Local Community

Introduction to the Recent History of the Dakhleh Oasis

† James Conlon, 2001

Apart from travel accounts from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Edmondstone, Drovetti, Cailliaud, Muller, Wilkinson, Rohlfs, Lyons, Beadnell, Winlock, Jones, and King), little has been written on the recent history of the Dakhleh Oasis. French researchers have completed anthropological studies focusing on the material culture of the Oasis (see N. H. Henein 1997; Hivernel, J. 1996; Decober, C. 1969 and others), but work must be conducted towards understanding how the people of the Oasis engage the social transformations of modernization. Without access to the narratives of individuals—either as written or oral accounts—it is difficult to comment on the communities of the Oasis let alone understand social experiences. As the project continues, anthropological and historical studies will be conducted and bonds established between project members and the community. A clearer image will come into focus, but at this point we may enter the social experiences of the Oasis by examining the way the settlement spaces have changed over the past fifty years.

Modernity and Town Spaces: The New Valley Project

Fig.1 The City of al-Qasr
In 1959, the Egyptian government initiated the New Valley Project. This was an effort to increase the economic productivity of the region as a part of the narrative of national progress. The population of Dakhleh greatly increased and a new administrative district including the Kharga and Farafra Oases was established. There are now about 127,000 inhabitants of the New Valleyand 27,000 in Dakhleh as compared to 17,000 in all of the Oasis in the late nineteenth century (Vivian, 2000). These demographic transformations may be understood in terms of a dialogue between the Egyptian state and the peripheral social groups of the Oases whose lifestyles did not fit into the state’s vision of modernity. The spatial transformations in the settlements of the Oasis articulate this dialogue.

Fig.2 The house of Abu Nafir in
al-Qasr. Note the reuse of stone
and the carved lintel.
Before the New Valley Project, the settlements of the Oasis were built of mud brick (fig. 1). Readily available, this material kept the interior of houses cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The multi-storied houses of the Oasis were clustered together with no windows on the first floors forming a wall to protect against incursion. The streets were narrow, for the most part only supporting foot traffic and providing shade in the hot summers. Many residents decorated the exterior of their houses with whitewash and decorative brickwork. If the owner of the house had made the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj), images and narrative of the journey decorated the outside of the house. Larger houses such as the house of Abu Nafir in al-Qasr, reused carved stonework from the nearby archaeological sites as decorative elements. The wooden lintels of the main entrance to many houses had the family lineage carved into them and were even signed by the artisan (fig. 2) (Schigns 2000; Wali 1996)

Fig.3. Hajj narative from Bashendi:
"The Pilgrimage benefits he
who is without blame."
These Hajj paintings and inscriptions act as markers defining the status of person and place within the community (fig. 3 and 4). Architectural signifiers—affluent households, mosques and tombs, or other structures such as gates and wells— may give the meaning and in turn ascribe significance to place. At the same time these meanings are fluid and shift depending on the context, ideological intent, history, activity, or social position of the residents. Some were designated to particular production industries, such as the potter’s quarter that exists to this day in al-Qasr. In that same area, a small model of Sheikh Qenawi’s tomb (fig. 5), which is located hours away from the Oasis in the Nile Valley, stands next to the production space. The head potter’s family is from Qena, and this memento gives another layer of meaning to the quarter.

Fig.4 Street scene in Bashendi.
Other areas in these settlements were often shared between families, defined as something between public and private, domestic and industrial. Although describing a Moroccan town, Pandolfo presents an image similar to the urban fabric of Oasis towns such as al-Qasr and Bashendi: “In the old qsar it was impossible to tell where the body of one house ended and that of another began, or even where the house as a private structure merged into the public body of the qsar. In their complexly articulated form the built space of the house and that of the village were microcosms of each other, and not just metaphorically” (1997: 60-61). Gated alleyways create a literal and symbolic threshold between settlement spaces, but at the same time we must understand them as a kind of gray area. These spaces may be defined as much “private” and part of the household as “public” and of the street.

Fig.5 Potters Quarter, al-Qasr.
Note the shrine to Sheikh Qenawi
in the upper left corner.
They can only be understood in terms of the lived realities within the settlements: “the dead-end street was used as a kind of living room for the residents around it” (Akbar 1993: 145). The use of the term living room in this quotation underscores the tension created when we mark these gray areas with the conventional terminology of the western home. These spaces were in some sense domestic, yet they were also the shared responsibility of several households. Parallel examples from larger urban centers like Cairo, where the ‘inbetweeness’ of these spaces were codified through legal texts and historical documents, are illustrative. Completely different families often shared gated alleys, although in the Oasis they were most likely shared between large extended families. If one made changes to his house within these gray zones without the consent of other households, legal repercussions could follow (Akbar 1993: 142; Hanna 1984: 13–16). Although a trail of legal texts that help us understand these spaces may not exist in the Oasis, the historical record from Cairo clarifies their nature.

