For about 5,000 years, Egypt’s Southwest Desert, west of Lake Nasser, has been a hellish, lifeless, hyper-arid region of barren rock and sand. But that wasn’t always so. Archaeologists surveying this part of the Sahara have found ancient remains of lakes, villages, cattle bones, burial tumuli and huge megaliths aligned with the heavens.
With the coming of the dry period, when the rains stopped and the lakes disappeared, the people who herded these cattle and built these monuments migrated somewhere, probably into the fertile Nile Valley. Is it possible, then, that they contributed to the development of pharaonic high culture, which first appeared along the Nile in the early third millennium B.C.? Did their tradition of astronomical observation have an influence on the pyramid-builders?
Only further archaeological investigation can answer these questions—and that may soon be impossible. This area of southern Egypt has been designated the Land of Promise; it is part of the Egyptian government’s long-term plan for agricultural expansion. Within about 20 years, the so-called Toshka Project, named for a depression in the Southwest Desert, is supposed to bring six million people to the area, many of them to work on its new farms. Whole cities are being planned, complete with schools, stores, health clinics, businesses and tourist facilities.
“If measures are not taken immediately,” warns German archaeologist Rudolph Kuper, who as director of the Heinrich Barth Institute of the University of Cologne has made a number of surveys in the region, “we will never understand the cradle of Egyptian civilization.”
One endangered site is Nabta Playa, a large kidney-shaped basin 65 miles west of Abu Simbel and 20 miles north of the Sudanese border. Archaeologists Fred Wendorf of Southern Methodist University and Romauld Schild of the Polish Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology have been studying this area for three decades. They have recorded more than 100 sites with houses, hearths, aligned megaliths, stone circles, cattle burials and large-scale constructions dating from about 11,000 to 5,000 years ago, dates that have been determined by carbon-14 tests.
These remains are associated with ancient lakes—or playas, as the archaeologists call them—which formed seasonally during the region’s wet periods. Although there is no exact climatic chronology for the Southwest Desert, archaeologists estimate that several wet periods occurred between 600,000 and 300,000 years ago, when large animals were hunted in the area (as suggested by wild ass and warthog bones left behind by early humans). A long period of drought was then followed by another sequence of wet periods from 250,000 to 70,000 years ago, a period archaeologists call the Middle Paleolithic. In Europe, this was the time of the Neanderthals; in Africa, however, Homo sapiens had already arrived, as suggested by the few human remains that have been found.
Next came another long period of drought lasting to about 11,000 years ago. Then the summer monsoons in tropical Africa began to intensify and move northward, bringing rain to the Southwest Desert—about an inch during the winter. This most-recent wet period lasted until about 5,000 years ago, when began an extremely dry period that continues to this day.
The scattered archaeological evidence—consisting largely of deposits of animal bones and some human tools—suggests that people moved into the desert when there was water and moved out when there wasn’t. From the last wet period, however, we have a good deal of archaeological evidence offering a tantalizing glimpse of the people who lived there.
One village found by Wendorf and Schild could be dated to about 8,000 B.C. by radiocarbon tests performed on charcoal and ostrich eggshells. This village contained more than 18 houses arranged in two or three straight lines, as well as several deep walk-in wells.a
Wendorf and Schild have also found large shaped stones embedded in ancient Nabta Playa lake sediment. They believe these stones were arranged to mark the position of the star Dubhe, the brightest star in the Big Dipper during this period. Other stones were apparently placed to align with Sirius and the belt of Orion.b “Someone was setting these rocks up,” Wendorf observed. “And they are big—10 feet high, 6 and a half feet wide, a foot and a half thick—pretty good size rocks weighing many tons.”
The archaeologists also found a small circle of large unshaped stones (see drawing above). The circle has two openings, one marking the position of true north and the other marking the position of the rising sun at summer solstice. Wendorf suggests that these stones—a kind of miniature Stonehenge—served as a 040calendar, since the monsoon rains arrived not long after the summer solstice.
