Tuesday, June 15, 2004
Island of the Blessed: The Secrets of Egypt's Everlasting Oasis - Harry Thurston
"Ex Africa semper aliquid novi - There is always something new out of Africa." - Pliny the Elder
Egypt has ever been about the Nile. It's seasonal floods have carried rich silt along a narrow strip of arable land ribboning 4,000 miles through the desert, it's rhythm sustaining the life, culture and development of one of the world's most monumental civilizations.
But life did not begin with the Nile.
Deep in the Egyptian Sahara, 400 miles from the familiar epic sites of Cairo, Giza and the Pyramids lies the Dakhleh Oasis, a green island in a sea of sand, rock and parched wilderness - a place that has been revealed as an archaeological treasure trove, with an almost complete record of continuous human habitation dating back more than 400,000 years.
Island of the Blessed (entitled Secrets of the Sands in the U.S. - not nearly as evocative a title...) offers an intensely fascinating look at a unique archaeological site. The Dakhleh Oasis is not the proverbial pond with a smattering of palm trees, but rather a region that covers more than 600 square miles, providing life-giving water to a variety of plants, animals and people - stretching back more than 400,000 years in history. It is, quite literally, an island of life in the bleak wasteland of the Sahara.
Thurston draws on more than 30-years of archaeological studies and carefully takes the reader through the slowly uncovering history and significance of Dakhleh. Among the evidence uncovered by the archaeological teams working in Dakhleh is neolitihic stone tools and prehistoric encampments, new evidence of some of mankind's earliest agricultural activities, an exquisitely preserved Old Kingdom town, Roman aqueducts, countless mummies, a vast collection of papyrus records and the world's oldest bound books. One crucial theory now being examined is that Dakhleh was the crucible for Egyptian civilization, predating the Nile River habitations and provided a critical role in the ongoing development of Egyptian civilization and trade.
Thurston has created a solid, highly readable work that captures the unique setting and environment of Dakhleh, and offers up colorful and vivid glimpses of the sometimes obsessive characters of the archaeologists who are slowly bringing the past to light. In addition to the archaeological record, the long sequence of continuous human habitation within the isolated oasis environment permits archaeologists and climatologists to develop a one-of-a kind environment assessment, measuring the environmental impact and growth of human habitation within the isolation of the Dakhleh Oasis over an extended period of time. The research brings to light some of the detrimental impact that unchecked human growth and overly extensive agricultural practices can have on the water supply, a practice that may, in time, bring the Everlasting Oasis to an ignominious end.
For more on Dakhleh, check out The Dakhleh Oasis Project. For information on the world's oldest bound books, visit this site on ancient Kellis.
For more information on the Sahara Desert, visit PBS's Sahara website or read Michael Palin's account of his sojourn in the world's largest desert.
For some fabulous websites on Egyptian archaeology, check out Eternal Egypt , a huge and extensive multimedia site, and the Theban Mapping Project which offers an interactive atlas of the Valley of the Kings.
Want a birds-eye view? Check out this image from NASA's Earth Observatory website. If you look carefully in the western desert, you can spot Dakhleh.
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