One hundred years ago, the British explorer WJ Harding King tried and failed to cross Egypt's forbidding Western Desert. Jack Shenker follows his footsteps into a once-isolated world on the cusp of transformation. There is a tree in the middle of Dakhla oasis that is said by some locals to possess a soul. They call it the tree of Sheikh Adam, and it has stood for centuries at the heart of one million square miles of vast, almost waterless isolation, a space once considered to be among the most inhospitable places on the planet. It lies hundreds of miles from Egypt's Nile Valley to the east, and hundreds of miles from the Libyan border to the west. If you climb the small hill on which the tree is perched and peer out in either direction there's nothing to see but sand dunes, some up to 150 metres high, marching unceasingly across the void. A British explorer who reached this spot in 1910 declared the tree to be a symbol of everything magical about the desert, "a land where afrits, ghuls, genii and all the other creatures of native superstitions are matters of everyday occurrence; where lost oases and enchanted cities lie in the desert sands." A century later, the tree remains. But today it symbolises a new reality. Ringed by a three-metre high steel fence and overshadowed by a gleaming communications tower, the enchanted acacia is now a testament to one of the most astounding environmental transformations taking place anywhere on earth. It juts out of a new military installation, one of hundreds that are overseeing the wholesale integration of the desert into the modern Egyptian state. A land of lost legends - where the ancient god of chaos, Seth, was sent into exile, and where 50,000 hardened soldiers of the Persian pharaoh Cambyses were swallowed up by a sandstorm, never to be seen again - is being slowly turned, house by house, road by road, city by city, into a most improbable means to address Egypt's escalating population crisis. Through a technological soup of new reservoirs, expensive pumping stations and irrigation canals that crawl hundreds of miles through 40 degree sunshine, the Cairo-based government is trying to transform more than three million acres of arid ground into green farmland in the next decade - and to provide homes for up to 19 million Egyptians in the process. This is the country's biggest construction project since the pyramids; it will cost billions of dollars, and according to many scientists, it is so bold as to be completely unachievable. But it has already begun to change, beyond all recognition, the "untouched" wilderness into which the British explorer ventured 100 years ago. His name was WJ Harding King, and the subject of his enquiry was North Africa's Western Desert, which forms the eastern fringe of the Sahara and spans parts of Egypt, Libya and Sudan. On the centenary of his remarkable expedition, I followed in his footsteps to find a forgotten hinterland in flux.
"Romance," observed Harding King at the start of a candid memoir of his voyage, "is merely the degenerate offspring of imagination and ignorance. There can be few parts of the world where one is so much up against hard cold facts as one is in the desert." Quixotic narration was never the hallmark of the Cambridge-educated adventurer, and the rest of the book has little time for the saccharine prose that Harding King believed was typical of so many other depictions of the dunes. His desert was one that blazed with cold scientific detachment and colonial righteousness, and only rarely lapsed into histrionics. The 40-year-old launched his epic three-year immersion in the Western Desert at the behest of the Royal Geographic Society in London, of which he was a fellow. Ostensibly, Harding King's brief was to categorise sand dunes, something he had already been doing in other parts of Saharan Africa; in reality the goal was imperial pride. Other Europeans had tackled the same terrain in the past, but none had succeeded in crossing the desert's ocean of "impassable" sand dunes to arrive at the Libyan oasis of Kufara on the other side. Harding King's own stab at the challenge came as the "golden period" for European exploration of Africa's so-called hidden corners was drawing to a close, with the drumbeat of imminent world war already thudding softly in the background. It was a journey riddled with drama and disaster, whose climax was the revelation that Harding King's caravan of servants were all members of a hostile Islamic sect determined to thwart his expedition. Harding King's observations were marked by a series of breathtakingly Orientalist assumptions, and yet the record of his travels in the Western Desert, and particularly his study of the people who called it home, provides a remarkable insight into the tensions that still define this vast and rapidly mutating area.
Back in 1910 the Western Desert was a space marked by its distance, both literal and metaphorical, from the hectic rhythms and state control of the bustling Nile Valley. Today the opposite is true. Every week more and more of the Nile Valley arrives in the desert, as the government-run "New Valley Project" gradually materialises and the apparatus of a previously absent state unfurls in the wilderness. The project is an ambitious answer to the desperate challenge facing the Arab world's largest country: what to do with the one million citizens that are added to the population every nine months, and how to feed them all when the nation's already overstretched breadbasket - the Nile Delta, one of the most fertile places on the planet - is being slowly eroded by rising sea levels. Along the same paths that Harding King followed 100 years ago, near-impassable dunes have been replaced by near-impassable police checkpoints, manned by sweating officers sporting thick khaki jumpers. Pylons now dot the landscape; almost every conurbation boasts a solar-powered phone mast like the one that now looms over the tree of Sheikh Adam. The older generation in the desert oases still refers to Nile Valley Egyptians as "foreigners", but the state is finally here, and here to stay. In the modern, hooked-up world of the Western Desert, there is little place for trees with souls.
