Egypt: Ain Umm Dabadib in the Kharga Oasis of Egypt

Ain Umm Dabadib in the Kharga Oasis of Egypt

By Jimmy Dunn

The fortress at Ain Umm Dabadib

The ruins at Ain Umm Dabadib (Ain Umm el-Dabadib) in the Kharga Oasis are actually very extensive. Located about 20 kilometers west of Qaser el-Leabekha and about 40 kilometers north of Qaser Kharga, this is a remote region of the oasis which lay on the Darb Ain Amur, the ancient route to the Dakhla Oasis. It is one of the more adventurous places to visit, absolutely requiring a guide just to find its location.

The site is probably best known for its fortress which is situated in a most spectacular setting. It is nestled in at the base of an escarpment that is about 380 meters above sea level and 225 meters above the desert floor.

Indications of the extensive ruins around the fortress of Ain Umm Dabadib in the Kharga Oasis in Egypt

This was an important settlement for thousands of years, and the ruins of Dabadib stretch over some 60,000 acres where three major desert tracks converge on the plain. One track led from the fortress of el-Leabekha past Ain Umm Dabadib and continued on westward towards Ain Amur and the Dakhla Oasis. Another cross the plain directly heading towards the Hibis Temple, while the third track crossed through Ain Umm Dabadib and headed northwestwards over the escarpment, eventually leading to a route connecting the Nile Valley with the Dakhla Oasis. It was probably the Romans who established a major settlement here, though the complicated aqueduct system suggests that it was inhabited and functional long before them.

Another view of the fortress at Ain Umm Dabadib

The towing fortress at Ain Umm Dabadib is located about one half kilometers southeast of the ruins of the town. The enclosure wall surrounds an area of from 90 to 100 square meters. It is very unusual for its square towers, which flank the entrance on the south. However, like other fortresses in the Kharga Oasis, it is made of mudbrick which are fairly uniform in size, measuring 35 by 17 by 9 centimeters.

Because of its rectangular towers, some scholars believe that the fortress is of later date than those with rounded towers in the various oasis. The tallest of the Dabadib towers, on the south-western corner, still contains the remains of a spiral staircase and rises to a current height of about 15 meters. Smaller buildings were crowded around its southern and western walls. While the interior of the fortress is now ruined, several vaulted chambers at ground level are still intact.

There are also the ruins of a Christian church, complete with several arches, which abuts the east side of the fortress. The aspe contained Greek, Coptic and Arabic graffiti. Regrettably, however, though the church was still mostly standing in 1997, it was only recently very damaged by an imbecile on a forklift seeking treasure. This is a problem that continues in some of these remote sites.

While the site may best be known for its somewhat unusual fortress, really the most spectacular ruins at Ain Umm Dabadib are the aqueducts. The Ain Umm Dabadib aqueducts were explored by Ball in 1898 and Beadnell in 1898 and 1905. They were also visited by Ahmed Fakhry in the 1930s. In 1905 when Beadnell explored the a tunnel that had been cleared out by villagers from Kharga, he found that it was still flowed with some thirty to thirty-five gallons per minute of water. The shaft that he explored measured 1.5 by .75 meters and was cut through solid sandstone rock to a depth of 40 meters. It led to a tunnel measuring about 1.5 meters high by 60 centimeters wide at the top. It was halt and sultry, but after a few attempts, Beadnell traced it to its end hoping to find an inscription that would date the construction and provide some clue to its builders. However, one should think twice about following his exploration. He tells us that:

"On more than one occasion, I sank exhausted into the water, the huge gasps of breath which I took seeming powerless to relieve the horrible sensation of stifling, and with the unpleasant prospect of getting drowned if I escaped suffocation. yet there seemed to be ten thousand devils tempting me onwards, and although I did not know how long life could be supported under such conditions, a mad desire possessed me to see the thing through; so that whenever I was able to progress a few yards it was toward the head of the tunnel."

These shafts are dangerous, and appear to contain snakes, scorpions and bats, and in the end, Beadnell found nothing.

Today, these aqueducts are still intact, snaking north from the town to the water source in the escarpment. They are by far the best example of such elaborate aqueducts in the Kharga Oasis. Along the route, every few meters, is an air vent and access hole which permitted maintenance of the underground galleries. This was necessary because they were always filling with sand which had to be cleared out.

