With the discovery here of buried tombs from Greco-Roman
times containing an estimated 10,000 mummies, this sleepy Sahara Desert oasis
is clamoring to come back to life again for the first time in 1,600 years.
|In Bahariya donkeys are the major mode of
As far back as 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, Bahariya, a 772
square-mile bowl of greenery amid the desolate sands, was famous for the
grape and date wine that ancient Egyptians produced here. Situated along
a time-worn route that served various foreign conquerors, the oasis prospered
as evidenced by the gilded mummies of wealthy merchants that are turning up
every day in ongoing excavations.
Bahariya's good times lasted until the 4th century, when marauding tribes
destroyed agriculture and allowed the desert to reclaim much of its rich farm
land. Though some farming continued, the oasis some 260 miles southwest of
Cairo languished as a desert backwater, one of several stops for caravans
traveling between Libya and the Nile Valley.
But with the discovery of the tombs three years ago and current excavations
indicating they contain some 10,000 mummies the largest mummy find ever
the oasis is suddenly in the international spotlight. The early excavations
already have resulted in numerous news articles, and the latest finds will be
the subject of a two-hour special, Opening the Tombs of the Golden Mummies: Live!, to be broadcast on Fox TV on May 23.
Not surprisingly, Bahariya's small tourist industry is hoping such publicity
will produce a new flow of visitors to the oasis, which has always taken a
back seat to the more popular Siwa oasis, about 150 miles away in the
|German tour guide Peter Wirth gestures as he explains the geologic history of the Bahariya Oasis
"When the discovery of the tombs was announced, I got calls from all over the
world from people who wanted to come to Bahariya to see the mummies," said
Peter Wirth, a German who runs a health spa here and has been leading desert
tours for the past five years.
Wirth anticipates the demand for tours will only intensify after the Fox
broadcast and the publication of a book in September on the first season of
digging by Dr. Zahi Hawass, the leader of the excavations.
But at the moment, all that Wirth and other tour guides can promise would-be
mummy fans is the opportunity, at some later date, to see five of the
preserved bodies at a local museum. Hawass plans to put the mummies on public
display and eventually to open their empty tombs to the public. No date has
But out of respect for the dead, all the other mummies Hawass has
discovered at least 250 so far will be returned to their tombs after they
have been examined. And with at least another 100 tombs still to be
excavated an archaeological labor that could last for years Hawass
reckons the dig site will have to stay closed to the public so work can
proceed without interruption.
"Since this discovery became very famous, everyone wants to see the mummies,"
Hawass told FOXNews.com. "But I am not permitting people to visit them.
Except for the five mummies that I will place in a museum, we will keep the
others in place after we finish our excavations."
|The tomb of Sheik Mubarak|
At some point, Hawass said, more of the tombs eventually may be opened to the
public, including some with mummies inside. But he says he finds the idea
"I personally don't believe that mummies should be seen by people," he said.
"I believe you should use mummies for education, not for a thrill."
With so much attention focused on Bahariya, tour operators are quick to point
out that even without access to the mummies for the foreseeable future, the
oasis and its surroundings offer visitors a wealth of things to see and
learn. In Bahariya's main town of Bawiti, a number of small hotels already
offer guided safaris in rugged four-wheel drive vehicles that explain the
history of the oasis and the surrounding desert.
Indeed, Wirth, who is passionate in his love for the Sahara, says a tour of
the oasis and the desert helps put the mummies and much else in ancient
Egypt in historical context.
While the guidebooks invariably mention the famous oasis wine that was
produced here 4,000 years ago, Wirth points out that Bahariya and its
environs is one of the oldest continuously inhabited spots on earth, with
evidence of humans going back to the Stone Age some 30,000 years ago.
At the time, Europe was in the grip of the Ice Age and the climate over North
Africa was humid, covering it with lush greenery and water. Back then,
Bahariya was a large lake. But as the ice receded about 15,000 B.C., the
humidity dried up, and the Sahara was born. Fed by underground springs,
Bahariya survived as an oasis, attracting early humans as they made they way
from Africa to Asia.
He notes that Bahariya's physical geography a roughly square-shaped
depression with four major springs and an entrance from the north later
became the floor plan for most ancient Egyptian tombs as oasis dwellers moved
into the Nile Valley. Inside many of the square-shaped tombs uncovered there,
four pillars usually painted with palms represented the springs to give
the dead water in the afterlife.
|Lush foliage underscores how Bahariya prospered as an
oasis in ancient times|
"The people took their mental images of the oasis with them," Wirth said.
The lasting influence of Bahariya's geology made itself felt in other ways
too. Archaeologists believe that Jebel Dist, a natural pyramid-shaped
mountain on the edge of the Bahariya depression, served as a model for the
man-made pyramids. And despite a series of foreign conquerors down through
the ages, including the Persians, Greeks and Romans, the pottery found in
Bahariya has always reflected Stone Age designs.
Even today, life inside the lush groves of date palms harks back to a
pastoral existence from another age. Many houses are still made from mud
bricks, with roofs from the wood of palm trees and dried palm fronds serving
as fences. Farmers still dry their dates on the roofs and move about on
And as if to underscore just how old Bahariya is, a massive Roman arch stands
unmarked and ignored inside one oasis grove, a relative newcomer on this
Still, it is Hawass' discoveries of the mummified remains of some of these
newcomers the Egyptians who lived here from the third century B.C. to the
fourth century A.D. who have become Bahariya's biggest draw and its best
chance for some kind of resurrection.
"The discoveries have put Bahariya on the map," said Wirth. "If he doesn't
open the tombs, it's a big problem. It is very important all this publicity
doesn't just puff away."