With the New Valley project came new towns built on European planning models to support the increase in population and better use space in the name of efficiency and development. Mitchell has written on the use of urban planning to create new hierarchies of power under Khedival rule in the nineteenth century and then under direct British colonial administration (Mitchell 1988). A parallel respatialization continues to take place in contemporary Egypt. The new cities sit next to the older settlements. Their urban fabric consists of corrugated steel and cinder block. They are ordered on a grid pattern with wide streets, housing projects and public squares. Government agencies are grouped together as the new signifiers of state power in the region and, along with the new Friday mosques, are the intended focal points of the public sphere.

Fig.6 Mut, new and old.
At first glance, the urban planning of the New Valley project is a clear expression of modernist respatialization; however, the old settlement cores remain in many cities. In some of the smaller towns, the older settlement plan and fabrics are still in use. In al-Qasr, the old core has become a protected historical site (fig. 1), while Mut’s is mostly abandoned or used for storage (fig. 6). Bashendi is a pastiche of old and new building styles, but in other towns the mudbrick cores are for the most part abandoned and in ruins. In the logic of the newly planned towns, the old cores are sites of historical memory or national heritage. It would seem as if the new towns are the sum opposite of the old settlements, but this is an oversimplification. The public and private may be clearly marked in the plan of the new cities, as is the intended function and ideological intent of space. But these designations tend to breakdown with use.

As in the old towns, spaces shift in meaning depending on the contextualization of plan. Public parks and museums were intended to be open public spaces for entertainment and information, but coffeehouses very much take on these roles for the male population of the region. Hajj paintings and narratives like the ones in the old settlements decorate concrete apartment buildings. The crossroads of the major roads connecting the towns of the Oasis are another public focal point. People gather to catch buses, and markets have sprung up along the side of the road. Groups and shops encroach on the wide avenues. Perhaps these changes are not the discursive acts of protest against modernist planning, but they are voices that shape the dialogue that is modernity in the Oasis.

Fig.7 Dr. Ashton at Giza.
Immediately to the north of the Amheida archaeological site is the newly constructed village of Giza (fig. 7). This small town is laid out on a regular grid pattern of streets. There is a school and other government buildings, and most of the homes are of concrete. One resident told us that the townspeople are mostly resettled Bedouin. Women gather at the irrigation canal on the north of the site to wash, and one told us that she enjoys the view of the ruins while she does her work. Children take flocks across the site to pasture, and later on gather dried animal dung for fuel. Amheida is a part of Giza. As the project grows, we expect the archaeological site to become further integrated into the community. Whether as an explicitly defined historic place as the old city of al-Qasr has become, or as a place of employment and interaction with scholars, tourists, and other visitors, the respatialization that will accompany our project represents another strand of the dialogue in the construction of modernity in the Dakhleh Oasis.

Selected bibliography

Akbar, J. (1993). "Gates as Signs of Autonomy in Muslim Towns," Muqarnas 10: 141–147.

Decober, C. (1969). "Notes sur le site d'al-Qasaba (oasis de Dakhla)." Annales Islamologiques 15. 473-93.

Hanna, N. (1984). Construction Work in Ottoman Cairo (1517-1794). Le Caire, Instittut Francais D'Archeologie Orientale.

Hivernel, J. (1996). Balat: etude ethnologique d'une communaute rurale. Cairo: Bibliotheque d'Etude.

Mitchell, Timothy (1988). Colonizing Egypt. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.

Pandolfo, S. (1997). Impasse of the Angels. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schigns, Wolfgang H. M. (2000). "Traditional and new earth building in the Dakhleh Oasis of Egypt." Terra 2000: 8th International Conference on the Study and Conservation of Earthen Architecture. London.

Vivian, Cassandra (2000). Western Desert of Egypt. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.

Wali, Tariq (1996). nahj al-baqa’ fi al-imarat al-sahra’. Bahrain: Tubi’a bi-Matabi’ al-Mu'assasah al-‘Arabiyah lil-Tiba’ah wa al-Nashr.