Science writer Thurston takes an enchanting historical tour of Egypt’s deep Saharan oasis.
In the midst of the Great Sand Sea, at “its driest core, its dead heart,” where rain comes every few decades and showers evaporate before reaching the ground, lies the Island of the Blessed, as the ancients called Dakhleh Oasis. Wrought by earth movement, climatic changes, and the human hand, the oasis seems to stand outside time but in fact has experienced three periods of prosperity and influence—great periods indeed, judging by the artifacts found there. Thurston fluently tracks Dakhleh’s course as it has come to be understood by a company of archaeo-scientists (zoologists, botanists, geo-morphologists, epigraphers), capturing the breadth of viewpoints that has garnered so much rich information from the Dakhleh site. Early Stone Age tools have been unearthed here, as well as New Stone Age petroglyphs; Holocene rock art document stages in the development of human relations with animals, including evidence of corrals. Refugees from Dakhleh’s cyclically degraded environment might have served to spur the great Nile Valley civilization. Sites have given up marvels like golden mummies, enameled glass vessels decorated with gladiators, and the oldest books extant: thin boards with writing on them tied together with string, dating to the fourth century. Dakhleh is also a trove of the everyday (one of the books is a record of goods and services from tenant farmers) that provides insights into flint-knapping and bread-baking, farming and the wine trade. Ancient and complex communities have lived here on and off for eons; it remains inhabited today. Thurston notes, though, that this moment of prosperity may be headed for another fall, as overtapping the aquifer and salinisation imperil the oasis’s future.
Juicy archaeological journalism, brimming with facts and speculation about the deep desert’s critical influence on Egyptian history. (26 b&w photos, 1 map)