The Archaeology of Egypt’s Western Desert

Searching for a Needle in a Sand Dune

RICHARD J. LONG, author of The Excavations at Mut al-Kharab II, has worked with the Dakhleh Oasis Project since 2004. In this blog, he takes us on a journey to Mut al-Kharab, in the Dakhleh Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt.

Egypt’s Western Desert is one of the most barren and hostile environments on earth.  Making up part of the Eastern Sahara, it accounts for more than two-thirds of the total area of modern-day Egypt and is dominated by mesmerising rock and sand formation (Image 1).  Despite its extreme aridity, the Western Desert played a significant role in the history of Ancient Egypt.  This is due to five large oases – Siwa, Bahriyya, Farafra, Dakhleh and Kharga – which have supported human populations for thousands of years.  Although these ‘islands of fertility’ are located hundreds of kilometres from the Nile River, they were valuable assets over which the ancient Egyptian state attempted to maintain authority.  As such, their archaeological record offers a unique perspective from which to view the Nile valley culture.

Fig. 1: The sand and rock formations of Egypt’s Western Desert (photo: © R.J. Long)

Dakhleh Oasis is the most explored of Egypt’s western oases.  Situated some 750 km south-west of Cairo, the oasis itself is surprisingly large; it spans approximately 80 km east-west and 25 km north-south, and has a current population of about 80,000.   Our detailed understanding of Dakhleh is the result of the Dakhleh Oasis Project which was founded in 1978 by Anthony Mills.  Over more than 40 years of fieldwork this project has surveyed the entire oasis and excavated many sites, uncovering remarkable information about the history, people, culture, and environment of the region.

Following the 12-hour drive from Cairo to Dakhleh, the serenity of the oasis is most striking.  Its slow pace of life contrasts with the hustle and bustle of the Cairo metropolis.  Palm groves, lush fields, and villages with their distinct minarets, scatter the oasis landscape (see fig. 2).  The great escarpment of the desert plateau lies to the north and east, while the immense Sahara extends in all other directions.  Antiquities are plentiful, with cemeteries, temples, and settlements all revealing the long history of human occupation.  Impressive sites include the palace and funeral mastabas of the Old Kingdom governors at Balat, the restored Roman temple of Deir el-Haggar, and the Islamic village of al-Qasr.

Fig. 2: The village of Sheik Wally in Dakhleh Oasis (photo: © R.J. Long)

One of the most important archaeological sites in the oasis is the temple of Seth at Mut al-Kharab.  Situated in the central part of Dakhleh, it lies on the outskirts of the modern-day capital Mut.  The enclosure wall is the largest known in the Western Desert and measures approximately 140–180 m east–west by 217 m north–south; although many sections are missing, some parts still survive to 8 metres in height and in places are eight metres thick (see cover image).  The size of the site and the quantity of remains illustrates its significance and it was likely the capital of Dakhleh from at least the New Kingdom onwards (c. 1550 – 1069 BCE). 

Excavations at Mut al-Kharab have been occurring since 2000 under the direction of Colin Hope of Monash University.  This work has yielded incredible amounts of material, including decorated stone blocks, the remains of buildings, ostraka and huge quantities of ceramics.  This evidence reveals worship to the Egyptian god Seth on a grand scale, especially during the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069-664 BCE).  Moreover, evidence shows the temple held a significant position in the oasis community.  The priesthood managed the local economy, controlled valuable resources such as wells, and even established direct links with the Egyptian royal family.  Unfortunately, much of the original settlement that surrounded the temple is covered by the modern-day housing and agricultural fields, but as shown in Image 3, the site still holds a prominent place in the local landscape and continues to look out over the lush fertility of the oasis and beyond that, the vast Sahara Desert.

Fig. 4: Sunset in Dakhleh Oasis (photo: © R.J. Long)

The natural beauty of Dakhleh is hard to ignore; the sunsets, for example, are almost hypnotic (Image 4). Nevertheless, it is the antiquities that draw archaeologists from around the world.  The extensive ruins and artefacts provide a glimpse into the local communities that have shared this land for thousands of years.  The Ancient Egyptian civilisation may have dominated the Western Desert for millennia, but the oases were far from the Nile valley and therefore developed along their own unique path, with their own story.  There is a lot more to discover, but current fieldwork, such as the excavations at Mut al-Kharab, continue to make impressive progress and shed much light on the intriguing history of Egypt’s Western Desert.

Cover image: The remaining temenos wall for the temple of Seth at Mut al-Kharab in Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt.  (photo: © R.J. Long).