It's tempting to characterise the Western Desert's traditional residents - a melting pot of tribal descendants from the Tebu, Tuareg and Berber peoples, and Bedouin Arabs originating from the Gulf - in a familiar mould, as a community struggling to retain its independence as the iron fist of the state reaches imposingly into their lands. But the truth is far more complex. As Harding King himself discovered, the desert communities have faced encroachment from outsiders ever since their five main oases were first cultivated during Pharaonic times. Criss-crossed at different times by slave caravan trails, Roman garrisons and even barbed wire fences erected by Mussolini, this land is well-accustomed to external influences, its people a product of a dynamic process of interaction with the rest of the world. Migrants may be arriving in unprecedented waves today, but the endless cycle of tension and fusion with alien forces is nothing new. A hundred years ago, Harding King was thrown into this cycle through his dealings with the Sanusi people, "dervishes whose character... was of a most uncompromising nature towards all non-Mohammedans." The Sanusi were devout Muslims who built white-brick monasteries (zawias) in the sand, refused to smoke, and eventually came close to killing Harding King. Like many explorers who had walked this ground before him, Harding King saw those who lived in the desert as merely an accessory to his grand project, cataloguing them and their habits as impassively as he did camel species and rock samples. Spurred on by a seemingly divine right to exploration, it never occurred to him that his academic subjects did not share his enthusiasm for picking them over and presenting the findings in prestigious London journals.
When he arrived in Farafra - the latest of the desert's oases to be targeted by the government's mammoth resettlement plans - Harding King found only "surly and unpleasant" natives. Looking out from the precarious mud-brick towers of Qasr Farafra, which back then was the region's only village, Harding King would have seen nothing but the staggering emptiness of a 125-mile long depression. Today, the view is very different. Encouraged by a government package that includes a heavily-subsidised, interest-free house, up to about 20 acres of free land, free water and free electricity for five years, along with a monthly stipend of free flour, cheese, sugar and rice, migrants from the Nile Valley are arriving in the thousands. With new wells being sunk all over the landscape and dozens of new communities springing up out of nowhere, the whole oasis looks more like an 1850s Californian gold rush than what Harding King described as "a poor little place with a total population of about 550 inhabitants." The newcomers may not be Europeans, but they are not people of the desert either; rather they are from the Nile Valley - stretching from Alexandria in the north to Aswan in the south - and their arrival has had a profound impact on the life of the oasis. Abdel Raba Abu Noor was born in 1929 in Cairo and moved out to Qasr Farafra when he was just two years old. Before Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1952 revolution - news of which was heard on the single village radio - the only non-locals he had ever seen were the traders he and his father encountered on their thrice-yearly camel trek to Asyut to sell dates, a mission which took 10 days. "This was the only village in the oasis back then," he reflects today. "We were unimportant. Now everyone is coming and we even have presidents come out to visit us." Sitting below a framed portrait of Hosni Mubarak in his grey-walled guest room, Abu Noor is quick to insist that despite the unpredictable social mix that has been grafted en masse onto this tiny village, life remains harmonious. "Of course the character has changed, but it's for the better," he insists. "There's very little fighting." When discussing the new migration, the older residents tend to be positive, if somewhat indifferent. But when specific problems come up - local land disputes, petty thefts, family quarrels - resentment against the newcomers quickly boils to the fore. Two hundred miles from Farafra, in the village of Mawhub, Osama Ahmed Mohammed, a great-grandson of the old Sanusi Sheikh, puts the blame for the area's problems squarely on the shoulders of "the Egyptians" now pouring in. "The problems come with them," he argues, "because traditions change and the confidence we have in each other as members of a community changes with them. Everything is based on our shared history and once that is diluted, everything is lost." Rather than naked intolerance to outsiders, what really characterises the new Western Desert - among both traditional dwellers and those who have only recently set up life in the void - is an insecurity about identity. Harding King noted some of this tension 100 years ago, watching as oasis farmers juggled pagan folk customs with Islamic doctrine and fitted local power hierarchies into the political diktats of colonialism. Today there is a yet another element of uncertainty, in the shape of new towns and villages springing up from the sand. Here in the frontier provinces, families hailing from all over Egypt are having to carve a cohesive communal personality for themselves out of thin air.
