis offers a rare combination of geological and geomorphological features relating to the evolution of the local environment. Several areas, both in the north and in the south, contain groups of yardangs, last vestiges of the huge lake that in prehistory covered the entire depression. The lake, to a reduced scale, existed well into the historical period, shaping the oasis’ archaeology (cf. Culture: Prehistory and Christian Activities). The previous wet conditions of this region are also witnessed by 45,000- to 450,000-yr-old tufa deposits from fossil springs. Research on groundwater reservoirs in the Kharga Oasis revealed significant on-going geological processes and climatic fluctuations in the history of the region, leading to major significant geomorphic and physiographic features that tell us about the history of its present landforms.

  Criterion (ix): The isolation of Oases in the Nubian Desert allowed two important features of biodiversity: (1) retention of some species that disappeared and are in their areas of origin, and (2) appearance of new species that evolved within the Oasis. Research on Kharga dogs has thrown light on the origin of dog domestication in Africa and Asia. The Medemia palm survived in the isolation of the Dungul Oasis while it disappeared from the rest of Egypt. The Nannodrilus earthworm is cut off from its original homeland in the Nile Basin (or rather its waterland). These are outstanding examples representing significant on-going biological processes in the evolution and development of plants and animals in the deserts of North Africa.

  Criterion (x): Kharga Oasis and the small Oases near it contain springs and miniature permanent lakes that constitute important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation. As already mentioned above, it is worth repeating once more that they represent one of the last natural habitats of the endangered Dorcas Gazelle.

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