Northwest of Dakhla Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert lies the magnificent mediaeval village of al-Qasr (literally, the Palace) with its mudbrick buildings, alleys, Pharaonic temple, mosques, and grain mill. The village opened to the public last week after 15 months of closure for conservation work.
Minister of Antiquities Khaled al-Enany joined New Valley Governor Mahmoud Ashmawi and other officials to reopen the village to the public. Mr Enany enthused about the conservation work, describing it as “wonderful” and “one of the ministry’s most important achievements.” He said the village was one of the most significant Islamic settlements in Egypt, not only because of its characteristic architecture but also because it was the meeting point of several routes for trade and pilgrimage.
Al-Qasr is among the few surviving specimens of Islamic civil architecture from the Ottoman era. But its history goes back to centuries before that; it boasts the remains of a Pharaonic temple as well as imposing buildings.
The present village was built in the 12th century on the remains of an earlier Roman settlement in order to serve as capital of Dakhla Oasis. Stone blocks from the earlier Roman settlement can still be seen in the façades of village houses, probably reused from older ones.
Al-Qasr thrived under the Ottomans. Like all mediaeval towns in Egypt it boasted narrow covered streets divided into quarters, districts and alleys that were closed with gates at night to protect them from invaders.
A few metres from the village’s narrow alleys, Kamal said the remains of a three-storey mudbrick minaret 21 metres high had been found near the mosque of Nasr Eddin, erected during the Ayyubid period and considered one of the village’s landmarks. The minaret is the only original part of the mosque that survived from the 12th century; the rest of the building was reconstructed in the 19th century.
Inside is the shrine of Sheikh Nasr Eddin, which together with the minaret and entrance are decorated with wooden lintels carved with verses from the Qur’an. A madrassa (school) is attached to the mosque. A nearby Ayyubid court features painted arches, niches for legal texts, cells for felons and a beam above the door from which criminals were once hanged.
The village includes a pottery factory and an old grain mill in the village. Mudbricks are still made in the ancient manner, and there is a foundry where men still work using bellows-fanned fire. Today, the village is best known for its traditional earthenware pots and palm-leaf basketry. It has earned a name for being an open museum that spans ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Coptic, and Islamic times.
1 August 2016