Farafra is a remote and quiet town that feels very traditional and peaceful. It is the smallest and most isolated of the oases in the Western Desert, though it lies in a deep depression that suggests it was once much larger. Limestone escarpments encircle the depression on three sides.
Farafra connects all of the Western Desert together. Wherever your destination, Farafra always seems to be near. It is closer to Libya than to the Nile Valley. The town lies on the edge of the White Desert, an unearthly landscape of luminescent chalk formations sculpted by the wind into the shapes of minarets, animals and mushrooms.
The Farafra is 170 kilometers away from the Bahaerya Oasis and 627 kilometers away from Cairo, 370 kilometers to the South West of Marsa Matroh and the Mediterranean Sea.
It is considered to be the most isolated oasis of the governorate of Al Wadi Al Gadid in Southern Egypt. Maybe this is why the people who live in Farafra are still famous until today for practicing their old traditions and customs.
The Farafra has gained the attention of tourists during the last few years because of its unique magic and because the oasis can be the start point for many interesting tours in the Western desert of Egypt like to the white desert, the black desert the Crystal Mountains.
Farafra & its People
Today Farafra has a population of more than 20 thousand people. However, most of them originate from the Nile Valley and they came to Farafra to work as farmers. There is also an important agriculture project in Farafra covering more than 10 thousand Hectares near a well called Bir Qarawein.
Until recently, all the routes going from to the Farafra Oasis, or from Al Bahareya or Al Dakhla, were not paved and travelers used to suffer a lot to reach this unique oasis. However, nowadays there is a good network of roads that connects Farafra with other oasis of the Western Desert and with the Nile Valley as well.
The capital and the most important town in the Farafra Oasis is the city of Qaser Farafra. This is the most ancient part in the Farafra Oasis and in the 19th century, Qaser Farafra was the only inhibited city in the Western Desert with a population of only 200 people.
Many tourists choose Farafra today as it started being famous worldwide for its quietness and warm weather. People from the United States and from Europe come to the Oasis to escape the cold weather in their homeland. They also visit the Farafra to enjoy the wonders of the Western Desert.
The main source of income
Farafra's main source of income is agriculture, producing mainly dates, olives, beans, rice and watermelons. By drilling new wells, the agricultural area is being expanded and nowadays the oasis produces more than its own needs, and exports the excess output to Cairo and the Nile Valley.
The History of Farafra
Historians believed that the oasis of Farafra went through three phases in prehistoric times when the oasis was exposed to a set of heavy rains. This was a proof that Farafra hosted inhabitants since the prehistoric era when these rains attracted many Egyptians to go and live in the Farafra.
Some other historians believe that the Farafra was the connection point between the Libyan Desert and the Egyptian desert. With many trading routs between the Western Desert and the Nile Valley, Farafra was one of the most important transit points for the caravans.
The Farafra Oasis had a role as well in the Pharos time as this small oasis was mentioned in many ancient Egyptian texts especially in the reign of the 10th dynasty in the 21st BC. The Farafra was called "Ana Akhet", or the land of the cow as a symbol of fertility in reference to the ancient god Hathour and it was best described as the city of conquest or invasion because of its remoteness.
In the new kingdom, there were some evident that Ramsis II used to import stones from the Farafra Oasis to be used in constructing his many temples in Luxor precisely. However, no mining locations have ever been discovered in the Farafra.
During the Roman era, the oasis, including Al Dakhla, Al Kharga, Al Bahareya, and Al Farafra were the lands of grains as many grains were cultivated in the lands of the oasis. The Romans left some monuments in the Farafra like the Qaser Al Farafra, or the Farafra Palace and Qaser Abu Monqar and some other rock cut tombs. There are also the ruins of a Roman Temple.
In the Coptic time, Egyptian Copts used to escape the aggressiveness and assaults of the Romans and go to the Farafra and the other oasis as well. The Copts left some ruins in Farafra that proof they had a sort of civilization there.
