I had no idea what they could be when I first laid eyes on them. At a distance they looked like great red serpents, half buried, coiling through the sands.
These strange formations reared up at the far western edge of the Dakhleh Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert. Here, the oasis fields -- so intensely green they almost hurt the eyes -- end, giving way to mountains of yellow sand. Ranges of dunes receded into the Great Sand Sea: thousands of square kilometres of sand, more sand, and still more sand, and beyond, only Libya and the Sahara, desert stretching all the way to the Atlantic coast.
I was standing by a single upright column in the courtyard of a ruined Roman Age temple known locally as Deir el-Hagar, or “The Stone Convent.” Scrawled on the column were various graffiti of nineteenth-century travellers who had ventured to this far western outpost. Most prominent were the members of the German expedition of Gerhard Rohlfs, their finely scripted names etched into the soft sandstone. At the bottom was the date: 1874.
Rohlfs had tried to cross the Great Sand Sea, an ill-fated mission which would surely have ended in disaster except for a freak two-day rainstorm that allowed him to reach safety in the northern oasis of Siwa. The only living thing he saw during his two-week desert trek was a great snake, basking on a rock. When he killed it and opened its stomach, he found only grains of sand.
Driven by curiosity to discover what the great red bands were, coiling snake-like from beneath the mountainous dunes on the horizon, I decided not to linger any longer at the temple.
Scrambling up a ridge of sand and over the ravaged and breached temenos
wall that once surrounded and protected the sacred precinct of the temple, I walked out onto the Plain of Sio’h, which translates as “Throne of the Moon.” It might as well have been the moon, such was its barrenness. The prevailing northwest wind was funnelling off the Libyan Plateau, driving sand into my face and eyes. I made my way toward the open plain, where the reddish ruins of Roman Age farmsteads stood out in sharp relief against the yellow dunes in the distance.
The plain had been stripped to the desert pavement, clay and bedrock, but there were plentiful signs of its past occupants. Potsherds large and small blanketed the ground like pieces of a puzzle. There were so many they could not be avoided, and they clattered underfoot, disturbing the profound desert silence. They were all colours of the earth, from black and grey to yellow and brown, but most were reddish. All were unglazed, the common, disposable ware of the common people. I reached down and picked up a large rim to which one handle was still attached. I recognized it as a Roman amphora. These were the trade containers of the Roman Empire. Perhaps it had once held olive oil or wine, or pickled fish products from the far-away Mediterranean. It could hold nothing now. The sides of the broken vessel were worn thin from centuries of sand blasting, and if left long enough, they would be abraded into oblivion, adding a few more grains of reddish sand to the Sahara’s vast archive of sands. I returned it to its resting place, where the archaeologists would eventually map, collect, and draw it for posterity.
The potsherds were thickest on the ground near the old farmsteads. Some of these venerable structures were mere piles of rubble, others relatively intact; even some of the Roman-style arches had stood the test of time. Overall, however, they had the eroded look of sand castles after the tide has come in. They seemed to be dissolving into the landscape.
Leaving them behind, I continued walking west toward the dunes and the mysterious red bands snaking through the landscape. I could now see that there were several of these monumental structures linking the desert to the once-fertile plain.
I still had no idea what they could be.
It was only when I finally reached them that I realized how massive they really were and that they were human-made. I climbed up the side of one: about four metres. The top was concave, and at one time it must have been much deeper, with much higher sides. Like everything in this exposed location, it had been worn down by the wind. I walked across its width, measuring ten paces. It was then I noticed that the interior was carpeted with numberless tiny shells, their little turret shapes littering the surface just as they might any beach. I had seen these before at the sites of old, abandoned wells in the oasis. They were freshwater snail shells.
I realized then that water, lots of it, had flowed along these now ruined clay conduits from the high ground in the distance to irrigate the Plain of Sio’h below, where crops once grew as luxuriantly as they do in the still-fertile parts of the oasis.
My great red serpents of the dunes were aqueducts: Roman aqueducts.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Island of the Blessed by Harry Thurston. Copyright © 2003 by Harry Thurston. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.