Kharga Oasis, Egypt: Present
On seeing Kharga, the most modernized of the Western Desert’s oases, Clorice felt her heart in her throat at the sheer aesthetic beauty of both the natural and human landscape of the region. Kharga is a timeless Saharan-Nubian oasis. While the main town of Kharga is a modern city with full tourist infrastructure, paved highways, and a modern hospital, the streets in the smaller towns which are scattered throughout the oasis are lined with wattle-and-daub houses with barrel-vault roofs and domes which defy right angles. The out-side walls of buildings bear paintings of every stage of the hajj, the pilgrimage to the most holy Islamic city of Mecca. Every stage of the pilgrimage, from family partings, the long journey made by camel, boat, plane, car, jeep, train, bus, or donkey and cart, to the kissing of the Ka’aba stone was painted in a distinctive abstract style, unique to the oasis.
The spotlessly clean earthen streets are small and narrow, twisting and curving any which way, with beautiful smiling children and domestic animals always underfoot. The lush agricultural fields are fertile with human and animal waste. The past lives alongside the present, hostage to the saqqia wells, which provide the precious hot mineral water which allows life to exist in patches of green between the horizon-consuming fields of crescent-shaped barchan sand dunes and vast tracts of barren land that had once been the floor of the ancient saline Tethys Sea.
Kharga is breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful. The golden desert hues, the timeless quality of peasant life, and the constant whisper of the winds as they pass through the sandblasted land-scape give a sense of eternal peace. In Kharga no one is in a hurry. Everything truly needful will get done, in its own time, maybe sometime tomorrow, insha’Allah – if Allah wills it. The wails of the muhazeen, calling the believers to prayer through loudspeakers, echo Allah Akbar – God is great – five times a day in the heavy stillness of the dusty sun-washed streets. Somehow time seems to have mostly forgotten Kharga.
Kharga, and the other Desert oases, are the only areas in Egypt not dependent on the Nile River for water. This geological fact is also symbolic of the separation of the people of the oases – islands in a sea of sand – from the people of the Nile Valley, whose lifeways are so vastly different. In the oases, life is serene; on the Nile, it is very political, very intense. The valley inhabitants take this as an indication of their superiority, and assume the right to treat the oases as semi-civilized dependencies. Nassar’s New Valley dream, in which the fertile oases’ soils were to be harnessed to feed the burgeoning Nile Valley population, has resulted in increased crops, jobs and income in the short term – but the deep groundwater mining has been quickly depleting the ancient, shallow aquifer of the Western Desert, and increasing soil salinity, thus effectively hastening the extinction of a region, which is presently in its death throes.
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The P.R.I.K.’s field base camp was located in a very small agricultural settlement on the highway just outside Kharga on the road to Dakhleh (the inner oasis). The camp was operated from November through March. It was quite extravagant for the region and clearly built to last a long time.
The camp was composed of two long one story wattle-and-daub covered mud-brick buildings. The dwellings were divided into ten nine-foot by twelve-foot rooms which each housed two beds and a table. The walls and floors were blanketed by woven palm tree leaf and fibre mats, a product of the oasis, to reduce the amount of dust in the air. Each room had a wooden door and a window-hole that opened into a central courtyard. The window was covered by a mat that could be removed from the nail that held it up, to let in light and aerate the room. The entrance to the complex was concealed by a large wooden door.
Successive generations of researchers, although none would admit to it, had glued or nailed artifacts and geofacts on the doors as decorations. As a result each room had a name. Clorice was in the vanity room, as a double sided Roman-era bone hair comb had been glued to her door; Jesse slept in the Viagra room, as his door was adorned with a ground-stone Osiris phallus; and Archie was in the desert rose room due to its door’s lovely gypsum desert rose.
Immediately to the right of the entrance to the complex was a separate two-story building. This building housed a very large communal dining table – composed of three outdoor plastic tables pushed together and unified by a red and white checked plastic table cloth. The table was surrounded by long wooden benches and assorted colored plastic chairs. The room could comfortably seat 30 people – more if people were on really good terms or willing to be very friendly. To the right of the dining room there was a large hall with a staircase to the second floor, and to the right of the hall, a fully stocked kitchen with a camel and donkey dung-heated fire-place.
