Of the many fortified Islamic settlements that dot the oasis, Al-Qasr is by far the most impressive. Seen from the main road, its mud-brick houses and minarets peer above lush palm groves and a small lake, and sit beneath the breathtaking backdrop of the Dakhla escarpment. The approach to Al-Qasr leads past the faceless modern village to a square with a new mosque.

The old town, which dates back over 1,000 years and sits atop Roman foundations, appears as if it was abandoned in a hurry centuries ago. Its twisting, covered alleys, multistory mud-brick houses, and heavy wooden gates are in mint condition—all that is missing are the people. In reality, the town’s abandonment is quite recent, with most residents having relocated in the past few decades. It is still inhabited in some parts, and you may be invited for tea by one of its remaining elderly occupants. Most visitors will stop by the Mosque of Nasr al-Din, a mud-brick structure whose 60-foot-high minaret has stood since the 12th century (though rebuilt in the 19th century). Its thorny crown of wooden planks once held a balcony, where a muezzin would sound the call to prayer. Inside the mosque is the mausoleum of its patron, Sheikh Nasr al-Din.

Other important stops in the village include ingenious medieval air-cooling towers, a restored olive press, and a madrassa (Islamic school) that once doubled as a town hall and courthouse. Wander long enough and you may also find the donkey-driven grain mill and a working blacksmith’s forge.

Many of the houses in Al-Qasr incorporate stone blocks from earlier structures, some containing hieroglyphic inscriptions. Equally fascinating are the beautiful acacia-wood lintels on houses that provide clues about their origin. Their carved Kufic and cursive Arabic inscriptions usually name the carpenter, home owner, construction date, as well as verse from the Qu‘ran. The earliest dates to 1518.

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