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Inside the secret desert

Feature M ventures into Egypt's little-known, largely unexplored Eastern Desert, where impeccably preserved ruins and breathtaking examples of ancient rock art bring to life the fascinating history of this once fertile and thriving region.
All photographs: Jason Larkin
All photographs: Jason Larkin

Edward Lewis ventures into Egypt's little-known, largely unexplored Eastern Desert, where impeccably preserved ruins and breathtaking examples of ancient rock art bring to life the fascinating history of this once fertile and thriving region. I am still mystified as to what Officer Mohamed was doing in our vehicle. With his aviator glasses, neatly ironed designer shirt and black briefcase, he didn't strike me as a man about to embark on a four-day desert excursion. His annoyance at being ordered to escort us was plain to see, as was his sheer bewilderment as to why, when there are numerous resorts along the Red Sea coast, we were turning our backs on the turquoise waters and heading into Egypt's desolate desert interior.

We had picked him up at the secret police headquarters in Marsalam. His arrival was the end of a process that had begun four weeks earlier when we had to submit our passports in order to get security clearance and permission to travel in the southern region of Egypt's Eastern Desert. With no GPS, satellite phone or firearms, and with no real idea why or where we were going, Mohamed was perhaps the least impressive security guard I had ever encountered. Yet his presence, courtesy of the Egyptian security forces, was obligatory: without him there would be no trip.

The insistence that we have an escort, no matter how inept, highlighted an age-old fear of the desert, the unknown and the unexplored. In ancient Egypt the deserts were portrayed as hostile wastelands, places to bury the dead and banish wrongdoers. Fittingly, they were ruled over by Seth, the Egyptian god of chaos and disorder. But far from being a place of fear and trepidation, Egypt's Eastern Desert is fascinating and contains some of the country's best-kept secrets.

I first became aware of the desert some months earlier, while researching a piece concerning ancient gold mining in the area. I quickly realised I had only scratched the surface of what is perhaps Egypt's least known region. It contains fascinating ancient historical sites in the middle of striking landscape and yet is completely free of the hordes of tourists and touts who swarm the pyramids or the Valley of the Kings. Admittedly, the remains are neither on the scale of the pyramids nor as extensive as Luxor's West Bank.

In my view, they are more subtle, their beauty heightened by their remote surroundings. It is this very remoteness that has protected them. So few people see them because it is impossible to explore the area without extensive local knowledge. Ali Saad, Naim and Mohamed, our Bedouin guides, all from the local Ababda tribe, reassured us that they understood the notoriously harsh environment we were travelling into.

We spread out the map on the bonnet of our 4x4 and looked at the route. It was a large figure-eight, encompassing ancient rock art in the northern part of the Eastern Desert and the ancient mining settlements and trading posts that lined the trade routes to the south. We would have to drive for an hour along the busy Edfu-Marsalam Road before we could turn off and head into the desert. I hadn't expected to see anything much on this road, but we started to notice irregular shapes etched into the sandstone walls. At first we thought they were patterns created by wind and sand erosion but our guide told us to take a closer look. We pulled over and examined the amber rock faces to discover a startling array of exotic animals, including deer, horses and ostrich. As we stood admiring these beautiful and wholly unexpected pieces of prehistoric art, a large convoy of buses thundered past just metres away on the busy highway. The passengers were no doubt completely unaware of the ancient galleries to either side of them and the fact that they were following the exact route that had taken people from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea for thousands of years.

Wadi Om Salam, our camp site, is one of the most astonishing ancient sites I have ever encountered. We had pitched our tents just before dusk at the foot of one of the high valley walls and set out to explore the rock faces. Nothing could prepare us for the scale and beauty of what we saw. Floating down the valley's steep sides were hundreds of painted boats of various designs, some with oars, others with sails and cabins; all facing the same direction.

Sharing the same rock face were paintings of the wild animals that once roamed thorough the region in vast numbers: elephant, giraffe, rhinoceros, gazelle and lion. On one of these sandstone canvases were so many drawings that the rock face resembled a child's colouring-in book, the animals' exaggerated features overlapping one another and showing little sense of proportion or detail. Galloping giraffes with abnormally long necks and elaborate tails shared space with long-horned gazelle, enormous elephants and human figures with bows or crude clubs. Herdsman, complete with staffs, guarded cattle and led them along the face of the rock.

Quite apart from their primitive beauty, these fascinating testaments to human activity in the region point to the fact that thousands of years ago this desert wasn't desert at all. We were getting a glimpse back to a time when this now arid landscape was a savannah that supported many different types of fauna and flora as well as people. This rich and fertile habitat supported farming and hunting for the nomads and more permanent settlers. At well-known rest stops or at the confluence of routes, people would simply draw what they saw or what occupied their minds: animals, hunting, footprints of game and geometrical patterns that were strangely reminiscent of modern graffiti.

