Widan al-Faras: Tracing the World’s Oldest Road

“The pyramids and temples of the Egyptian Old Kingdom (early-mid-third millennium BC) are testament to an epoch of global significance in the evolution of monumental stone architecture. The basalt quarries of Widan el-Faras and gypsum quarries of Umm es-Sawan (…) were key production sites in the foreground of this transformation to large- scale stone quarrying.” – Elizabeth Bloxam and Tom Heldal

We finally spotted the twin peaks marking the ancient basalt mines that we were looking for. This is the place they call Widan al-Faras (Ears of the Mare) in the Northern Fayoum Desert, some 80 km away from Cairo. We now had to find something extraordinary, something that we had only seen in photos and that none of our safari friends had ever explored: the World’s oldest surviving paved road. Just like the World’s oldest pyramid and the world’s oldest zodiac, this road –too- had to be in Egypt. The story is an interesting one.

It’s the 26th century BC in Egypt. The great Pyramid Builders of the IV Dynasty (Old Kingdom) are literally making history in the form of huge pyramids, impressive funerary temples and beautiful basalt sarcophagi. The basalt for the temples’ floors and walls and for the sarcophagi had to come from somewhere, and this somewhere happened to be Widan al-Faras. Problem: how to move basalt blocks all the way to the site of the Giza Pyramids? Solution: a quarry road to the ancient Lake Moeris (bigger ancestor of the present-day Lake Qarun) some 11 kms away, and floating the basalt from there to Giza during the flood season as the water rises (the Lake was connected to the Nile, see map below). Sounds simple? Wrong guess.

Building an 11-km road in the desert and having it equipped to move massive basalt blocks was anything but easy. The Ancient Egyptian workers had to use not only slabs of limestone and sandstone, but also logs of petrified wood to stabilize the road. Moreover, the landscape is not plain and the desert sand seemed to cover everything. As we finally approached the road, and following the initial thrill, thrill eventually gave way to awe. Over 4,000 years after it was built, some stretches of the road are still –almost- intact and clearly visible against the dramatic backdrop of the distant twin peaks. As we traced the quarry road further away towards the Lake, we stood on a cliff and saw it vanishing into the horizon, like a road to eternity.

The road is a about 2 meters wide, the petrified wood logs are brilliantly black, and –shockingly- the road is neither protected nor ‘signposted’, which means that desert-goers can easily drive over it and that unchecked tourism can do much damage, something clearly visible at some parts.

The whole area is one unique example of what the experts call an industrial landscape (in this case, a quarry landscape) where one can get ‘the full picture’ of the mining process: you see the mines where they cut the stones, the purpose-built quarry road used to transport them, the petrified forest from which logs were used in stabilizing the road, traces of encampments and the final stage of the road (the quay) close to Qasr al-Sagha site (an Ancient Egyptian temple).

Nevertheless, you would need to pay a visit to the Giza Pyramids if you want to see the ‘final use’ of the Widan al-Faras basalt: the floor of the Khufu funerary temple is a good example, and so are the mortuary temples of Userkaf, Sahure and others.

Back to Widan al-Faras, our visit had to follow the ‘logical’ sequence of things at the region. That meant a visit to Midde Kingdom Temple of Qasr al-Sagha (built on the site of an Old Kingdom one) followed by a visit to the Greco-Roman city of Dimai (Dima, of Ptolemaic origin). The massive stones of the otherwise insignificant Qasr al-Sagha and the mudbrick walls of the abandoned Dima seem to defy time, standing against all the odds and bearing witness to the shifting shores of the Lake over the millennia.

That was the last adventure for 2013. Exactly a year ago I was exploring the Nubian Pyramids of Meroe and Jabal Barkal in Sudan, and exactly a year from now I wish I would be exploring one more wonder in my part of the world.

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