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Bahariya Oasis is the smallest of the four oasis depressions, only 94km long and 42km wide. In the Late Cretaceous era, 94 million years ago, this was a steamy mangrove-swamp inhabited by dinosaurs such as the plant-eating paralititan and the carnivorous carcharodontosaurus whose bones have been found here. The oasis is known to have been under pharaonic control by the Middle Kingdom, when it exported wine to the Nile Valley, and later thrived as an artery between Egypt and Libya, with Arab armies, merchants and pilgrims passsing through over millennia.
Although it covers square kilometres, less than one percent is actually cultivated, with date palms, olive and fruit trees, vegetables, rice and corn. Meanwhile, many people have prospered from tourism. Local safari outfits employ hundreds of drivers, cooks and gofers, particularly over Christmas and Easter when many foreigners living in Cairo come here and the six-day Pharaon Rally in September, when some jeeps and motorbikes race through the oasis, accompanied by TV crews and spectators.
Plans to build a Museum of the Oases have been stalled for years as the two governorates squabble over whether it should be located in Bahariya or Farafra Oasis. Thereafter the landscape is flat and featureless, until a grubby halfway resthouse followed by a reddish-purple tract of desert whose iron-ore deposits are transported to the Helwan steelworks by a mining-railway.
Tourism here is intensely competitive, with touts besieging foreigners the moment they step off the bus. Created by Mahmoud Eed, a self-taught sculptor inspired by Badr in Farafra , the museum is a work-in-progress. Al-Qasr The old quarter merges into Al-Qasr , built on the site of the former pharaonic capital and continuously inhabited since — though many houses are now abandoned or used as livestock pens.
Alleys snake past secretive courtyards and walled gardens, ending in cul-de-sacs or joining up with other lanes. Some houses incorporate stones from a bygone XXVI Dynasty temple, and a Roman triumphal arch which survived until the mid-nineteenth century. Many of the mummies removed from the earth have since deteriorated — some previously on display are no longer fit to be shown.