After the Arab conquest of Egypt, the trade of dates and olives between the Farafra oasis and the Nile Valley flourished tremendously. Camel caravans used to carry the goods and products of the Farafra to the district of Dirot on the Nile valley. The caravans used to go back to the Farafra full of cloth, tea, and all the products of the Nile Valley.
The family of Mohamed Ali gave some attention to the oasis and the Farafra among them. This was why Khedive Ismail sent the German scientist, Gerhard Rudolf, to see if the Farafra really hosted a river that contained no water. Rudolf tried to pass through the western desert to reach Farafra but he was never able to do so. However, he spent three months, with his caravan, in the Egyptian desert and oasis.
Rudolf published an interesting study concerning his stay in the deserts of Egypt and this publication worked as a reference for any one who wanted to explore the Western Desert.
Just before the end of the 19th century, a Senusi worship site, a Muslim political-religious system that was established in Libya and the Sudan region and it was founded in Mecca in 1837, was built in the Farafra. This made many Senusis emigrated from the Libyan desert to the Farafra. The Senusis remained in the Farafra until the beginning of the 20th century. Even today, many original inhabitants who belong to the Farafra Oasis have the name Senusi and have some Senusi origins.
What to see in Farafra ?
The white desert
The white desert is the most popular and interesting area in the Western Desert. The white desert became a protected area since 2002. It occupies a surface area of around three thousand kilometers.
On the road that goes between Farafra and Baharya, one can see the first bizarre rock formation in the white desert. Some rocks look like animals, mushrooms, and some rocks have totally strange shapes.
As the saying goes" nature is the art o god". The white desert is clear evidence on this ability of the god to form his universe. Maybe this is why the "finger of god" is located in the white desert. The finger of god or "Al Qubar", the Chisel, is a 20 meters high rock formations that can be seen from far away even from the paved road and the locals like to call it the finger of god as it looks like a huge finger rising from the sand.
No one would ever believe that this white desert was covered with a sea in ancient times and the white chalk that formed all these rocks was deposited from this sea. If one takes a closer look on the rocks of the white desert, he can notice that there are seashells in the halls of the rocks.
To the northeast of the white desert, there is an area called Aqabat, or "obstacles" in English. Of course this name had a reason and this area is full of obstructions that face anyone who wants to pass through. In the middle of this area, lies the mountain of Twin peaks which is an important landmark for travelers.
In the west section of the white desert, which is much less visited than the East section because of the poor conditions of the roads leading to it, there is the ancient site of Wadi Al Ubayid, or the white valley.
The black desert and the crystal mountain
The black desert mainly consists of mountains formed primarily out of numerous volcano small black stones and rocks. However, these rocks lay on an orange brown background. As many people would say" The black desert is not as black in comparison to the white color of the white desert.
Most of the tourists who go to the white and black deserts usually would like to visit the famous crystal mountain. In a contradiction to its name, the rocks in this mountain are not crystal, they are rather Barite which is a substance that is less hard than crystals.
The crystal mountain has an interesting story. The Egyptian government broke parts of this mountain to construct the road between the Bahareya Oasis and the Farafra oasis. This made the crystal rocks appear and it turned this area into a famous touristic site.
Almost exactly half way between the Nile and Farafra Oasis, a marker by the road indicates you have reached the rarely visited, spectacular Djarra (or Garra) cave. Entry is by a narrow opening that does not allow you to walk upright and gives no indication of the delights about to be revealed. The shaft leads to a steep but soft sandy slope that deposits you in the cave itself.
Accumulated sand underfoot provides a deep, powdery carpet to walk on. This same sand has evened out the surface of the floor of the cave so that your attention is inevitably drawn upwards. Impressive displays of stalactites hang down from the ancient ceiling.
There are also columns formed where stalactites hanging down have met rising stalagmites. The fact that there are also vast formations under your feet is obscured by the sand covering.
