Island of the Blessed: the Secrets of Egypt's Everlasting Oasis

by Harry Thurston
ISBN: 0385259697

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A Review of: Island of the Blessed
by Erling Friis-Baastad

In the Dakhleh Oasis, about 270 kilometres west of the Nile Valley, scientists are attempting to survey, what author Harry Thurston calls "an unbroken 400,000-year pageant of human endeavour." Excavations have revealed a 20-by-80-kilometre warning sign. The predominant crisis of the 21st century is going to be the water shortage. How we survive it, or succumb to it, will depend on our ability to learn from the lessons taught by a diminishing green patch in Egypt's Western Desert.
Here at more than 700 archaeological sites, researchers are learning about human vulnerability from the artifacts of vanished settlements and civilizations. Considering the urgency of those lessons, we've come to the sites very recently; for too long King Tut and his colorful cohorts of the Nile Valley have dominated the popular imagination, and academic effort.
"For most of my adult life I have been a writer specializing in the environment, especially contemporary environmental crises," writes Thurston. "Human-induced climate change, loss of habitat and bio-diversity, the squandering of finite resources, especially fresh water-these were topics I felt cried out for attention, more so than mummies, tombs and the temples of dead religion, however intriguing."
Fortunately, Island of the Blessed is not a dry Jeremiad. As the sand is swept away from the Dakhleh sites, and from neighbouring oases, stunning artifacts surface, and many intriguing stories can at last be retold. Thanks to this author, we're the privileged audience, chastened and motivated, hopefully, but also entertained.
Thurston began documenting his "epic story in three parts," as a magazine piece in 1987. The tale began with the first humans who responded to climate change in North Africa "with their feet." They trekked away from excessive heat and dryness in search of shade and water. Eventually, the Sahara, "the largest of the world's hot deserts" took shape and people were "tethered to the oasis, the only place where life was possible." Of equal interest, if of more immediate concern, is the author's third section: primarily accounts of the "pyramid building Egyptians and later their Roman overseers who sought to transform the ecosystem and the desert itself by tapping the most precious resource they had, the waters secreted under the Sahara."
Thurston realized a magazine piece could only touch a fragment of the Dakhleh story and in 1988 told Nick Millet, Dakhleh expert, and curator of the Royal Ontario Museum's Egyptology Department, he wanted to write an entire book on the oasis. "Yes, good idea," Millet told him. "Wait ten years."
"It was hardly what I wanted to hear," the author tells us. But Millet was prescient. When Thurston returned to Dakhleh in 2000 he found that archaeologists had made a great many more finds and that the story of water wastage had become "more urgent." He approaches the Dakhleh story from several different directions, as a history of the desert, as a history of the excavations, and as a travelogue. Each view is compelling and serves to enhance the other. Thurston can take his place among the ranks of such skilled writers of popular science as David Quammen, Wayne Grady and Simon Winchester when it comes to weaving threads of scientific data among travel paths and for combining the cerebral adventure of learning with the physical adventure of trekking through the world's wild places. And he presents a cast of vivid characters, those who left their stone implements by ancient watering holes, those who built temples, those who sent huge armies to perish in the North African heat and those who are digging up their remains in a landscape so harsh, NASA uses it as "a surrogate for Mars exploration."
Looking back over humanity's past, is bound to make you feel that when it comes to mastering our environment, we're quickly damned if we do and slowly damned if we don't. Climate change, invasion, plague- any number of things can wipe out a group of people who leave only a footprint on the planet. Those who make more of an effort to wield power over the landscape don't appear to be any more secure. Civilizations inevitably begin scorching the Earth and ensuring their own destruction.
Hunter-gatherers enjoyed a handy larder at the water holes of Egypt's oases; animals were forced to congregate there. People eventually learned to domesticate some of them, and unfortunately, about 6,500 years ago some Bashendi equivalent of Conrad Black decided to lay claim to more cows than he needed for food. "The last straw for the wildlife populations in the Sahara that had survived the effects of deteriorating climate throughout the Pleistocene may have been a shift in cultural values toward cattle being a status symbol: the more cattle you had, the more power you wielded." In order to preserve precious water for cattle, wild animals were killed off or driven away from the oases and domesticated herds quickly took over grazing areas long used by their wild cousins. A source of sustenance that had been secure for man and animals for millennia was eliminated.
Once the process was set in motion, it accelerated. "We are fast destroying and fragmenting remaining wildlife habitat to such a degree that scientists now estimate that human activity has increased the normal extinction rate by 1000 to 10,000 times," Thurston warns. By 2,200 BC Old Kingdom Egyptians had set their sites on the rich oases, and their organizational skills, technological prowess and greed overwhelmed the pastoralists of the western desert. These conquerors were followed by the armies of Rome and Islam. "For the next four thousand years, they will alter the environment for short-term goals, believing that they can control and exploit the life-giving waters of the oasis with no thought for the future."
The early stone age people lapped water from pools of water on the surface. Later residents could dig 30 to 150 metres and find water that would rise within reach thanks to natural pressure. That blessing lasted into the 19th century. Today, machine-dug wells tap into water 1,200 down, and even that must be mechanically pumped to the surface where much of it is allowed to evaporate, leaving behind salt-poisoned plant roots.
"An oasis is also an island, a place with definite borders and finite resources. Survival depends upon wise management of those resources, for there is no way off this island." Even as Thurston walks us through the fragmented remains of ancient dreams and schemes, a thirsty and wasteful world is coveting the Canadian oasis. We'd better contemplate the Dakhleh saga before opening the taps too fully.

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