Not far from the calendar stones were piles of rocks. Wendorf discovered that eight of these rock piles covered tumuli containing disarticulated cattle bones. One tumulus yielded a young female cow, which represented a considerable investment of time and effort by the person who offered it. The cow had been set in a chamber, which was then covered with a roof (wood from this roof supplied a radiocarbon date of about 6,500 years ago). The roof was then plastered over and covered with a pile of rocks.
Wendorf’s team also found a very unusual kind of installation. They noticed a number of stone circles with one or two flat stones placed at the center. Beneath each stone circle, excavators found a large, mushroom-shaped rock—weighing several tons—that had been covered by about 10 feet of lake sediment some 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. According to Wendorf, some people found these large rocks, probably by accident, around 6,000 years ago.c “First, they dug 20-foot-wide pits around the rocks. Then they shaped the rocks, leveling the top and smoothing out the sides so that each rock had a point projecting slightly west of north. Next they back-filled the pit and set up a large stone statue (about 5.5 tons) using the shaped rock as a pedestal. Like the rock, the statue’s head points slightly northwest.”
What does the statue depict? “I don’t know,” Wendorf said. “It looks like a cow to me. I don’t know if it’s a cow or not, but it’s something with a head.”
After these ancient people set up the “cow,” they filled the pit, covering the entire installation, and erected a circle of large stones on the surface. These stones marked the edge of the filled-in pit; in the center of this circle, one or two large stones were placed flat on the ground.
“They built 30 of these things,” said Wendorf. “We don’t know what they are. Are they shrines to some god?” Wendorf himself believes the site was a ceremonial center where the ancients welcomed (or solicited) the advent of the annual rains with sacrifices and feasting.
“Perhaps these people brought the idea of cattle worship to the Nile Valley,” Wendorf said. “The idea of moving big stones, of building complex structures. I think it would be far-fetched to say that the pyramids were developed on the basis of these relatively small structures at Nabta. But maybe the Nabta people introduced the idea of astronomical observations. There are many possibilities.”
When Rudolph Kuper and his team of German archaeologists visited the Southwest Desert in the spring of 2002, he was shocked. Having traveled hundreds of miles through the rough dry Sahara, where a few years earlier there had been nothing but sand and rock, he suddenly came upon lakes, high grass, dense bushes, even small trees. Kuper’s first thought was that they were being mocked by a Fata Morgana, a beautiful but unreal mirage: Hundreds of storks stood along the shoreline.
In fact, Kuper and his colleagues had come face-to-face with the Toshka Project. This was the Land of Promise.
Since the mid-1980s, unusually heavy summer rains in Ethiopia have caused periodic flooding of the Nile. The flood water has repeatedly overflowed the banks of Lake Nasser, creating a chain of seven lakes to the west. (In 1996 the water behind the Aswan High Dam reached a record high of 584.3 feet above sea level.) Egyptian authorities estimated that the overflow lakes hold about 260 billion cubic yards of water—one quarter of the Nile’s total water supply.
In 1997 the Egyptian government initiated the Toshka Project to take advantage of overflows from the Nile and Lake Nasser. A canal is to channel water from Lake Nasser to the so-called New Valley, near the Toshka Depression. The Mubarak Pumping Station, one of the world’s biggest designs, will lift 33 million cubic yards of water per day (about 6.5 billion cubic yards yearly) out of Lake Nasser. The pumping station will be powered by electricity generated by the Aswan High Dam. The water will cross a high ridge in the desert before being delivered to selected parts of the New Valley west of Lake Nasser. About 170 miles of canals will supply water to an agricultural area of about 1,600 square miles.
Population pressure on the green belt along the Nile River is one of Egypt’s major problems. Of Egypt’s 65 million people, 95 percent are jammed onto just five percent of the nation’s land. Moreover, with so little arable land, Egypt imports more than half of its food—including about 10 million tons of grain annually from the U.S., Canada and the European Union. For these reasons, the Egyptian government has embarked upon land-reclamation projects involving the diversion of water from the Nile.
