Sunday, July 31, 2016
Short Story: The Pride of Dakhla Oasis
The village of Al-Qasr in the Dakhla Oasis is back on Egypt’s tourist track, writes Nevine El-Aref.
In the northwest of the Dakhla Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert is the mediaeval village of Al-Qasr with its mudbrick buildings, alleys, mosques, Pharaonic temple and seed mill. Its serenity was disturbed earlier this week when minister of antiquities Khaled El-Enany along with New Valley governor Mahmoud Ashmawi and other officials reopened the village to tourism after 15 months of conservation work.
El-Enany described the work as “wonderful” and “one of the ministry’s most important achievements.” He said the village was one of the most important Islamic settlements in Egypt, not only because of its distinguished architecture but also because it was the meeting point of several routes as well as being on a main road for trade and pilgrimage.
Ashmawi said the inauguration would help promote tourism to the New Valley and highlight the historical importance of the Dakhla and Kharga Oases.
“Al-Qasr is one of the most important Islamic sites in Egypt,” Ahmed Kamal, a member of the ministry of antiquities scientific office, told the Weekly. He added that it was one of the only surviving examples of Islamic civil architecture from the Ottoman era. It also contains a large number of documents that highlight the historical importance of the village.
Kamal explained that Al-Qasr, which means “palace” in Arabic, had gained its name because before the Islamic conquest of Egypt in the 7th century CE, the village already had huge buildings and the remains of a Pharaonic temple.
The village itself was built in the 12th century during the Ayyubid period on the remains of an earlier Roman settlement in order to serve as the capital of the Dakhla Oasis. It was in a defensive position facing marauding invaders from the southwest. Stone blocks from the earlier Roman settlement can still be seen in the façades of village houses, probably reused from older ones.
Al-Qasr was extended under the Ottomans and was built like all mediaeval towns in Egypt at the time, with narrow covered streets divided into quarters, districts and alleys that were closed with gates at night to protect them from invaders.
A few metres from the village’s narrow alleys, Kamal said the remains of a three-storey mudbrick minaret 21 metres high had been found near the Mosque of Nasr El-Din, erected during the Ayyubid period and considered one of the village’s landmarks. The minaret is the only original part of the Mosque that has survived from the 12th century, while the rest of the building was reconstructed in the 19th century.
The mausoleum of Sheikh Nasr El-Din is inside the Mosque, and the minaret and entrance are decorated with wooden lintels carved with verses from the Qur’an. A madrassa (school) is attached to the Mosque and a court building from the Ayyubid period is also nearby. This features painted arches, niches for legal texts, cells for felons and a beam above the door from which criminals were once suspended.
Kamal said the houses in the village were built during the Ayyubid and Ottoman periods in mudbrick and adorned with acacia wood lintels decorated with verses from the Qur’an or inscriptions with the name of the builders or occupants. The oldest house is that of a man called Ibrahim and dates to 1518.
The 13 old houses of the village are built in a way that decreases the temperature inside them to 12 degrees less than the weather outside. They have ventilation systems that allow the entrance of cool air, replacing the heat inside the house. The narrow alleys of the village also protect inhabitants from sandstorms.
The house of Abu Narfir was built on top of a Ptolemaic temple and some of the temple’s blocks were used in its construction. The door jambs are decorated with hieroglyphics, for example.
There is also a pottery factory and an old corn mill in the village. Mudbricks are still made in the ancient manner, and there is a foundry where men still work using bellows-fanned fire. Today, the village is best known for its traditional earthenware pots and palm-leaf basketry.
“In 2015, the first phase of a comprehensive restoration project started in the Al-Qasr Village in collaboration with the ministry of social solidarity and the Community Development Organisation in Al-Rashed,” Alsaeed Helmy, head of the Islamic and Coptic Department at the ministry of culture, told the Weekly.
He said the conservation work was funded by a Japanese grant of LE2.7 million and later increased to reach LE3 million. The work included the restoration of eight houses of the 13 that are extant, including the Al-Hag Ismail Seed Mill and the house of Hamam’s Sons. The second phase of the work is to start as soon as the required funds are available.
Waadalla Abul-Ela, head of the Projects Department at the ministry, said the work had been carried out under the supervision of ministry engineers and restorers. He added that all the walls of the buildings had been consolidated and covered with clay mortar in the same style, cracks repaired, damaged stairs replaced with new ones of the same design, and all wooden doors and windows maintained.
Ahmed al-Nemr, a member of the ministry’s scientific office, said the village had been archaeologically documented before and after its restoration and the second and final phase of the project was to be started soon.
After the inauguration of the village, El-Enany laid the foundation stone of a new set of state-of-the-art archaeological galleries in the Dakhla Oasis.