It can take 1000s of years for a formation to grow just one centimetre. Normally the hanging formations are wet and appear to be dripping slightly as they are still in the process of forming.
Here in Djarra they are dry and fully formed. This only serves to reinforce the impression of just how old this cave really is
Soaring above you the roof resembles the domed ceiling of a cathedral or mosque with unique and complex patterns of hanging limestone formed by steadily dripping water which has long since vanished from this arid cave. You could easily while away a day tracing the patterns and trying to find descriptions for each formation.
At the entrance hangs a visitors' book that anyone who has seen this remote, unspoilt sight can feel proud to add their name to. First discovered in 1874 by Gerhard Rohlfs, who crossed the Sahara twice in search of the legendary city of Timbuktoo, the cave was then 'lost' again before being brought back to light in the late 1980s. Since then it has remained an awe-inspiring image, reducing those who are lucky enough to see it to silence.
In ancient times, Farafra was called To-ihw or the Land of the Cow (referring to the goddess Hathor). The old village of Qasr El-Farafra was based around a 120-room mud-brick fort (qasr) from which it got its name. The villagers used the fort when they were under attack from outside tribes. The fort collapsed in 1958, but the remains of Qasr El-Farafra have narrow alleys and houses of sun-dried bricks with wooden doors.
The modern village is a lovely slow-moving place, with quiet dusty streets and traditionally decorated homes. They are sometimes decorated by the local artist, Badr, with landscapes, birds, animals and verses of the Qur'an. The Bedouins live in one-storey houses, mostly painted blue (believed to ward off the evil eye). Usually, one house is divided into many sections, occupied by more than one family, with the sections linked through open air corridors.
The palm gardens on the edge of town are lush and green. They are a beautiful and peaceful place to go walking. They are tended by the original families of the oasis, and are full of date palms, olive trees and orange groves.
On Thursday mornings the local market sells vegetables, fruit, clothes and household goods. Brightly-clothed women with traditional jewellery and tattoos come to buy and sell. Farafrans are very religious, and on Thursday nights there is sometimes a Sufi zikr at the shrine of the local saint.
There are no Pharaonic sites to visit in Farafra. Visiting the museum, the palm plantations, nearby hot springs and swimming in the pool at Badawiya Hotel Farafra will keep you entertained. The surrounding desert landscapes are the greatest attraction of this region for most travelers.
Badr Abdel-Moghni was the first oasis artist to exhibit his work in galleries in Cairo and around the world. A native of Farafra, he built the museum himself in the style of a traditional Farafran home. The museum is full of his sculptures, sand paintings, oils and watercolours. Badr's art depicts the desert life of the people of Farafra, and is a moving illustration of how things used to be. There is also a garden at the museum filled with surreal sculptures.
Farafra has the best and most attractive hot springs of any oasis. Bir Sitta (Well Six) and Bir Sabba (Well Seven) are steaming hot springs 5 km out of town. The water is 38 degrees and ideal for bathing. Locals usually visit during the day, while tourists come for sunset or a moonlit soak. The water is fed into the springs by a pipe and it is just deep enough to swim. About 7 km out of town, Bir Itnayn w'Ishrin (Well 22) is even deeper and surrounded by lush farmland. Relaxing in a sulphurous hot spring is the perfect way to finish off a desert safari.
Abu Noss Lake
About 15 km north of Farafra, this lake is an attractive outing and home to plenty of birdlife. The rocky bottom stops the deep water getting too murky and a cool dip is wonderful in the summer heat. It's also a nice place for sunset, with the background of white desert mountains and green vegetation contrasting with the blue waters. Nearby is the farm where Badawiya's camels rest when they are not out in the desert.
At Ain Besai, located about 12km south-west of Qasr el-Farafra there is a Roman cemetery, remains of two mudbrick structures, a small ruined and uninscribed limestone chapel and some undecorated rock-cut tombs can be seen here.