The P.R.I.K.’s kitchen was tended by Fatima, who cooked, cleaned the facility, and hand-washed people’s clothes. Despite not inconsiderable hardship, Fatima always wore a kind smile on her ruddied face, her wooly hair carefully woven into a cascade of intricate braids that were partially hidden by the black head scarf that she was always tugging back into place.
Fatima’s husband, Mahmoud, served as both the general fix-it and security guy, although the only security that was needed was to kill the odd horned viper, cobra or scorpion; however, since the tragic events in the oasis during the 2011 Arab Spring, the government had sent official security to guard the perimeters of the research facilities. On the second floor there was an open-air balcony, which was used for storage and sometimes as additional sleeping space. In the courtyard artifacts were being cleaned, catalogued, photographed and drawn – primarily by those who were stuck at base camp due to Rameses’ Revenge, a.k.a. Tutankhamen Trots and Gippy Tummy, a common tourist affliction and an utterly charming way to effectively loose weight.
At the far end of the complex from the entrance door there were two outhouses which were comprised of a staircase from the courtyard to a second floor were there was a woven plastic mat that served as a privacy screen. Behind the screen was a hole in the floor located in the centre of a two-meter by two-meter room. The waste would fall down the hole into a room which would be cleared out every few days by Mahmoud, who would use the waste as night soil to fertilize the agricultural fields.
After arriving at the base camp, Clorice made a mad dash up the staircase to use the facility. When she looked down the hole, to get her bearings, she saw a chicken feeding on the academic shit below! She would spend the rest of the field season trying not to think about this whenever she ate the very orange yolked eggs at breakfast and the occasional chicken at dinner.
After she had unpacked, and the sun had set, Jesse asked Clorice if she would like to accompany him to the local farmer’s field to freshen up. Jesse explained that most farms in the region obtained their water from thermal artesian hot springs. After drilling a well deep into the Nubian sandstone, the farmers controlled the flow of the precious two-hundred and fifty thousand year-old, very hot, reddish-brown mineral water by building key-hole shaped cisterns where the silt could settle out, and then the mostly clear water was channeled through ditches across the farmers field. The one they were going to was completely unknown to non-locals, unlike the ones in Bulaq and Nasser which were tourist meccas for those who suffered rheumatism and allergies. The curative therapeutic properties of the local waters were attributed by the Egyptian tourist board to the heat, 82.4 degrees F (28 degrees C), and the iron, magnesium, sulfur, and chloride content of the rich waters.
They climbed into the now stylishly dusty, once-white, almost ancient 1970s Peugeot jeep and drove to an aqueduct in a local farmer’s field. In Los Angeles one can pay one hundred dollars to have fake dust and mud sprayed on an adventure vehicle to give it that same fresh outdoorsy look.
After a fifteen minute drive they arrived at an empty agricultural field and parked beside a ten-meter wide by fifteen-meter long and about half-a-meter deep cistern. It was these dimensions more than anything else that made this the P.R.I.K. crew’s favorite water hole – because people could completely submerge themselves after a long hot day digging up dead things. The out-flowing water was channeled by raised earthwork aqueducts lined with early Pharonic to modern aged pottery shards, which littered the area, into the outlying field.
Ever since the good old days, during the Early Palaeolithic, people have come from all over the ancient world, albeit in very small numbers, to soak in Kharga’s ancient Pleistocene-aged world-famous hard-boiled egg smelling waters which can soothe away any ache or pain either physical or emotional. Even Alexander the Great, the Macedonian AC-DC megalomaniac, may have rested his saddle-sore, hemorrhoid-riddled tushy in this field, but we’ll never know – at least until someone writes a Ph.D. thesis on the topic and it becomes a best seller.
[Continue reading: Chapter 5.2]