Of course, a large settlement needed a constant water supply, and here, during antiquity, an extensive 14.3 kilometers, twisting and turning underground system of galleries was created. There are five main aqueducts that run parallel to each other with main holes for maintenance along each of them. The longest of these is the westerly one stretching some 4.6 kilometers. The one to the north runs 2.9 kilometers and is 53.5 meters deep. It has 150 shafts spaced about 19 to 20 meters apart. It descends about one meter for every 2.5 meters in length. Combined, the builders excavated some 4,875 cubic meters of earth, digging 600 to 700 vertical shafts, and cut and moved over 20,000 meters of solid rock. This was an amazing feat of construction.

There remains many questions about the aqueduct systems in the Western Desert. This one, due to its design and manner of construction, was probably begun by the Persians. However, some scholars have suggested an even earlier date for some aqueducts. Ahmed Fakhry discovered in the Bahariya that the aqueduct was in place before a 26th Dynasty tomb was dug.

Nevertheless, the Romans did extensive work on water systems in the Western desert, constructing huge cisterns along the northern coast and underground galleries and aqueducts in most of the oasis. Yet, none of the Roman work really resembles, or is as sophisticated, what we find at Ain Umm Dabadib. hey are closer in deign to the systems found in Libya and Algeria, as well as those in Iran (Persia) Afghanistan, Oman and China.

Apparently, water is still available at Ain Umm Dabadib, and from time to time over the years, farmers have attempted to clear the wells and re-cultivate the land. However, keeping the channels clear of sand seems to be very labor intensive, and so these efforts have so far failed.

A closer view of the ruins surrounding the fortress

Lying to the west of the fortress, along the channel of the more westerly aqueduct as it makes its way toward the mountain are the substantial remains of a village bordered to its west by a number of sunt trees. Another portion of the town, known as the Eastern Village, lies directly behind the fortress. It contains a number of ruined mudbrick buildings.

The fortified town appears to consist of many luxurious houses, sometimes up to three stories high, which ware currently being studied by the team undertaking the north Kharga Oasis Survey. Recent discoveries in the area include a possible mill and s small hermitage. Reportedly, this area continues to be covered in potshards.

Beyond the village is a very small temple, easily recognized by its walls that slant inward from the base. The temple has a pylon-shaped design at the front, though within its vaulted ceilings are more typical of Roman-Byzantine architecture. The temple contains some hieroglyphs and scenes of Egyptian deities, though there are also some Coptic inscriptions and traces of red paint. Just beside the temple is the second aqueduct. To the east of it, past some vegetation, is the third aqueduct sitting at the base of a spur of the escarpment.

Another view of the ruins around the fortress at Ain Umm Dabadib in the Kharga Oasis

Ten different cemeteries have been identified at Ain Umm Dabadib by the NKOS team, which includes both rock-cut and shallow graves. Some of the tombs were lined with mudbricks and some showed remains of mudbrick facades. The variation in tombs, carved rock and painted prick suggest that all classes of society lived in proximity. Some of these cemeteries appear to span as many as ten generations. To the east of the third aqueduct, all along the spur, are rock cut tombs. Some of them have been desecrated, with the remains of their mummies scattered about (though now this has been cleaned up). NKOS are currently studying the methods of mummification, but the mummies may be of Roman origin, NKOS researchers say. They still contain the brain, and the salt-dried bodies were covered in oils and wrapped in pink, red, yellow and natural-colored linen bandages. Researchers have also identified Roman mummy makes by their plaster curls and eyebrow fragments.

Unfortunately, Ain Umm Dabadib has historically failed to attract archaeologists, though in 1998, excavations was finally begun. There will be doubtless much that we will learn. Prehistoric remains have also been located here, and it is possible that the site was occupied sporadically from these early times, though its present importance is in providing valuable information covering the transitional period between Pagan and Christian Egypt.

The area is also very interesting Geologically. Dry river channels are evident as they fall from the escarpment onto the plain below, leading one to suspect that waterfalls may have existed here in the distant past. The plain is actually a playa, a dried up lake






Reference Number

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir


Les Livres De France

None Stated

Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture, The

Arnold, Dieter


Princeton University Press

ISBN 0-691-11488-9

Western Desert of Egypt, The

Vivian, Cassandra


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 527 X

Last Updated: June 12th, 2011