Isolated by hundreds of miles of desert and without modern
conveniences, the people of Egypt's oases led a simple life for
Men rose at daybreak to tend the lush, tree-lined fields. They
bartered for food and services and gathered in the evening for a
of el siga, moving stone pieces in the sand. The women baked bread
or wove palm-leaf mats, the only furniture in their cool, mudbrick
Today, with paved roads, television, and other trappings of
life, the past is vanishing. Many people have left mud-brick homes
for concrete high-rises.
While people from around the world lament that their picture-book
image of an oasis is fast disappearing, the new developments could
have more serious consequences.
Desperate to relocate some of Egypt's 62 million people from the
jam-packed sliver of green along the Nile River, the government has
been selling large chunks of oasis land to Nile Valley farmers,
irrigation methods and heavy-water-use crops could completely
the underground aquifer and, some experts worry, dry up the oases
themselves over time.
In Siwa, arguably the most unusual and beautiful oasis, this
influx of farmers, who are drilling wells and forcing more and more
water to the surface, could, in the short term, completely drown the
oasis. "You can't go ahead with any agricultural scheme at any
cost," says Aldo Biondi, an Italian agricultural expert working in
Siwa. "The oasis will be destroyed."
Remnants of grasslands
Egypt has five major oases, all located in the expansive Western
Desert, west of the Nile River Valley. Inhabited since prehistoric
times, the area was a sprawling savannah with lions, zebras, and
giraffes before it slowly transformed into what is now one of the
world's most arid regions. The pharaohs sent exiles to the oases and
the Romans built roads, fortresses, and villages there as stops
their caravan routes.
In the Middle Ages the oaseans, as they are often called, erected
fortified mud-brick villages to protect themselves against invaders.
To this day, pharoanic temples, Roman castles, and Islamic mud-
While the oases have always been evolving, the speed and severity
of change have increased dramatically in the past few decades, with
enormous developments in recent years. In Farafra, the smallest
oasis, for example, the population has increased from 5,000 to
Agricultural land has grown more than sevenfold from 3,000 acres
to 22,000. Five years ago, the oasis didn't have electricity, roads,
telephones, or a hospital. Today it has all of these.
While some of these changes brought welcome amenities, others had
a less desirable effect. The government's New Valley Project,
beginning in the 1960s, brought a huge influx of Nile Valley farmers
to the formerly picturesque Kharga oasis. They used traditional
flood irrigation to cultivate heavily water-dependent crops, like
rice, practically depleting Kharga's aquifer and leaving the once-
rich soil salty and useless, environmentalists say. …