Ain Umm el-Dabadib

At around 40km north-west of el-Kharga, at the base of the northern escarpment, Ain Umm el-Dabadib is in a remote region of the oasis which lay on the Darb Ain Amur, the ancient route to Dakhla Oasis. Here, a small but impressive fortress once surrounded by a large well-populated settlement remains one of the most impressive sites in North Kharga. The site includes an Egyptian-style temple, a Christian church, several cemeteries and a vast irrigation system.

The broad flat wadi in which Ain Umm el-Dabadib stands was crossed by at least three ancient tracks, offshoots of the Darb Ain Amur. The first track led from the fortress of el-Labekha past el-Dabadib and continued on westwards towards Ain Amur and Dakhla Oasis, while a second crossed the plain directly towards Hibis Temple. A third track crossed through el-Dabadib and north-westwards over the escarpment, eventually leading to a route connecting the Nile Valley with Dakhla Oasis. The fortress stands at the southern end of the settlement – a magnificent structure even today with its huge mudbrick walls enclosed within an area of around 100m square. The area within the enclosure is partly covered by encroaching sand but still has many structures visible.

Four massive rectangular towers marked the corners of the fort, making it architecturally different to any other fortress in Kharga Oasis (which had rounded towers), suggesting that it may have been a later construction. The tallest of the el-Dabadib towers, on the south-western corner, still contains remains of spiral staircase and rises to a current height of about 15m. The main entrance was on the southern side and smaller buildings crowded around its southern and western walls. The interior of the fortress is now ruined, its floors collapsed, but several vaulted chambers at ground level are still intact.

Remains of a small Christian church adjoin the east side of the fortress, its arches and pillars forgotten and partly buried by sand until 1998 when local antiquity thieves damaged the walls in search of artefacts. Although the damage (done by battering the walls with a forklift truck) is extensive, there are still remains of the original red plaster and Greek, Coptic and Arabic graffiti and prayers.

The ruins of a settlement exist on the eastern side of the fortress, but the main visible settlement areas begin about half a kilometre to the north, where hundreds of small buildings served as homes and shops. The fortified town appears to consist of many luxurious houses, sometimes up to three storeys high, which are currently being studied by the team undertaking the North Kharga Oasis Survey. A smaller and slightly earlier settlement lay further to the north. In the north-east section of the fortified settlement, next to a spring or well, are the remains of an Egyptian-style temple with sides slanted inwards from the base. Recent discoveries in the area include a possible mill and a small hermitage.

The fortress town seems to have been surrounded by a large area of cultivation, irrigated by a vast system of underground aqueducts. The five aqueducts so far discovered at Ain Umm el-Dabadib are by far the best example of such elaborate tunnels in Kharga Oasis, but more sophisticated than the Roman qanats in the other areas and similar to the ‘foggara’ found in Libya and Algeria. The tunnels are also similar to those in ancient Persia, leading scholars to speculate that the irrigation system may date back to the Persian occupation of Kharga. The aqueducts run in a northerly direction from the town towards the escarpment winding and bending along the sides of three narrow valleys. They all feature regular vertical shafts which probably functioned as air vents as well as access for clearing out the sand which must have been intrusive.

Ten different cemetery areas have been identified at Ain Umm el-Dabadib by the NKOS team, which include both rock-cut and shallow graves. The rock-cut tombs are in a spur of rock to the east of Aqueduct 3 and the desecrated remains of many mummified human bodies were found scattered about. Some of the tombs were lined with mudbricks and some showed remains of mudbrick façades. NKOS are currently studying the methods of mummification.

Several areas with Prehistoric remains have also been located at Ain Umm el-Dabadib. The whole plain is an ancient dried-up lake, or ‘playa’ where the action of sand and wind over the millennia can be seen in the shapes of the rocks. It is possible that the site was occupied sporadically from these early times, but its present importance is in providing valuable information covering the transitional period between Pagan and Christian Egypt.

Sadly, since writing this report on Ain Umm el-Dabadib there has been yet more heavy damage to the site inflicted by antiquities looters driving a front-loader. The extensive damage includes the total loss of the temple and a tower, destruction of the east side of the fortified settlement and looting in one of the cemetery areas. Ain Amur

Ain Amur is a tiny isolated oasis lying between Kharga and Dakhla, on a wide ledge half-way up the north-western cliffs bordering the Abu Tartur Plateau, which outlines the Kharga depression. Caravans travelling along the Darb Ain Amur between Kharga and Dakhla would have stopped at this spring (fed by fresh surface-water) to break their journey and it became the site of a quite large and important settlement. The well, with its ancient stone water-trough, still contains water today although it is now choked by weeds. Herbert Winlock visited and recorded the archaeological remains at Ain Amur in 1908, after travelling there by camel.

The remaining structures at Ain Amur have been severely damaged by the water thundering down over the escarpment in flash floods over the centuries and in more recent years by antiquity thieves and tourists. Originally the site was enclosed by a thick irregular-shaped wall, but only two short sections still remain. The most impressive remains are those of a Late Period stone temple at the northern side of the settlement. The temple has sandstone walls and a roof constructed with limestone slabs and faces the main entrance to the settlement. It originally contained three chambers and an inner sanctuary, but only the eastern and western walls remain. There are a few original decorations and numerous Coptic and Arabic graffiti still to be seen but which provide little information to help with precise dating of the structure. One example, on the exterior western wall, includes a badly-preserved relief of a ram-headed Amun, an unidentified winged figure and part of a male wearing a kilt. There are traces of blue and red paint on the eastern wall. A large cemetery is located on the eastern side of the settlement, though many of the tombs have been plundered.

Along the Darb Ain Amur there is Prehistoric, Greek and Arab material similar in style to graffiti, rock-drawings and inscriptions recorded elsewhere in the Western Desert, confirming that the track was used by travellers of all periods. Old Kingdom graffiti has been found which provides new evidence of activity from that period in Kharga Oasis, possibly linking it with Old Kingdom settlements in Dakhla.

Details and photographs of Ain Umm el-Dabadib and Ain Amur can be seen on the NKOS website.

How to get there The journey to Ain Umm el-Dabadib and Ain Amur requires the use of a 4×4 vehicle with an expert driver, a knowledgeable guide and special permission from the Antiquities Office in el-Kharga. The track from Ain Umm el-Dabadib to Ain Amur is around 50km long and passes through enormous dune fields and rock-strewn plains.

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