Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Dakhla Far Back and Beyond

We stayed in Dakhla in the Canadian Dig House. There was a moment of utter confusion where the checkpoint police were saying "Canadian? American? Hollander??" and our driver was insisting "No, three Australians". The penny dropped and he admitted that we were staying in the Canadian house.

The house is marvelous. Barry, architect trained and working on reconstruction, had drawn it on a piece of paper, and given it to the cook, who arranged to have it built. This could only really happen in Egypt. It easily sleeps about forty people - and maybe more.


It is entirely mud brick and timber with the exception of the shower area which has concrete beneath a mud cladding. Perhaps the fear of sodden mud brick collapsing on naked wet archaeologists was more than they could risk. This is an entrancing building. It curves and undulates and is gentle on the eyes at all times of day. A flat roof area is surrounded by bench seating, and ideal for evening drinks at beer o'clock. The toilets are long drops, and doors kept tightly shut to reduce flies and smell. They brought back dashes to outback dunnies in Australia in my childhood, with torn up sheets of newspaper on a clip and attempting to hold my breathe for as long as possible. I never worked out if it was better to breathe lightly and shallowly from the beginning or risk that long deep intake when the air ran out!


A long path runs past the sleeping areas on the upper level, and from here you look out across the oasis. There are the constant date palms, and vegetables below and wheat and fodder crops - green ending abruptly in desert. It is surprisingly flat considering we are in a big depression - it is as if the earth just dripped in a huge disc, leaving the rest sitting up above and wondering where it got to.


On the first day we arrived and ate lunch - delicious with a thick spiced potato and onion soup and fresh salads, bread baked that morning on the premises and a thick and tarry homemade marmalade which has left such a lingering memory that I think I will have to make some. The bread is wonderful. While I like the aish balady - the flatbread - of most of Egypt, it was a joy to bite into thick moist slices of this - it was like an Italian loaf on first sight, but with the softer crust, yellowish and elastic texture inside and so delicious.

We looked at the workrooms and ate dinner with the archaeologists and headed for bed. They had coffins there which had had plaster laid directly onto bandaging, and this was covered in paintwork. No photos as I do not know how much had been published and how much hasn't.

Next morning we climbed into a bus. After a previous experience where a bus had arrived as an empty shell with no seats, this time Colin had organised one with seats. Funny the things you take for granted.

First stop was a dig with an early temple which was completely submerged in clay. Worse, it was the kind of mud that swelled when wet and as it moved through the village that used to be here, swelling, then contracting, it had moved, lifted and destroyed almost everything there. The temple was huge and built with stone, but every stone was broken into many pieces by this alternating compression and release. While embedded it was fine, but excavation meant removing the clay, now set to the strength of concrete, and as the clay was removed the stone risked crumbling away completely. The archaeologist in charge described the process. Dig a trench, shoring up stone and reconstructing as you go. Then draw and record as fast as possible, Then backfill, and dig the next narrow trench. It sounded appalling and painstaking and it was sad to see the grandeur that it must have had, and the way it has been damaged by regular flooding.



above - Bob with the yellow bag and a lot of the young archaeologists from Monash. We are standing at roof level of the old temple.


Note the distortion at the upper levels and the way the whole wall swings out on the right side.

From here we drove through a local village where the team used to live. I loved this. There is an old Roman tomb inside and it is really beautiful and serene. Local archaeologists have excavated part of it to below floor level to show the coffins lined up which would have been under the floor.


The village here is all mud brick - and yes, in the most colonial way I do like my villages picturesque. There is something about the juxtapositions of honeyed walls and desert and scrappy scrub and long vistas that I find deeply appealing.

So - just have a look at a spread of photos without too much comment. I have to point out the little lass in tiger stripes though as the outfit was utterly incongruous.












For today that is your ration. Those who like photos should be happy. tomorrow - more of the digs and that is fun too!

Black Rocks and Regrets

We have been into the desert - slowly working the circuit of the oases but this time by coming in from the other end.

We went to Asyut by plane, leaving home at 6.00am.

Asyut is hardly the heart of the Universe. In fact, our boarding passes for the flight listed the boarding gate as DUM. It was a large and comfortable jet, but only half full.

