Despite their importance and breathtaking beauty, the five oases of Egypt: Siwa, Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga, are
unfamiliar to most Egyptians. It was therefore a remarkable initiative on the part of Anba Silwanis, the papal deputy in Misr
al-Qadima (Old Cairo), to suggest that the annual Coptic cultural conference at St Mina’s Church in Fom al-Khalig would place
a discussion on the Coptic heritage in the oases on its agenda. The relevant scientific material was prepared by Haggagi
Ibrahim, head of the Faculty of Arts at Tanta Univesity, with the help of Badr Helmi, a Church volunteer worker. Worth noting
is that this is the fourth year in succession that Zahi Hawwas, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities
declines an invitation to attend the opening session.
The Greek historian Herodotus described the Egyptian oases as
the “Islands of the Blessed.” The Arabic word waha (oasis) comes from a pharaonic word meaning ‘place of rest’. The three-day
conference began on 30 October with a briefing by Coptic Studies Institute professor Atef Awad. The Western Desert in which
the oases lie is overlapped by three governorates: Wadi al-Gedid (the New Valley), Giza and Marsa Matrouh. The five large
oases and dozens of smaller ones, many of which are deserted, fall under the jurisdiction of these three
Kharga Oasis, formerly known as Tiba, contains the unique Bagawat necropolis, the remains
of the monastery of Mustafa Kashef –named after al-Kashef, a tax collector who took refuge in the monastery on his flight
from the Ottomans. Ein Saaf Monastery is actually a conglomerate of small monasteries. On the outskirts of Kharga are several
remains of altars, grand fortresses, monks’ cells and the remains of unknown churches dating from the fifth century. Dr Awad
believes that if these remains were excavated thoroughly many new facts would emerge about the history of Christianity and
monasticism in Egypt; the latter is widely held to have been concentrated in Wadi Natroun and Upper Egypt.Of all the oases
in Egypt, Dakhla is the largest. Its capital, Mut, is as ancient as its name suggests. The oasis is dotted with significant
Christian remains: the sensitively-restored Deir al-Hagar (Monastery of the Rocks) has emblems of grape leaves and fish, and
a representation of Jesus Christ. Dakhla’s other village, Qasr, recently revealed Roman foundations.
In ancient times
Farafra Oasis was named Ta-khet (The land of the cow). Its only village surrounds its citadel, Qasr al-Farafra, where several
iron and bronze crosses have been discovered. The ancient road to Farafra is scattered with remains dating back to the Roman
Christian era, especially in the area of Abu Manqar, a modern name which is probably a corruption of St Abu Maqar, one of the
famous desert fathers of Wadi Natroun.
To the north of the oases of Khargha, Dakhla and Farafra, but
linked to the same underwater channels, is Bahariya Oasis which is administered by the governorate of Giza. Fortunately
historians have left written and illustrated records of St George’s Church, which lies in the neighboring sub-oasis of Haizz,
because the church was recently so ineptly restored that it found itself in danger of total collapse. The Church has two
domes, while the walls are covered with Coptic inscriptions and frescoes. More excavations need to be carried out in this
area, which may have been one of early Christianity’s most important centers and which also contains the archaeological
remains of the Rayiss Monastery discovered in 1938.
Siwa Oasis, famous for its basketwork, weaving and silverwork,
lies close to the Libyan border way to the south-west of Marsa Matrouh. The main oasis is surrounded by several smaller
oases, some with well-peopled villages and some which were inhabited in ancient times but have long been deserted. Apart from
some symbols found in outlying tombs, which suggests they might have been used by anchorite monks, no Christian landmarks
have been discovered in Siwa and it is possible that the only Christians to have lived there were those exiled to this remote
Faiza Mahmoud Saqr, professor of Ancient Egyptian civilisation at the Faculty of Arts in
Damanhour, outlined the history of the commercial caravans that criss-crossed the Western Desert until the 1970s and forged
the economic ties between the oases and the Nile valley. Atef Naguib, deputy director of the Aswan Museum, added that there
were also strong bonds between the oases and Nubia, as well as mutual cooperation in commerce, art and industry; to say
nothing of the many familial ties created.
