THE GILF KEBIR
The Gilf Kebir is a flat-topped sandstone plateau in the remote southwest corner of Egypt, about 150 km north of Gebel Uweinat. It is an imposing natural wonder and this desolate ancient plateau covers over 7,700 sq km. The Gilf Kebir rises 1,075 m above sea level and 300 m above the desert floor, forming one of the most formidable barriers in Africa, the Big Barrier. One must remember that the Gilf Kebir has two halves, a northern and a southern one, which are separated by a narrow ridge of land. The cliffs in the south and southwest are the highest. The cliffs in the northeast have been broken down into inselbergs and individual hills. The plateau of the Gilf Kebir itself is gravelly and mostly featureless, with big slabs of basalt in some places and at least one old riverbed. The edges of the plateau are another matter. Like a voyeur, one peers into amazing worlds filled with exotic scenes. The Gilf Kebir is penetrated by huge sand wadis and incredible sand dune systems. The wadis were formed by water erosion in a wetter phase in the late Tertiary period. The Gilf Kebir is known for its rugged beauty, remoteness, geological interest and the dramatic rock paintings and carvings, which depict an era of abundant animal life and human habitation. It is one of the richest storehouses of prehistoric rock art in the world.
The Gilf Kebir contains also the Kebira Crater. This massive crater, on the northern tip of the Gilf Kebir region, is some 31 km wide and is said to be the impact site of a meteoric intruder, perhaps 1,2 km in diameter, millions of year ago. The shock of this large object crashing into Earth may have left behind the field of yellow-green silica glass, which today can be found on the surface among the giant dunes of the Great Sand Sea near the crater. The terrain around the crater is 100 million year old sandstone. Two ancient rivers run through the crater site from the east and west.
THE NORTHERN GILF KEBIR
The northern part of the Gilf Kebir is being eroded into islands and cones by the white sands of the Great Sand Sea. The individual dunes climb over each other and are covering the walls of the wadis, making an incredible spectacle as they class together and battle their way to the top. Here the sand spills onto Lama Point.
There are just a few rock art sites in this area, which is surprising given that three of the main wadis are quite vegetated. On the eastern side, the black mountains of the Gilf Kebir are banked with stunning dunes of red sand.
At the extreme northern section of the Gilf Kebir stand the entrances of three wadis: Wadi Hamra on the northeast, Wadi Abd el Malik in the centre and Wadi Talh on the northwest. These wadis where used by tribesmen for grazing and some explorers believed that they were the lost oasis of Zerzura.
- Wadi Hamra
On the eastern side of the Gilf Kebir we find Wadi Hamra (Red Valley). Wadi Hamra is red and the red sand dunes here, cascading down the side of the black mountain, are very beautiful. Clayton was the first one to arrive here in 1931 and he found plenty of trees and the curved-horned goat-antelope, known as Barbary sheep. There are three groups of rock art sites. All are engravings, in a very crude style, depicting wild animals, including rhinoceros and giraffes. Based on the style and state of weathering they seem to belong to the earliest phase of rock art in the area.
- Wadi Abd el Malik
Wadi Abd el Malik or ‘Valley of the Servant of the King’ is a long wadi (120 km) which penetrates the northern edges of the Gilf Kebir, its sands blending with those of the Great Sand Sea. It is one of the greenest of the wadis that lace the edges of the Gilf plateau, with ground cover plants and Acacia showing the most remarkable will to survive in this immensely arid area. Because of the vegetation, Wadi Abd el Malik is one of the few that supports animal life, amongst others: lizards, snakes, scorpions, desert gerbils and fennec foxes. The grotto’s in Wadi Abd el Malik contain rock art of giraffes, cattle and other unrecognizable animals in dark red, red and white, and white only.
- Wadi Talh
There is just little known about the environment of Wadi Talh (Acacia Valley). It was explored in the early part of the 20th century, but recently no work has been done.
THE SOUTHERN GILF KEBIR
The southern part of the Gilf Kebir is a continuous heart shaped sandstone plateau, with a slight dip to the east. The western edge is bound by a 600 m high continuous wall like cliff. Deep narrow wadis drain to the east, some reaching into the massif for over 20 km. The top of the plateau is perfectly flat and featureless, save for a few low basalt hills, remnants of volcanic eruptions sometime after the sandstone was formed.
The plateau becomes much broken near its southern end, and two large wadis, Wadi Firaq and Wadi Wassa cross its complete width. Near the middle of Wadi Wassa distinctly pink hued sand is built into giant sand ripples along an ancient lakebed. Near the mouth of Wadi Firaq, a conspicuous row of hills, named ‘Eight Bells’ during World War 2 reach out to the plain, the site of a World War 2 British Airfield.