Our car met us there as the driver had come up the day before. We left Asyut and headed west.
We then drove straight into the desert and towards Kharga Oasis.

Have you ever seen anything so wonderful and stunning that it burns its way into your memory?

The desert was pink and salmon and silver. The area is hot in Summer - and I am not talking about a wimpy 30 degrees centigrade, but about up near fifty centigrade and sometimes even over. Wind whistles though here, and as it goes it picks up sand and carries it in a firm grasp, blasting across the rocky forms in the desert. The rocks are polished - a shape hard satiny sheen in a pale mauve-violet, and oddly faceted like beaten copper.

Occasionally we would sweep around a corner and see marvelous things - round black rocks, nestled in smallish rings as if just ready for a giant game of marbles. I think these were concretions as once explained to me by a geologist. Think of the bottom of a long ago sea. Imagine mud settled and silt falling gently to the bottom, enshrining dead fish and shells and things that become fossils. As the animals rot the gases form in the trapped layers, forcing bubbles in the silt which just do not quite escape. They slide sideways through the mud, forming bigger and bigger bubbles until you have large round pockets of gas in the soft mud. The silt hardens with the bubble trapped, but slowly very fine silt seeps into its space as it disperses into the surrounding hard mud. The finer silt sets harder, and in this case, darker. As the sea dries up the layers form over the concretions, but now it is just chalk and salt and sand. As the deserts form, over the centuries the surface weathers and blows away, allowing the perfectly round concretions to emerge and sit isolated in the sand.

There was one spectacular moment. Around the corner we came, and nestled in the wake of a huge rocky curved mesa was a sea of concretions - nestled tightly together and stretching back perhaps three hundred metres, almost as far as we could see. They were a dull matte black, they looked like perfect spheres, and at least half a metre wide, maybe even bigger. All around was gleaming violet rock and rippled banks of sand and it was absolutely glorious. It looked as if some incredible bird had just left the nest and flown.

And do I have a photo?

No. We had a police chase car behind, and an escort car in front and Bob pointed out that in these conditions it was really awkward to stop. I didn't much care about awkward, but when moving at speed on desert highways by the time you have spent two minutes quietly muttering it is a long way back. I thought there would be others so I didn't push it too hard. By twenty kilometres further I was prepared to accept ten concretions, not hundreds. There was not one more. The desert flattened out to pancake-like flat, with occasional humps and flat topped projections. While a toilet stop showed that these had cascades of fossilised shells under the hard flat crust they were nothing like as spectacular as the beds of concretions. I wanted to stick my bottom lip out and sulk but decided to make the best of it with only an occasional mutter. But - if you ever go from Asyut to Kharga look to the left and be ready to stop.

Five hours later we reached Dakhla.

We were to stay at the Canadian dig house - an archaeological base used by many different dig teams working int he area. I was surprised by Dakhla. My only other experience of a large depression (geological) is the Bahariya depression that cradles the Black Desert and the oasis of Bawiti and Qasr in the Western Desert. It is poor and might have once been a charming town, but the mud brick dwellings that sat easily in the surroundings of date palms and sand have largely been cleared in favour of quarried white stone with dark mortar which is somehow ugly and unforgiving in an already stark landscape.

Once in Wadi Dana in Jordan I commented on the sadness of the fact that the man I spoke to had moved his family from an old stone house with a gentle dome on top, and into something made from concrete bricks. He explained that the mortar was made from straw and mud and donkey dung, and that insects and rodents worked their way through it over time. The second time his mother had a snake in the kitchen that have followed the mice into the house was the limit!

I thought the old house was beautiful and said so. I thought the new house was a lot less so and while I did not say so I guess my voice implied it.

"Do you mean", he said quietly, "that we should be uncomfortable so that you can think we are charming?"

The worst of it was - that was exactly what I did mean.

Dakhla is modern and well-kept as a town, but there is still a surprising lot of mud brick and traditional housing around. Even the graveyards were really beautiful. I have a lot more to say about the trip but I don't want people falling asleep over over-long text, so will finish with some photos of graves looking across to the Escarpment that borders the depression.




More in a day or so!

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