Isolated by hundreds of miles of desert and without modern conveniences, the people of Egypt's oases led a simple life for generations.
Men rose at daybreak to tend the lush, tree-lined fields. They bartered for food and services and gathered in the evening for a game of el siga, moving stone pieces in the sand. The women baked bread or wove palm-leaf mats, the only furniture in their cool, mudbrick homes.
Today, with paved roads, television, and other trappings of modern life, the past is vanishing. Many people have left mud-brick homes for concrete high-rises.
While people from around the world lament that their picture-book image of an oasis is fast disappearing, the new developments could have more serious consequences.
Desperate to relocate some of Egypt's 62 million people from the jam-packed sliver of green along the Nile River, the government has been selling large chunks of oasis land to Nile Valley farmers, whose irrigation methods and heavy-water-use crops could completely deplete the underground aquifer and, some experts worry, dry up the oases themselves over time.
In Siwa, arguably the most unusual and beautiful oasis, this influx of farmers, who are drilling wells and forcing more and more water to the surface, could, in the short term, completely drown the oasis. "You can't go ahead with any agricultural scheme at any cost," says Aldo Biondi, an Italian agricultural expert working in Siwa. "The oasis will be destroyed."
Remnants of grasslands
Egypt has five major oases, all located in the expansive Western Desert, west of the Nile River Valley. Inhabited since prehistoric times, the area was a sprawling savannah with lions, zebras, and giraffes before it slowly transformed into what is now one of the world's most arid regions. The pharaohs sent exiles to the oases and the Romans built roads, fortresses, and villages there as stops along their caravan routes.
In the Middle Ages the oaseans, as they are often called, erected fortified mud-brick villages to protect themselves against invaders. To this day, pharoanic temples, Roman castles, and Islamic mud-brick towns remain.
While the oases have always been evolving, the speed and severity of change have increased dramatically in the past few decades, with enormous developments in recent years. In Farafra, the smallest oasis, for example, the population has increased from 5,000 to 14,000 since 1995.
Agricultural land has grown more than sevenfold from 3,000 acres to 22,000. Five years ago, the oasis didn't have electricity, roads, telephones, or a hospital. Today it has all of these.
While some of these changes brought welcome amenities, others had a less desirable effect. The government's New Valley Project, beginning in the 1960s, brought a huge influx of Nile Valley farmers to the formerly picturesque Kharga oasis. They used traditional flood irrigation to cultivate heavily water-dependent crops, like rice, practically depleting Kharga's aquifer and leaving the once-rich soil salty and useless, environmentalists say.
Today, lush green farms have turned to desert and miles of plowed land remain unplanted. The town of Kharga is a desolate, dusty place with rows of cracked, dull Soviet-bloc-style apartment buildings, garbage strewn around, and wind-blown empty lots.
Paying for progress
While Kharga is an extreme, all the oaseans are losing their customs, crafts, and architecture. The government has named the old city, or qasr, of Dakhla oasis a protected area, but it is difficult to maintain these mud-brick buildings, which melt when it rains.
Since residents can't make any alterations without endless bureaucratic haggling or because some see the mud brick as old fashioned and high-maintenance, many occupants have moved from qasr's twisting lanes and medieval buildings to the apartments below.
As part of the government's preservation plan, it is considering evacuating the people to transform this living city - with men pounding iron tools, scampering children, and women weaving baskets - into a museum for tourists.
Today some oaseans say they spend long hours watching television, instead of tending their fields or working their crafts. They complain that they are also less generous and more materialistic, and that the strong community ties that made people feel secure and content are fading. "A long time ago if someone got sick, you saw the whole village around you," says Hamdi Abdel Aly, a Farafra hotel owner. "They gave you money if you needed it.... But not now, not anymore."
'Who would hate to have roads?'
Still, for government officials and many oaseans, the benefits of change far outweigh the drawbacks. They don't want to deprive the oaseans of modern conveniences just so tourists can glimpse an oasis of old. "Is there anyone against development?" asks Dakhla mayor and native Farouk Sayed el Nashwany. "Who would hate to have an asphalt road? Who would hate to have a hospital, television stations, or a satellite dish?"
Still, some oaseans and outsiders realize that, without preservation, priceless environmental and cultural treasures will disappear. Siwa's residents have started an environmental committee to preserve the oasis. A joint Egypt-European Union project is working now to plot areas in Egypt, including the oases area, for protection. And an Italian government project is working to improve agricultural techniques at Siwa.
Much is at stake. "If one allows unchecked growth of buildings and nontraditional styles," says a foreign archaeologist working in Siwa who asked not to be identified, the situation will worsen. "If nobody ... regulates the appearance of the place, if industries are allowed which are alien to the surroundings, then all will be lost and the oases will be nothing [but] a place you can find anywhere."