A night in a tomb

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Details of a night spent in the abandoned oasis of Al-Areg — in weather conditions almost identical to those that hit Alexander the Great in the same place in 331 BCE. 

Scattered in the sands east of Siwa lie a few small oases which, although remote, are easily accessible for four-wheel-drive vehicles. In ancient times these oases were inhabited, but were probably abandoned after the irrigation activities of generations of farmers led to the salinity and impoverishment of the soil. While water is still plentiful, it is extremely salty.

Al-Areg presents some of the most spectacular scenery to be seen in Egypt. Its arrangement of towering white bluffs resembles less the cliffs of the Vera Lynn lyrics than the white bows of a fleet of Cunard liners, haphazardly moored in the yellow sand, their prows uplifted to a cobalt sky. At their base spread the struggling, verdant remnants of what was once a large oasis peopled by farmers and traders who have left their traces carved in the chalk.

Chalk formations at Al-Areg resemble Cunard liners ready to set sail across the Great Sand Sea (photo: Farid Atiya)

The chalk cliffs rise to 200 feet, the desiccated sediments laid down aeons ago when this land was covered by the vast Tethys Sea. They loom tall and fleshed out, a less-eroded White Desert. Perhaps what adds romance to the scene is that here nature is not, or rather was once not, entirely untamed: humans have marked their territory. Dotted evenly in the cliffs is a semi-circle of black holes; tombs whose doors have long since been pushed aside. Most are shallow like the Nabatean rock buildings of Petra, but some have been cut deeper and contain inner chambers or niches.

The vegetation is sparse: straggly date palms, small tamarisks and clumps of grasses. The ground is mostly sandy, and sinks into a deeper wetland basin with a still pond at its centre. The interior of the depression is inaccessible by motor vehicle: the moist earth is deceptive and sucks trespassers in, and it is dangerous to come anywhere near it with only one vehicle unless the driver is completely sure of the way.

Sawsan Atiya and Jenny Jobbins outside one of the tombs (photo: Farid Atiya)

We arrived at Al-Areg on a sandy, overcast afternoon. I wandered alone up to the lower row of tombs and looked into each of them one by one. All of a sudden I was surprised to feel a few drops of rain. Our guide decided we should make camp on the flat desert floor: it was still spitting with rain, but we set up a makeshift kitchen and ate a simple supper of tinned tuna and salad. Afterwards we sat for a while looking up at the stars, and were fascinated to hear the distant howl of a jackal, a sound that so resembles the thin, haunting call of a wolf I have heard before in Iran and Canada. The moon was rising, casting a faint sheen on the chalk cliffs and accentuating the black holes of the tomb doorways.

Then, as we gazed upwards, the heavens opened. We had piled tents, blankets and sleeping bags on the ground; now we hastily put the food boxes in the vehicle, grabbed our bedding and made for the tombs. In those two or three minutes our clothes were drenched. The rain slackened slightly, and the wind caught both the water and the sand and blew them round and round and in through the wide open doorways, whipping our faces and smattering our bedding. It was a rainstorm and a sandstorm in one — almost identical to the weather conditions that had hit Alexander the Great on his visit in 331 BCE.

Eventually the tempest died down, and almost immediately the moon came up. By its light I could see I was in a tomb about three metres by one-and-a-half, and I could not quite stand up. One side was almost completely open. This doorway would originally have been sealed with a slab of white chalk — now, like the doors of the others, pushed or fallen aside and broken. The floor was a deep bed of sand. Lying here and there were a few flakes of wood, some pottery fragments and several small bones. An empty yellow bees’ nest was glued to the roof. Nervously, I pushed the bones and shards to one end and spread out my damp mattress and sleeping bag. I have slept in many unusual places on my travels, but nowhere quite like this. I uttered some words of propitiation, coupled with a sprinkling of Nina Ricci eau de toilette, to the owner of the tomb, whoever it might be, and hoped he or she would pardon my intrusion and understand the forced circumstance of occupation. Not even an afrit would expect me to put up a tent in such a wet and sandy wind. Surprisingly, I slept, and when I opened my eyes the bright moonlight had been replaced by the glow of dawn. I had slumbered soundly, with no visitations or bad dreams.

Next morning we took a closer look at the oasis. The ground was littered with white nummulites or sand dollars, small coin-sized shell discs once embedded in the chalk sea bed but too hard to crumble away with the rest. On the face of one wall was a shallow indent where a tomb had been started but abandoned when the workmen hit the fossilised roots of a shrub or tree which hung in a tangled bas-relief like whitened bones.

Because of the treacherous sands the spring at Al-Areg must be approached with care, and even then only by someone who knows the terrain well. It cannot be reached by driving through the oasis, but only by steering round the edge. The small blue lake lying in the shallow depression is surrounded by grassy marshes which run up to the base of a sandy slope, behind which are the white cliffs. Across the lake is a grove of tall palms. The scene is idyllic and apparently timeless. On closer inspection, however, we could see that the slope at the edge of the marsh on which we were standing was actually a small sand dune. It was clear that little by little this is encroaching, gradually blowing over the marsh; it is sad to think that before long the lake will fill with sand and the spring and the palms will be choked. This pattern must have been repeated time after time throughout the slowly-drying Sahara.

Jenny Jobbins and the late Farid Atiya are the authors of Silent Desert II: Siwa, published by Farid Atiya Press.