During the Neolithic pluvial, two of the eastern wadis were blocked with sand drift, and lakes formed behind them, presenting ideal human habitats. These, Ard el Akhdar and Wadi Bakht are the most important archaeological sites in the region.
- Wadi Mashi
Wadi Mashi is also known as Walking Valley. This because the mountains in this wadi seem to walk for they disappear and reappear as you walk towards them. The wadi cuts about 15 km south westerly into the southern Gilf Kebir in its upper north eastern corner. There have been no discoveries in this wadi, although it is assumed there are prehistoric artefacts here as there are throughout the southern desert.
- Wadi Dayiq
Wadi Dayiq (Narrow Valley) has a major reduction station where ancient people manufactured their tools by breaking them from hard rocks and chiselling and pounding them into knives, blades and arrows. The site measure 12 by 20 m probably it served several communities in the south-eastern wadis of the Gilf Kebir. To the east of Wadi Dayiq, also military relics from World War 2 were found. Among them a fully loaded ammunition truck from the Long Range Desert Group. The Bedford truck held seven to eight tons of now volatile explosives. It is now at the Al Alamein Military Museum. Around the Gilf Kebir are other artefacts, however. A Ford lorry, probably used by the Long Range Desert Group, is located at the south. Another Ford lorry and a General Motors stake-bed lorry are 10 km southeast of the southern tip of the Gilf Kebir.
- Wadi Maftuh
Wadi Maftuh (Open Valley) cuts deeper into the Gilf than the two previous valleys. Its entrance is rather large with an island in the centre. There are a number of deep side valleys, but the main valley, after the island, moves northwest and then southwest. It too has a few smaller side valleys.
- Wadi Bakht
Wadi Bakht (Valley of Luck) extends 30 km into the heart of the Gilf Kebir. In 1938, four distinct concentrations of artefacts were identified. People lived in this wadi for many centuries. The entire area, including the dune face, is littered with ancient artefacts. There are grinding stones, bones, the bizarre shells of ostrich eggs and coloured pottery mostly dated to 6930. This is of the same age as the pottery at Nabta, near the Darb el Arbain, but the style and construction are entirely different. One shape is straight-sided, another is moulded. The pottery is black, reddish-yellow or brown, while the Nabta pottery is predominately brown to grey. Rock art as well can be found in caves, mainly depicting cattle, which were present in this area as early as 9000 to 9800 BC.
- Wadi Eight Bells
At the southern border of the Gilf Kebir there is a series of 8 bell-shaped hills of Palaeozoic sandstone, who gave the wadi its name. Eight Bells is the result of a huge, 3,400 sq km drainage system of ancient times which discharged to the south hundreds of kilometres beyond the present plateau scarp. It is the only wadi on the east to drain south into a much larger water system.
In the plain opposite the hills are the intact remains of a landing strip used by the British during World War 2. A large arrow indicates the direction the planes should land in, and the name of the site is made up of hundreds of empty fuel tanks.
- Monument to Prince Kamal el Din
The southern end of the Gilf Kebir is marked by a cairn with a tablet, known as the Monument to Prince Kamal el Din (1875-1932). He was one of the explorers of the Gilf Kebir. Prince Kamal el Din renounced the throne of Egypt to pioneer the use of motorcars in the desert exploration. Dr. John Ball joined two of the Prince’s three expeditions to the unknown. In 1923 they made an expedition to Regenfeld. During his second expedition he mapped Uweinat and on his third expedition the Gilf Kebir area. Prince Kamal el Din died of blood poisoning on August 6th 1932. His comrades erected a monument in his honour. The memorial consists of a base of total of 33 pieces. There are seven base rocks of flat stone and 26 pieces in the structure. It was 1926 when Prince Kamal el Din announced his discovery of the plateau.
- Wadi Wassa
Wadi Wassa (Wide Valley) was created by water erosion in the distant past, like all of its sister wadis. It drained east. Wadi Wassa is the most amazing wadi in the Gilf Kebir. The drama of the islands and mini-wadis that converge in the expansive wadi makes it one of the most visually astounding sights in the whole region.
Within the complicated zigs and zags of Wadi Wassa is a cave known by a number of names: Shaw’s Cave, Rupert’s Cave and Maghara el Kantara (Cave with an Arch). It was unearthed in 1936, almost on top level of the Gilf Kebir Plateau, separating Wadi Wassa and Wadi Firaq (Valley of the Separation), in a small rock overhang. The cave has one of the finest representations of prehistoric rock art. The overhang forms a low shelter and the paintings are located about 40-50 cm above the ground, in an almost continuous line along the rear of the shelter. In addition to drawings of cattle and a homestead scene, there is an unusual drawing of a bird of prey.
