Originally published in Business Monthly‘s April 2019 issue.
“Well, isn’t this why we are going?” I tell my frustrated friend as I scan the menu for the largest caffeine dose possible at my favorite coffee shop. She had been searching online since we sat down for information about Baris, Egypt’s southernmost oasis, and found nothing but general descriptions. We had a couple of hours to kill before our trip began at 1 a.m.
While not much is known about the oasis, Baris had been made famous in the 1960s by the movie, “A Wife from Baris,” which depicts Cairenes living in a Bedouin culture. Locals, however, believe the movie was in poor taste, as it cast the oasis and its people as ignorant Bedouins.
All we knew at this point was the promise of lush greenery, genuine people, and a very long ride. From Cairo and other northern cities, there are two main routes to Baris. The shorter one runs straight down the Nile valley, crossing Assiut to Kharga oasis, and then south. We planned to stop at several sites along the way, and thus opted for the second route, which passes through most of the country’s oases; first heading west through Bahria, then south through Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga, finally ending at Baris.
As far as our search went, there aren’t any hotels in Baris, which is why we opted to stay in Kharga, a much more developed oasis. It took us almost a whole day to make it to our hotel, where we discovered our room didn’t have windows. Thankful for the well-functioning bathroom, we quickly changed and headed out for a walk.
Due to its proximity to Assiut, the oasis doesn’t have a Bedouin culture like that of more remote oases, which is why we changed our minds and spent the remaining hours in town in an ahwa chatting the night away.
Our second day started at 6 a.m., when we dragged ourselves out of our rooms for a quick breakfast. We had a long day ahead and needed to move early. The distance from Kharga to Baris oasis is just over 90 kilometers straight south, during which we passed through several checkpoints. While security officers were very nice, be ready to answer a lot of questions. The closer you are to Egypt’s borders, the more precise your plans and answers need to be.
The first excursion was to the tip of Baris, the Roman temple of Dush (89 AD). Named after the town it was built in, the temple honors the Egyptian gods Osiris, Isis, and Horus. Many towns and cities in Upper Egypt today still have their original pharaonic names. Dush, for example, derives from Kusht, which became Dusht as the local dialect evolved to reach its current name of Dush. The town has 165 inhabitants, many of whom have never gone beyond Kharga oasis, or at least that’s what everyone told us.
When we first arrived, Halawethom, an employee of the town’s authority welcomed us with a box of dates. She then lead us to the temple guides. The temple is about a 500-meter uphill walk from the gate. Making our way to the temple we kept stepping on broken clay chips and what seemed like ceilings of buried houses. According to our guide, the temple that remains was part of a four-story fortress built overlooking the ancient commercial route between Darfur in Sudan and the Nile Valley.
While very little remains of the fortress, the temple has only lost its colors and carvings. The monument was similar to other Roman temples, however, it has the rare feature of a second story.
Despite our presence, the area was silent. Sounds do not carry well there, making it blessedly peaceful. The borders of the place were marked by grayish-white trees, an unusual sight in Egypt. No one knew their name, only that they turn white in winter.
We bid the people of Dush farewell and headed farther south to Darawish Fortress. About 20 kilometers from Baris, the fortress is the only one remaining of five built in the early 19th century to prevent invasions from the south and southwest.
While it has long been called a fortress, the name can be misleading, as it is a 9-square-meter structure. Built with clay bricks, it is surrounded by homes, most of which were clay as well.
When we arrived, everybody headed directly into the miniature fortress, however, the greenery nearby was so rich I had to spend a couple of minutes walking through the fields. After my dose of nature, I headed back toward the building, only to be chased most of the way by a group of goats looking for food.
The ground floor of the fortress was a square room with a low ceiling and a staircase leading to an even smaller second-story room. To protect the frail structure of the building, we were told to climb the external staircase to the second floor to enter the building and leave through the entrance on the first floor. As I approached the inside staircase, I noticed the ceiling was about to collapse. Most of the clay was soft and covered with palm leaves. The guide stood at the top of the stairs, instructing us how to hop from one stable brick to the other. He later explained that they have requested the local authority to prohibit the entrance of the fortress but no decision has been made so far.
Lunch in the Field
By the time we were done, it was almost 1 p.m., lunchtime in Baris. Escorted to a nearby field, the locals invited us for a scrumptious lunch of feteer with dips balah (sweet date concentrate that tastes like molasses). While feteer is a common dish throughout Egypt, every region has its own version. Interestingly, Baris’ version is not only salty but filled with green pepper and mild spices, unlike most versions throughout Egypt that are sweet.
After lunch, we strolled the surrounding field, passing cows and buffaloes unimpressed by the presence of strangers. A beautiful thing about most of Egypt’s oases is the availability of fruit. It is commonly acceptable to pick some fruit from nearby fields, something definitely lacking in the northern parts of the country.
By the end of the hour, it was time to move on to our second destination. As Halawethom bid us farewell, she gave each of us a handful of small seedless dates. This was the first time any of us had ever seen such a date. According to our local guide, Baris and neighboring oases have rare palms, the produce of which is never traded, only used locally.
Ghueita and Zayaan Temples
Despite their long history, our next two stops were brief. We began with Ghueita Temple, also referred to as Qasr el Ghueita or Gabal Ghueita. The history of the temple dates to 2055 BC during the Middle Kingdom. However, several sections of the structure are newer, the most recent of which was built in 204 BC to honor the gods Amun, Mut, Khonsu, and Hibis. Similar to Dush, most of the surrounding desert was littered with broken shards of clay.
By the time we reached our final temple of the day, it was almost sunset, which rendered our stop even shorter. Zayaan temple, built for the god Mut, is a few minutes away from Ghueita and dates to the Ptolemaic era.
Piece of Heritage
As the sun set, so did our day at Baris. We were exhausted, but our night had just begun. We were invited by Montasser el Wahaty, one of the locals, to check out his house, the oldest standing residence in Kharga. We were beyond tired, but couldn’t miss the opportunity.
Located in the old neighborhood of Kharga, the House named Mesbah el Wahaty took five years of renovations to reach its current state. Similar to all the monuments we visited, it was built using clay bricks and is fairly large. Back then, according to el Wahaty, extended families lived under one roof, with each family occupying a small windowless room.
The house is two stories high, with only half of the second covered by a roof, which is used as a seating area. We spent about three hours drinking tea, eating dates and peanuts, and listening to wonderful stories about the history of Egypt’s oases, their inhabitants, and how politics in Cairo shaped their lives.
By the time we left it was almost midnight, and we were all so tired that none of us spoke on the way back. Nevertheless, I wished the day had been longer and our energies higher. The beauty of Baris isn’t only monuments and open fields, it is a trip back in time. With the exception of a few modern amenities, Barisians still live as they did thousands of years ago, pure-hearted, in the middle of lush greenery and surrounded by temples.
Despite the disappointment I felt when we reached our hotel that night, I never thought I would be so happy to walk into our stuffy room and throw myself onto the bed.