The Toshka Project is Egypt’s most ambitious development project, costing an estimated $1.8 billion. A test farm in the Toshka Depression is being run by Sun World, a subsidiary of Cadiz, Inc., which is owned by the Saudi Prince Al Walid Bin Talal. Cadiz also farms 17,500 acres in the Coachella Valley, not far from Palm Springs in arid southern California. According to Robert Rush, a farmer from Arizona who is supervising the planting of citrus fruits at the test farm, the 042Coachella Valley is similar to Egypt’s Southwest Desert in climate and terrain. The soil is good, he says, though harvests may be threatened by heavy sand storms. Rush believes that Sun World will indeed be able to irrigate and farm its 100,000 acres in Toshka. The company hopes to export table grapes, citrus fruit, dates, asparagus, potatoes, melons, bell peppers and tomatoes, as well as wheat and cotton. Plans are underway to ship export crops from the Abu Simbel airport to large British-owned supermarket chains like Tesco, Sainsbury and Safeway. The Egyptian government is preparing to build a huge network of roads and even another airport.
Before the new mega-project was launched, some 70 archaeologists—members of the so-called International Commission of the Later Prehistory of Northeastern Africa—gathered in Pozan, Poland. As a result of this meeting, Fred Wendorf, who is the commission’s president, addressed a letter to Faruk Hosny, the Egyptian Minister of Culture. In any development project of this magnitude, Wendorf wrote, “an essential first step is to undertake a reconnaissance survey to locate and evaluate the potential for significant sites that might be destroyed by construction activities.” Wendorf noted that important archaeological sites may well exist in areas to be reclaimed, and he informed the minister that the commission was prepared to organize archaeological surveys.
Despite such pleas, nothing has happened. In Toshka, construction companies are working 24 hours a day. Dump trucks, earthmovers and other vehicles kick up dust in the shimmering heat. “The machines are destroying everything buried in the ground,” Kuper lamented.
Another, similar crisis in Egyptian archaeology occurred in 1959–1960. With the building of the Aswan High Dam, an enormous lake (now the 300-mile-long Lake Nasser) was going to be created, threatening Egyptian and Nubian monuments. The Egyptian government and UNESCO arranged an international salvage effort. Universities and museums all over the world sent experts to recover important artifacts before they were submerged. In some instances, entire complexes, such as the temple at Philae (8 miles south of Aswan), were dismantled block by block and moved to safer ground. 043In return for their assistance, some of these institutions were given ancient items to be exhibited abroad. The small Roman-period Temple of Dendur, for example, is now in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The situation in the Southwest Desert, however, is very different. As Wendorf remarked, “The archaeological materials are not exciting temples; they are not valuable monuments. But they are the pre-pharaonic history of Egypt, and they are all that’s left of that.”
In the 1960s, Wendorf had been part of a new generation of prehistorians who came to survey Nubia. Most of the pre-pharaonic sites they knew about were in a part of the Nile Valley called the “low desert,” just outside of the flood plain. A few years ago, however, Egypt passed a law allowing people to farm unused land and thus gain title to it—similar to the American Homestead Act. This law created a land rush. People moved to the low desert, leveled the land and drilled wells. “As a result, almost no archaeological remains were left,” Wendorf said. “Everything was destroyed in just a few years.”
Now, remains from pre-pharaonic Egypt can only be found deeper in the desert, where they are directly threatened by the immense land-reclamation projects. It is not very likely that institutions around the world will send experts to the Southwest Desert, where there is little fodder for museums.
History, as Karl Marx said, does indeed repeat itself—the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. A new “wet phase” will bring people to the desert as a Land of Promise. Another “great civilization will be built parallel to that of the Old Valley,” propaganda texts proclaim. Ancient Egyptian civilization might once have been inspired by cattle herders from the desert; now Egyptian cattle herders may return to Nabta Playa, only to wipe out the past.
For about 5,000 years, Egypt’s Southwest Desert, west of Lake Nasser, has been a hellish, lifeless, hyper-arid region of barren rock and sand. But that wasn’t always so. Archaeologists surveying this part of the Sahara have found ancient remains of lakes, villages, cattle bones, burial tumuli and huge megaliths aligned with the heavens. With the coming of the dry period, when the rains stopped and the lakes disappeared, the people who herded these cattle and built these monuments migrated somewhere, probably into the fertile Nile Valley. Is it possible, then, that they contributed to the development of pharaonic […]