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The natural beauty of the Egyptian deserts

The natural beauty of the Egyptian deserts

The natural beauty of the Egyptian deserts

Egypt is synonymous with vast sand-strewn landscapes beneath vivid skies. Here, in the driest and sunniest country in the world, most of the land is desert – and such beautiful desert.

The Ancient Egyptians divided their country into the black land and the red land. The black land was the fertile land in the Nile Valley (so-called for the black silt left on the land each time the Nile flooded) and the red land was the desert. This red land protected the Kingdom of the Pharaohs from invasions from neighbouring countries, for it was very difficult to cross. Thus Egyptians came to appreciate both kinds of land in their country and built their way of life upon them.

Today, deserts cover more than 90 per cent of Egypt. The Western Desert is the Egyptian part of the Libyan Desert and covers more than two-thirds of Egypt. The Eastern Desert (or Arabian Desert) lies between the Nile and the Red Sea and encompasses about 20 per cent of the land. The Sinai Desert is on the north-eastern Sinai Peninsula, and the Great Sand Sea, the northern edge of the Sahara Desert, is in western Egypt.

These deserts have so many amazing natural features. The collision of the winds creates sand dunes that can be as high as 100 feet. In the Great Sand Sea, dunes can extend to 85 miles in length and you can find four types of dune: seif, the Arabic word for sword; crescentic, like a crescent moon; star, with arms radiating out from a central pyramid-shaped mound; and whaleback, which looks like a whale from above.

As well as the dunes, there are rugged mountains and caves and rocky outcrops, and some stunning rock formations. In the White Desert, part of the Western Desert, you find unusual chalk rock and limestone formations sculpted by nature.

The White Desert (source)

A little way north, in the Black Desert, the landscape looks so different: the sand is dark and huge black mounds reach up to the sky, their colour the result of a volcanic eruption millions of years ago.

The Black Desert (source)

You can even visit the Blue Desert – though the blue here is manmade. Belgian artist Jean Verame commemorated the Israel–Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979 by creating a line of peace in the Sinai Desert. The line of blue-painted boulders extends nearly 6.5 kilometres.

Scattered amid the wide expanses of dry, arid land are glorious gifts of nature: the oases. In the Western Desert there are five oases: Bahariya, Dakhla, Farafra, Kharga and Siwa, staging posts for the caravan routes linking the Nile Valley to the west. Here one finds shade from the scorching sun beneath the palm trees and refreshment with the waters of the natural springs. Each oasis has its own distinctive character and so much history. In Siwa, for example, a human footprint was recently discovered that dates back three millions years, and the Temple of the Oracle dates from the 26th Dynasty of Egypt (664–525 BC).

Mud-brick houses of Shali, the ancient fortress of Siwa (source)

In my novel Song of the Nile, the heroine, Aida, travels through the desert on a camel to visit an oasis, which, I write, lies ‘in the midst of the burning waste like a green jewel’. The hero of the novel, Phares, has a real affinity for the desert; he is ‘equally at home in the wilderness of burning sands as he in the bustling metropolis of Cairo’ and he has formed a connection with a Bedouin tribe. ‘Bedouin’ is derived from the Arabic badawī, meaning ‘desert dweller’. For them, the desert is not inhospitable; it is home. As a Bedouin tells Phares, ‘The Bedouin are strong like the desert, soft like the sand, moving like the wind and forever free.’

Still but stormy, eternal but ever-shifting – there is nothing on earth like the Egyptian deserts. These are places that remember, where tombs and temples are buried in the sands, where cave paintings tell the stories of ancient people. These are places of peace, of majesty, of mystery – of unparalleled beauty.

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