- Wadi Ard el Akhdar
Wadi Ard el Akhdar (Valley of the Green Earth) is a huge steep-walled wadi that emerged from within Wadi Wassa. It has two major branches and a number of bays and smaller routes throughout. There is evidence here of ancient human habitation as well as a series of unusual sand dunes.
THE WESTERN GILF KEBIR
Although there are a number of wadis along the western side, few have been given a name. The most interesting one is Wadi Sura.
- Aqaba Pass
Aqaba (the Difficult or Obstacle) is a pass that leads from the desert floor to the top of the Gilf Kebir Plateau to cross the scarp. Along the northwest edge of the scarp, wadi after wadi can be seen from the top, with dazzling views of the Libyan plain below.
- Wadi Sura
This is the most famous site in the Gilf Kebir. Wadi Sura (Picture Valley) contains three caves with an enormous amount of unusual rock art depictions: the Cave of the Swimmers, the Cave of the Archers and the Foggini-Mestikawi Cave.
The ‘Cave of the Swimmers’ has a large number of paintings of cattle, ostriches, dogs and giraffes. The bulk of paintings are of men. The figures are crudely painted. The heads are round blobs, the torsos thick, the limbs clumsy, the hips narrow and the feet only indicated. Hands appear only on the larger figures. The colours are mostly dark red, with bands of white around ankles, wrists, upper arms and below the knees. Then there are the swimmers. These are small and painted in red. They are only 10 cm long, with small rounded heads on thin necks. The bodies are rounded and the arms and legs are thin. All appears to be swimming. Some appear to be diving. The newly discovered Gilf River ran not far from this cave, which implies that the shown figures are really swimming.
The ‘Cave of the Archers’ is decorated with about 20 unclothed larges figures, painted dark red and white, men carrying bows and arrows, and hunting skinny-legged cattle. The men have no hands or feet, and just splodges for heads. Their shoulders are broad and they have triangular torsos and tapering legs, while white bands adorn their bodies quite clearly against their umber skin.
The ‘Foggini-Mestikawi Cave’ is decorated with hundreds of paintings. It’s a short scrabble up the cliff to a recess. This shelter has innumerable negative impressions of human hands. Decorations of human figures, hunters, animals of the savannah (lions, giraffes on the hoof and ostriches) and strange headless animals, all in yellow, orange, black and white hues still amazingly fresh.
BETWEEN THE GILF KEBIR AND UWEINAT
The area between the Gilf Kebir and Gebel Uweinat, which are about 150 km from one another, shows very interesting scenery. As one travels south, the sandstone that dominates the Gilf Kebir gives way to the volcanic olivine basalts and trachytes that dominate Uweinat. The plain is covered by many eroded volcanic crater-like features. Most of these craters have a sandstone rim and are filled with volcanic rocks, as the Clayton Craters have. The Clayton Craters is a field of 20 craters. Some of them were discovered by Clayton in 1931 and others by Peel in 1938. In some other craters only the volcanic rocks are present without rims, which is the fact by Gebel Peter and Paul (1.069 m).
The Uweinat mountain range, at the very south of the plateau is shared between Egypt, Libya and Sudan. Gebel Uweinat (Mountain of Little Springs), that rises up almost 2,000 m, is the highest point in Egypt. Gebel Uweinat is a multilithic structure with the western part composed of granite, the southern of sandstone and the northern of Nubian sandstone. The part in Egypt is a plug of quartz trachytes (feldspar). Along the northern slope, where the wind hits the face of the mountain, erosion has created exceptionally odd formations. The western foot is 618 m high and overcast with giant boulders, fallen because of erosion. In general the western slope constitutes an oasis with wells, bushes and grass. Gebel Uweinat is almost entirely surrounded by sand sheets.
As its name implies, there are a number of little springs within the mountain. From the known springs, Ain Dua is seen as the main spring. It lies at the foot of the mountain in the southern part. Other springs are Ain Zueia and Ain el Brins (Bir Murr). These springs come from rain that collects in pools, but when it does not rain, there is no water.
There are several wadis, called karkurs (meaning valleys) at Uweinat. Only one of them is situated in Egypt: Karkur Talh. Karkur Talh and Karkur Murr, the major eastern wadis of the Uweinat, are known for it prehistoric rock art and wall paintings.
- Karkur Talh
In Karkur Talh (Acacia Valley) thousands of beautiful rock art images, both drawings and engravings, have been discovered. Depicted mostly on sandstone background are people wearing leather clothes, with coloured spots on their bodies, and ostrich feathers. Engraved are also lions, giraffes, ostriches, gazelles and cattle. Most of the engravings are small, 30-50 cm. All by itself, Karkur Talh is a huge outdoor museum.