What Is an Oasis?

You’re all familiar with the image—a group of travelers crawling across an infinite desert expanse suddenly encounter a sparkling patch of fertile land—trees! water! All too often their senses have deceived them; it’s only a mirage. But here in Egypt, oases are a reality.

An oasis is an isolated stretch of fertile ground and vegetation surrounded by desert. The elevation of this fertile area is low enough that the water table comes close to the surface, causing a natural spring. Because oases offer the only available water, vegetation, and shade in vast expanses of uninhabitable desert, these areas have played a vital role for trade and transportation routes. Caravans traveling across the desert depend on oases for food and water, making them extremely critical and sought-after territories. Historically, once a particular group claimed political or military control over an oasis, they also gained control of trade along that route. So oases have long figured as crossroads or gateways between distant lands. They allowed travelers crossing from Africa into Asia a chance to restock their water and food supplies.

Word Origin: Oasis

The word oasis actually comes from the Greek word óασις, which may have been adopted from the ancient Egyptian, or Demotic. The geographic origin is probably linked to North Africa. The word is also believed to be borrowed from the Coptic word ouahe, which means “dwelling area.” This makes sense because fertile spots in the desert are natural centers for habitation.

What Causes Oases?

On average the Sahara receives only about three inches of rain annually. Since the sand is so porous, much of it seeps right down to the bedrock, which rests a couple hundred feet below the desert surface. Where the elevation is so low from erosion that the water table lays directly below the surface, a spring can ooze water onto the surface. Any seeds that land on that territory are able to sprout and grow roots into the land. What results is an oasis.

The only force capable of radically transforming the desert landscape is the wind. Hence, the larger oases were formed when severe storms, which can carry up to 100 million tons of sand and dust, swept away an even more massive expanse of desert. For example, the Kharga Oasis, located in southern Egypt in the Libyan Desert, stretches for over 100 mi. This oasis was formed when erosion caused the perimeters of a deep depression, about the size of Connecticut, to drop down to the water table.

Oases in Ancient Egypt

Egypt has six major oases. Five of them were controlled by the ancient Egyptians and exploited for various purposes. Kharga and Bahariyya were used for making wine. Wadi Natrun was crucial because it contained the salt natron, a central ingredient in Egyptian embalming. The only oasis not under ancient Egyptian control (not until the 26th Dynasty: 600–500 BC) was Siwa, an isolated settlement in Western Egypt in the Libyan Desert. It was here that Alexander the Great came, as legend has it, by following birds across the desert, confirming his divine personage and legitimizing him as king of Egypt. Many oases, including Siwa, were used as places of exile for political prisoners or criminals during pharaonic and Roman rule. Surrounded by arid desert, these “prisons without bars” needed very little to keep their prisoners from running away.

The Oases Today: the Rise of Ecotourism

Traveling to oases has become much easier. A journey that once took days or weeks traversing the desert on camelback now requires half a day in a bus. To get off the beaten path of Egypt’s annual 10 million tourists who move in bus herds along the predictable course (primarily along the Nile), some visitors prefer to slip away to the desert oases with a small group. There, visitors enjoy meeting the local Bedouins and other tribespeople, dipping into the steaming hot spring waters, camping in the desert under the stars, and sleeping in eco-lodges or traditional huts. This kind of tourism offers a more authentic experience of the natural Egyptian landscape and local people.

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