El-Wahat El-Bahariya or el-Bahariya is a depression and a naturally rich oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt. It is approximately 370 km away from Cairo. The roughly oval valley extends from northeast to southwest, has a length of 94 km, a maximum width of 42 km, and covers an area of about 2000 km².
The valley is surrounded by mountains and has numerous springs. Located in Giza Governorate, the main economic sectors are agriculture, iron ore mining, and tourism. The main agricultural products are guavas, mangos, dates, and olives.
Location of Bahariya Oasis
The Western Oasis was known as Coptic: ϯⲟⲩⲁϩ `ⲙⲡⲉⲙϫⲉ Diwah Ēmbemdje, “Oasis of Bemdje”, Old Coptic: ⲧⲁⲥⲧ(ⲥ), from Egyptian ḏsḏs.
Towns in Bahariya Oasis
Bahariya consists of many villages, of which El Bawiti is the largest and the administrative centre. Qasr is el-Bawiti’s neighbouring/twin village. About ten kilometres away, to the east, are the villages of Mandishah and el-Zabu. A more miniature village called el-‘Aguz lies between El Bawiti and Mandishah. Harrah, the easternmost village, is a few kilometres east of Mandishah and el-Zabu. El Hayz, also called El-Hayez, is the southernmost village. Still, it may not always appear part of Bahariya because it is so far from the villages, about fifty kilometres south of El Bawiti. There is an oasis at El-Hayez where mummies have been found on which genetic studies have been conducted.
People and culture
The people of the oasis, or the Waḥātī people (meaning “of the oasis” in Arabic), are the descendants of the ancient people who inhabited the oasis, ancient tribes with connection to western Egypt and eastern Libya, and the north coast, and other people from the Nile Valley who came to settle in the oasis.
Islam highly influences the nature of social settings in the oasis. The majority of Waḥātī people in Bahariya are Muslims. There are some mosques in Bahariya.
Also, traditional music is critical to the Waḥātī people. Flutes, drums, and the simsimeyya (a harp-like instrument) are played at social gatherings, particularly at weddings. Traditional songs sung in rustic style are passed down from generation to generation, and new songs are also invented. Music from Cairo, the greater Middle East, and other parts of the world is now easily accessible to the people of the oasis.
In Ancient Egypt, the depression was known under two names. The form Djesdjes is first mentioned on a scarab dating back to the Middle Kingdom. In the New Kingdom, however, this name is rarely found but appears in the Temple of Luxor or in the account of King Kamose, who occupied the oasis during the war against the Hyksos. From the 25th Dynasty, it was almost the only name used. The other word, wḥꜣt mḥtt (“the Northern Oasis”), was almost exclusively used in the New Kingdom. It appears, for instance, on the local grave of Amenhotep and is found again in the list of oases in the Temple at Edfu.
From 45 CE, the depression is known in Latin as Oasis Parva (Small Oasis). The Greek historian Strabo (63 BCE – 23 CE) calls it the ‘Second Oasis’; the historian Olympiodorus of Thebes (5th century CE: Byzantine Era) calls it ‘the Third Oasis. In Coptic times it was known as the Oasis of Bemdje (the ancient Oxyrhynchos, nowadays known as al-Bahnasa), and in Islamic times it was called the Oasis of Bahnasa.
The modern name is الواحات البحرية, al-Wāḥāt al-Baḥriyya meaning “the Northern Oasis”. The southern part of the depression around El Heiz never had a distinct character.
Agriculture is still an essential source of income, though now the iron ore industry close to Bahariya provides jobs for many Wahati people. Tourism is a new and vital source of income for locals, and it has brought an international presence to the oasis. Recently there has also been an increase in tourism to the oasis because antiquities (tombs, mummies, and other artefacts have been discovered there) and the beautiful surrounding deserts. Wahati and foreign guides lead adventure desert tours based out of Bahariya to the surrounding White and Black deserts and sometimes to Siwa or the southern oases.
History of Bahariya Oasis
The depression was populated since the neolithic, even if there is no archaeological evidence of all times. In el-Haiz, a prehistoric settlement site of hunter-gatherers, was found with remains of grindstones, arrowheads, scrapers, chisels, and ostrich eggshells. In Qārat el-Abyaḍ, a Czech team led by Miroslav Bárta discovered a settlement of the Old Kingdom. Rock inscriptions in el-Harrah and other records date upward to the Middle Kingdom. The tomb of Amenhotep called Huy was erected in Qarat Hilwah at the end of the 18th dynasty. In the 26th dynasty, the depression was culturally and economically flourishing. This information can be learned from the chapels in ‘Ain el-Muftilla, the tombs in Qārat Qasr Salim and Qarat esh-Sheikh Subi, and the site of Qasr ‘Allam.
A newly flourishing time occurs in the Greek-Roman time. There is the ruin of a temple to Alexander the Great located in Qasr el-Miqisba (‘Ain et-Tibniya). Some Egyptologists believe that the Greek conqueror passed through Bahariya while returning from the oracle of Ammon at Siwa Oasis. Excavations of the Greco-Roman necropolis found in 1995 and known as the Valley of the Golden Mummies began in 1999. archaeologists excavated approximately thirty-four tombs from this area. In Roman times, a prominent military fort was erected at Qarat el-Toub.
In 2010, archaeologists unearthed a Roman-era mummy in a Bahariya Oasis cemetery in el-Harrah. Director of Cairo and Giza Antiquities Mahmoud Afifi, the archaeologist who led the dig, said the tomb has a unique design with stairways and corridors and could date to 300 BC. The 3-foot-tall female mummy was decorated with plaster to resemble a Roman dress and jewellery. In addition to the female mummy, archaeologists found clay and glass vessels, coins, anthropoid masks and 14 Greco-Roman tombs. This finding resulted from excavation work to construct a youth centre.
Carcharodontosaurus and Bahariasaurus (meaning “Bahariya lizard”) dinosaurs have been found in the Bahariya Formation, dating to about 95 million years ago. It was a vast theropod described by Ernst Stromer in 1934, though the type specimen was destroyed during World War II in 1944. In 2000, an American scientific team conducted by Joshua Smith found the remains of this type of dinosaur, the Paralititan stromeri.
However, the Bahariya and Farafra depressions region used to have volcanic activity during the Jurassic Period. In addition, the landscape contains some hills made of barite or calcite crystals and golden limestone boulders, which became a sanctuary for species such as white foxes, gazelles and rams.
In 2019, archaeologists discovered 19 structures and a church carved into the bedrock from 5th AD. In 2021, archaeologists found a complex with the ruins of three churches and monks’ cells that date back to the 5th AD. The church was decorated with religious inscriptions in Greek.
During World War I, the Baharia Military Railway was built to provide access to the oasis. In the early 1970s, an asphalt road connecting Bahariya to Cairo was finished. Consequently, electricity, cars, television, phone lines, a more accessible route to Cairo, and the Internet came with the new highway. The spread of people and ideas between Bahariya and Cairo has increased dramatically since the road was constructed. Also, the language of the Waḥātī people has been changed and influenced in new ways as the Cairene dialect is heard on television and in music.