Remarkably, these images have remained intact, despite the extreme climate change and 7,000 years of exposure to sun, wind and sand. The sheer number of pictures randomly spread on both sides of the wadi for hundreds of metres was breathtaking. Returning to camp after dark we sat around the fire and gazed into it, trying to comprehend the environment and history that surrounded us - the dancing flames of the camp fire dramatically lighting a line of painted ostrich, somehow bringing them to life.

The sound of rattling coffee beans stirred the early-morning desert silence. Ali Saad was grinding the beans to a fine powder, adding coarse ginger root and water to his terracotta gabana before placing it in the middle of greying ashes. From his goatskin bag he produced thimble-sized cups into which he poured the thick steaming black coffee, a simple straw filter holding back the bitter sediment.

In Egypt most people drink tea. The coffee made a refreshing change and was a reminder of how this region's character has been heavily influenced by other parts of the continent. Faces and features are much darker and more rugged. Clothes are more colourful and body ornaments more popular. Although it lies within the boundaries of the Arab Republic of Egypt, the region serves as a buffer zone between Africa and the Middle East.

As a result, in addition to its coast and proximity to the Nile, for millennia the Eastern Desert has been a vital trade link. The Red Sea ports on the coast of Egypt's easternmost point were the gateway to a rich trading network that encompassed Sri Lanka, India, the Horn of Africa and Arabia. Into these busy ports came luxury items such as glass beads, ivory, precious and semiprecious gems, spices, pearls, wood, incense and aromatics. Turtle shells and red coral from the Mediterranean passed through here; so did wines from Syria and the Aegean islands and elephants from Eritrea and Sudan.

The ports were connected to the Nile River by numerous caravan routes, the remains of which still exist today and show startling remnants of trading activity. The arid desert climate has preserved them so well that it seems impossible that they are more than a few decades old. Working our way south along one of the caravan routes, we came across the remains of a Roman fort. It is just one of 15 similar examples along that ancient road. Impressively preserved, the stone-stacked structure, complete with defensive turrets, cisterns and thousands of well-conserved pottery shards even provoked a rare comment of interest from Officer Mohamed.

The ruins took on additional significance when we had an unexpected encounter with a Bedouin family by a freshwater well not far from the site. The Eastern Desert has no oases - what little water there is comes from the sporadic winter rainfall. As a result it is barely habitable. The people who do live there, Bedouins belonging to the three tribes of the region (Ma'aza, Bishariin and Ababda), have survived by adapting to the harsh environment, making use of every available natural resource and passing down their knowledge from generation to generation.

The man, his wife and three children were collecting water and resting under an acacia tree. Later they would move on to graze their goats and find the next known water source, guided by a combination of familiar landmarks and the stars. This brief encounter was a very rare opportunity to observe a way of life that is rapidly disappearing and increasingly threatened. The lure of a regular income and modernisation has attracted many of the younger generations away from the desert and towards the tourist resorts of the coast or along the Nile Valley. The future of nomadic and tribal life in the region looks precarious.

As we continued south, the shallow sandstone plateaus gave way to high granite peaks of deep purple and blue. The boundary fence of a modern mine was a reminder of the Eastern Desert's extensive mineral wealth, which has been exploited since the days of the pharaohs. Gold, semi-precious stones and rock used in the construction of elaborate buildings have been mined here for millennia. Egyptian stone was held in high regard throughout the ancient world: it can be seen in statues in the Basilica San Marco in Venice, in the sarcophagus of Helena (Constantine's mother) in the Vatican, as well as in recycled architectural fragments in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and the columns of the front porch of the Pantheon in Rome.

Part of this history and one of Egypt's most impressive and best-kept desert secrets is the ancient emerald mine of Wadi Sekait. It is a vast site and is so isolated that it remains in a wonderful well-preserved state. The sheer wealth of material scattered over it gives the impression that it is yet to be discovered: hundreds of small stone structures sit randomly on the rocky hillside, many with complete facades, lintels and shelves, a roof being the only thing missing from an otherwise perfectly formed dwelling. At the centre of the settlement, beneath a dramatic geological fold, is a large Roman temple cut into the rock, complete with thick stone columns, Latin-inscribed sanctuaries and shrines. Despite the natural damage it has sustained over the past 2,000 years, it has lost little of its authority.

Leaving the rigid peaks of the Red Land, as the desert was known in ancient Egypt, we joined the coastal road some 200km north of the Sudanese border and headed towards Marsalam. Officer Mohamed's relief and delight at our return was plain to see as he exchanged more words in an hour than he had in the previous three days. Yet I doubt he went back to work without thinking about what he had seen and how it would affect his perception of the desert, its antiquities and its people.

Updated: January 2, 2010 04:00 AM

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