Abu Minqar has the questionable honour of being one of the most isolated communities in the whole of Egypt. First mapped by Harding King himself, the uninhabited mini-oasis was the location of the explorer's ultimate showdown with his Sanusi enemies; today, this new town serves as a far-flung microcosm for both the good and bad aspects of the desert's dramatic makeover. As far from Libya as it is from the Nile Valley, Abu Minqar boasted a population of precisely zero in 1987; today there are 4,000 people living there. Yet amid the profusion of new wells and irrigation canals pulsing excitedly through the sand, some nagging questions about Abu Minqar remain unanswered. Despite the generous subsidies package on offer to newcomers, scepticism about the government remains high. "The government implores people to come out here, but then only provides the most basic infrastructure in terms of everything from social services to agriculture," says Tina Jaskolski, a researcher at the American University in Cairo's Desert Development Centre, which is operating a major project in the village. "We only get running water in the taps three hours a day, and this is one of the last places in Egypt without 24-hour electricity. People here are so far removed from even the local centre of politics, never mind Cairo, that they just feel ignored." Many arrive in Abu Minqar determined to embody the frontier spirit, only to leave again after a few years because of the hardships faced out in this strange slice of Egypt, an unknown speck on the national psyche that is at the same time supposedly at the heart of its future. As the desert evolves, the state's presence in the lives of its people has a schizophrenic quality; it may be lacking in Abu Minqar, but in other towns and villages it is entrenching itself in new and unfamiliar ways. Harding King recounts the happy evenings he spent with different omdas - local village mayors who ran their mini-fiefdoms with an uneasy autonomy. The explorer variously described these figures as wise Solomons, corrupt nepotists or drunken fools, but they hailed from the villages they presided over, subject to close accountability from their people and possessing an unrivalled insight into the dynamics of those communities. Today, the New Valley Project is slowly consigning omdas to the history books, as the government opens up new police stations run by officers from the Nile Valley. When Harding King visited the old city of Qasr Dakhla, whose haunting ruins are today among the most beautiful sites in the Western Desert, it was a bustling market town; today everyone who can afford it has moved to the new suburbs and left the ancient warren to an old groundskeeper and the occasional desert fox.
With them has gone the old political hierarchy of the town. Harding King met the omda here a century ago and if you pay a visit to the little museum on the edge of the old town, you can follow the latter's family tree all the way down to Fawzia Khala Hasaneen, who now runs the museum. "The omda was a man of the land, this land," remembers Fawzia. "He understood our traditions; if there were any little problems and you could sit down with him face to face and sort them out. There was no need for the police." There is now. Ten years ago, Fawzia's stepbrother Kamal was stripped of his title as omda as the government installed a police station in the town and appointed an officer from Cairo. "There is less law and order now than there was back then," he claims. "People are nervous about going to the police, so disputes today are left unresolved which damages the community." Other villages are going the same way, as old power structures are swept aside in the name of Egypt's future. "Everything has changed," concludes Fawzia. "But then again, so have we."
And therein lies the key to understanding this desert of contradictions, where nostalgia and the newfangled run hand in hand. Fear of something authentic being lost as the desert's population evolves and technology stains the landscape is nothing new. Harding King warned against the dangers that the motor car and the scouting plane posed for the desert; a century on, the Lonely Planet guide to Egypt espouses a similar distrust of modernity. The authors have nothing good to say about the town of Qasr Kharga, poster child for the government's development plans, which has evolved in the space of a few decades from a quiet village to a major city of almost 100,000 people. Yet Kharga's residents are delighted with their clean roads, neat flower beds and modern conveniences.
The desert's engagement with modern Egypt is not as simple as either Harding King or the Lonely Planet writers imply. Even as "modernity" arrives, it is challenged and shaped by local beliefs and customs. Young 4x4 drivers now take bookings from tourists over the internet and accept payment by credit card; at the same time, belief in the mystical "lost oasis" of Zerzura - extensively documented by Harding King - remains strong. So does a terror of afrits, evil spirits that enter the body of those who step on them. These customs, which Harding King devoted entire appendices to, are as integral a part of the modern Western Desert as its new phone masts; the real lesson Harding King unwittingly brought home was that any attempt to view the desert and its people through the prism of a musty museum display case is futile.
But for every success story rising out from the sand, like the 100 acres of lush greenery that now burst out of the desert on Harding King's old route from Farafra to Dakhla - a nascent hops farm bursting with life on a stretch of land that was completely barren only two years ago - there are also the scattered relics of failure. Drive 40 kilometres south from Qasr Kharga and stare at the dunes on your left where the village of San'a once stood; peeking out of the ground are the long-deserted courtyards of houses now buried by dunes and telegraph poles knee-deep in ever-mounting sand. All of it was built by a government that tried to impose its own will on the desert and found instead that here the desert got the better of them. Further down the road is the desolate shell of New Baris, a much-vaunted project designed by the visionary Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy in the 1960s, now also hemmed in by the dunes and standing forlornly as a monument to romanticism and over-ambition.
Harding King set off to explore a hidden corner of Egypt. Just like those who tried before him, he failed to make it to Kufara. But he did return - only just - to tell the tale, a tale of a "quaint" way of life that was stuck in Egypt's past. Today, as Omar Ahmed Mahmoud, Dakhla's chief tourist officer, puts it, "We are Egypt's future". As dreams of the New Valley evolve slowly into reality, the only hope is that the desert peoples themselves are given a sufficient role in the changes that are revolutionising their homeland. Those old enough to have heard first-hand stories of Harding King's amazing adventure into their desert concur. "Tradition is like time itself, it passes and we can't stop that process," says Sheikh Hassan Khalafala, a 78-year-old from Rashda village in Dakhla. "So no, I don't get sad about it. What can I do?"
Jack Shenker writes regularly for The Guardian from Cairo.