Professor Sobhi Abdel-Malak of the Coptic Studies Institute raised the issue of
the spread of Christianity in the oases and in Nubia. This was not mentioned precisely in the Coptic Synaxirium or other
traditional Coptic sources, but clear reference has been made to both in other historical sources.
Christianity bloomed in
the oases when believers sought refuge there from the oppression under Diocletian in the third century. A bishopric was
established in Siwa and another two in the southern oases, one of which survived until the 14th century. After the Persian
invasion in 620 AD, Christians again suffered great oppression, and many took refuge in the oasis. After the Arab invasion in
641 tribes of Arabian origin gradually spread across the desert, and Christianity underwent periods of persecution until it
completely disappeared from the oases. Nowadays the Christian community is served by churches in Kharga, Dakhla and
Hymn to architecture
Sami Sabri Shaker, who describes the cemetery of Bagawat as an “architectural hymn,”
attributes the name to the colloquial Arabic word al-Qabawat (literally; the domes) after the style of the tombs—the letter
“q” in Upper Egypt is usually exchanged for “g” so the name was changed to ++al-Gabawat++, which in turn was gradually
altered to al-Bagawat. The cemetery is located some 2.5 kilometres west of Kharga, the most southerly oasis in
Of the 263 grave sites on the hill of Bagawat, 28 are in ruins. Bagawat was part of the necropolis of Hibis,
the former capital of the oasis. Interest in this area started when the explorer and illustrator F.Caillaud visited it in
1821, after which many explorers started visiting the area, the most famous of which were A.Edmondstone in 1835 and W.de Bock
in 1901. The Egyptologist Ahmed Fakhry made several visits from 1937.
Each site consists of the tomb well, a chamber
usually carved in the rocks under ground level. The well leads to two burial rooms which generally held a number of mummies.
The well is covered by a large, square-shaped rock. Twenty-three sites have now been identified that contain mural paintings
in the fresco style, where the drawing is inscribed on the white layer before it dries. Mohsen Mansour from the Coptic
Studies Institute says this serves to make the colours more durable and fixed. The artists used the natural pigments and
metal oxides available locally, which meant there was not a wide range of colours; these were restricted to red, brown and
Pompeii of the desert
One of the most special sites is the Exodus, which is covered with murals starting with
the Exodus of the Israeli people from Egypt and going on to Noah’s ark; Adam and Eve being expelled from paradise; Daniel
praying in the lion’s den; the three young men in the fiery furnace; the sawing of Isaiah the prophet; the mariners throwing
Jonah from the ship and the whale swallowing him; Eleizer at the well and Rebecca carrying water; the suffering of Job;
Susanna; Jeremaiah praying while gazing at the temple of Jerusalem; Ibrahim, Isaac and Sarah; a shepherd leading his lamb;
the torture of St Takla; the five wise virgins; and two men walking with two camels in a garden.
All the topics of the
paintings, which date back to the first half of the fourth century, are concerned with the concept of redemption and escape
from evil. The site is adorned with paintings of boats on the east and west walls. This idea is originally taken from the
funereal idea in pharaonic times, as they believed that the boat is a way to cross to the other world. Another site is the
Peace tomb, which consists of only one room with one dome and with paintings dating back to the fifth century. The drawings
include a woman holding the symbol of the key of life in her right hand, which means peace. On his visit in 1902 Kaufmann
called it ‘Pompeii of the Desert’.
These sites have suffered utter neglect, and harsh weathering.
This rare heritage that incarnates early Christian funereal art is under threat. The attendants at the conference claimed
that the mummies that remain had not been registered or secured, and were therefore liable to be stolen or trafficked.The
conference came up with several recommendations, including stopping investors from using the quarries at Dakrour and banning
of the use of explosives in mining. The attendees stressed the importance of installing barbed wire around the engravings and
planting trees round the monuments of the Western Desert to protect them from sand.