With only 2,800 inhabitants and about 200 km to the neighbouring settlement, Farafra is among the most isolated place in Egypt. It is part of the Western Desert circuit, Very little is known about Farafra before the Roman period, of which just a few remains have been found. In terms of antiquities, there is little to see but the desert offers more than one spectacular view. The area north-east of Qasr Farafra is called White Desert and is definitely worth a visit. Here chalk monoliths have been slowly eroded by the wind into strange and suggestive shapes, that extend for kilometres all around, creating a magnificent view.
To the south, the ancient caravan route called Darb Farafra between Farafra and Dakhla crossed the little water station of Bir Dikkar and then the impressive Black Valley, named after the black pyrite fragments that cover the surface. To its west lies the spring of 'Ayn Dalla, which has always been an important strategic point in the middle of the Western Desert.
The road leading there runs across a beautiful landscape dotted with chalk formations and lacustrine deposits. Farafra, known as Ta-iht or the Land of the Cow in pharaonic times, is a single village. The most isolated of the New Valley Oases it is renowned for its strong traditions and piety. According to folklore, the villagers once lost
track of time and had to send a rider to Dakhla so they could hold the Friday prayers on the right day. The oldest part of the village, on a hillside, is next to peaceful walled palm groves; a short ride away there are hot sulphur springs at Bir Setta and swimming at El-Mufid Lake.
Mostly inhabited by Bedouins, the small mud-brick houses all have wooden doorways with medieval peg locks. As in other oases, many of Farafra's houses are painted blue (to ward off the Evil Eye) but here some are also decorated with landscapes, birds and animals, the handiwork of local artist, Badr. A combination house, museum and studio exhibiting his paintings and ceramics is situated in a garden full of sculptures made from objects found in the surrounding desert.
Much of the fruit and vegetables on sale is locally produced. In almost every sense Farafra is self-sufficient. A local man who recently graduated from Cairo University with a law degree said, "I had to come back to Farafra, I have everything I need here." In this sense he could have been referring to many things. His family and roots are there, as is the unique lifestyle.
Of products for sale, olives and olive oil is of high quality in Farafra. In addition, there is a rich output of vegetables and fruits, including bananas, mangos and guavas.
The area west of Farafra is covered by the impenetrable Great Sand Sea. This region was probably the scene of one of the most famous disasters that took place in the Western Desert, the disappearance of Cambyses' Army. According to Herodotus, when the Persian king Cambyses conquered Egypt, he decided to send an expedition of 50,000 men from Thebes to Siwa to destroy the Oracle of Amun and devastate the whole oasis.
The story goes that while the army was marching somewhere in the Western Desert, a great sand storm arose and anihilated it. There are many theories about the exact route taken by the lost army, and therefore about the place where the men met their fate. It seems likely that, in order to reach Siwa from Thebes, the army would have travelled via Kharga, Dakhla and Farafra, and then attempted to cross the Great Sand Sea.
Since the glorious years of the exploration of the Western Desert, the lost army has always excited the fantasy and tested the determination of the desert traveler. The old carvane road between Farafra and Dakhla Oasis is one of the most beautiful scenery and at the same time very difficult off-road track.
From a hilltop in the tiny oasis village of Farafra, you can tell just how vast the Western Desert is. In almost every direction, your eyes meet flat desert plains extending until they meet the horizon. Space and silence. These were the first things that strike one on arriving in Farafra. It's silence is almost deafening. There is hardly any traffic at all to speak of, that is if you don't count
a handful of men strolling up the middle of its asphalted main road or a half a dozen donkeys standing idly by the roadside. During the day, the sky is a bright, clear blue and at night it shimmers with the light of a million stars a stark contrast to the brown film which envelopes Cairo.
Once in the White Desert, you experience one of the true wonders of the natural world. The beauty and bizarre forms of the limestone and calcite rock formations are awe-inspiring. "It is a natural gallery,of the rocks formed into a vast array of shapes by harsh desert winds over the ages.
Farafra is the least populated and developed of Egypt's Western Desert Oases. Its small series of streets can be maneuvered within a matter of minutes, yet a brief glimpse into everyday life may take months. Closed structures, much like those of Bahariya, allow residents privacy while conducting their lives. A great deal of Farafran social interaction occurs within secure areas leaving the curious visitor little chance for observation or interaction. Thankfully the inspiration of a local artist, known by the name of Badr, gives visitors a view of every day life. Depicting typical scenes his dioramas and paintings tell the story of the oasis. Characters borne of clay and pigment remain suspended in time as they bake bread, play games, mourn in a funeral procession or simply enjoy the company
of fellow Farafrans.
Badr's impressive artistic skill can also be seen in his exceptional architectural projects, all of which derive a great deal of influence from the oasis' traditional building style.
Due to the oasis' critical geographic location and former propensity for desert raids, a large fortress was built in the 15 th century. Today its remains sit on the hilltop overlooking Farafra and the desert below. Historically the residents were relatively poor, but with the influx of tourism and new agricultural projects that is changing. Pottery, jewelry, and textiles remain utilitarian, unlike many of the other oases. However, it is impossible to visit without taking notice of the extraordinary wall paintings.
Most are easily recognizable as they embellish the public walls of dwellings. Typically depicting the resident's pilgrimage to Mecca, images tell the story of the Hajj. In addition, the men of the oasis have gained quite a reputation for hand-made wool products. Often seen spinning their wool in the town square, it is primarily a male occupation. Most of the 2900 Farafrans can trace their roots to Bedouin ancestors, and many have retained the traditional practices of their brethren.
Yet, the most striking feature of Farafra is not what lies within the village, but what surrounds it. Stretching between Farafra and Bahariya, this portion of Egypt's Western Desert is a lesson in geological variation. You will enjoy exploring the surreal landscape of the White Desert as its silhouettes rise and fall on the horizon. Likened to another world and formed into a variety of organic shapes, the White Deserts chalky rocks glow in the light of a full moon. Shadowy figures dance across their surface as hot flames lick the underside of popping wood. The sound of song and dance ricochet off formation walls as Orion crests the horizon. And millions of stars fill the night sky, appearing close enough to pluck from their velvety background.
Acting as a virtual backdrop for the local guides, camping in the White Desert showcases their talents. Inspired by deep love and respect, most guides cultivate a relationship with the environment, which few people possess. Whether sharing their knowledge of the flora and fauna, or transporting guests to a favored location, their passion is unmistakable. Many literally know the region like the back of their hand and consider it an extension of their home. Often guides openly share that they spend more time in the desert than in their village. Preferring sleep under a blanket of stars they proudly share the vast desert environment. The depth and breadth of their hospitality pushes a shared experience into the realms of the unfathomable, the experience of a lifetime.