previous next


OASES (Ὄάσεις or Αὐάσεις, Strab. ii. p.130, xvii. pp. 790--791; αὔασις πόλις Αἰγύπτου, Steph. B. sub voce: Eth.Αὐασίτης or Eth. Αὐασῖτις), was the general appellation among ancient writers given to spots of habitable and cultivable land lying in the midst of sandy deserts; but it was more especially applied to those verdant and well-watered tracts of the Libyan desert which connect like stepping-stones Eastern with Western and Southern Africa. The word Oasis is derived from the Coptic Ouah (mansio), a resting-place. (Peyron, Lexic. Ling. Copt. s. v.) Kant, indeed (Phys. Geog. vol. ii. pt. 1. p. 349), traces it, with less probability, to the Arabic Hawa, a habitation, and Si or Zi a wilderness (comp. the Hebrew Ziph). Their physical circumstances, rather than their form, size, or position, constitute an Oasis; and the term is applied indifferently to kingdoms like Augila and Phazania (Fezzan) and to petty slips of pasture, such as the Oasis of El-Gerah. which is only four or five miles in circumference. The ancient writers described them as verdant islands, rising above the ocean of sand, and by their elevation escaping from being buried by it with the rest of the cultivable soil. Herodotus, for example (4.182), calls them κολωνοί.

But, so far from rising above the level of the desert, the Oases are actually depressions of its surface, dints and hollows in the general bed of limestone which forms its basis. The bottom of the Oases is of sandstone, on which rests a stratum of clay or marble, and these retain the water, which either percolates to them through the surrounding sand, or. descends from the edges of the limestone rim that encircles these isolated spots, like a battlement. Within these moist hollows springs a vegetation presenting the most striking contrast to the general barrenness of the encircling wilderness. Timber~ of various kinds and considerable girth, wheat, millet, date and fruit trees, flourish in the Oases, and combined with their verdant pastures to gain for them the appellation of “the Islands of the Blest.” (Hdt. 3.26.) Both commercially and politically, the Oases were of the greatest importance to Aethiopia and Aegypt, which they connected with the gold and ivory regions of the south, and with the active traffic of Carthage in the west. Yet, although these kingdoms lost no opportunity of pushing their emporia or colonies eastward towards the Red Sea and the Regio Aromatum, there is no positive monumental proof of their having occupied the Oases, at least while under their native rulers. Perhaps the difficulty of crossing the desert before the camel was introduced into Aegypt--and the camel never appears on the Pharaonic monuments--may have prevented them from appropriating these outposts. The Persians, after their conquest of Aegypt in B.C. 523, were the first permanent occupants of the Oases. Cambyses, indeed, failed in his attempt to reach Ammonium (Siwah); but his successor Dareius Hystaspis established his authority securely in many of them. At the time when Herodotus visited Aegypt, the Oases were already military or commercial stations, permeating Libya from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Under the Ptolemies and the Caesars, they were garrisoned by the Greeks and Romans, and were the seats of a numerous fixed population, as well as the halting-places of the caravans; under the persecutions of the Pagan emperors, they afforded shelter to fugitives from the magistrate; and when the church became supreme, they shielded heretics from their orthodox opponents.

The natural productions of these desert-islands will be enumerated under their particular names. One article of commerce, indeed, was common to them. Their alum was imported by the Aegyptians, as essential to many of their manufactures. Amasis, according to Herodotus (2.180), contributed 1000 talents of alum towards the rebuilding of the temple at Delphi ; and the alum of El-Khargeh (Oasis Magna) still attracts and rewards modern speculators. Herodotus describes the Oases as a chain extending from E. to W. through the Libyan Desert. He indeed comprehended under this term all the habitable spots of the Sahara, and says that they were in general ten days' journey apart from one another (4.181). But it is more usual to consider the following only as Oases proper. They are, with reference to Aegypt, five in number; although, indeed, Strabo (xviii. p.1168) speaks of only three, the Great, the Lesser, and that of Ammon.


AMMONIUM (El-Siwah), is the most northerly and the most remote from the Nile. There seem to have been two roads to it from Lower Aegypt; for when Alexander the Great visited the oracle of Ammon, he followed the coast as far. as Paraetonium in Libya, and then proceeded inland almost in a direct northerly line. (Arrian, Arr. Anab. 3.4 ; Quint. Curt. 4.33.) He appears, however, to have returned to the neighbourhood of Memphis by the more usual route, viz. a WSW. road, which passes the Natron Lakes: [NITRIAE] and runs to Teranieh, on the Rosetta branch of the Nile. (Minutoli, Journey to the Temple of Jupiter Ammon.) There is some difficulty in understanding Herodotus's account of the distance between Thebes and Ammonium. He says that they are ten days' journey apart. (Rennell, Geogr. of Herod. vol. i. p. 577.) But the actual distance between them is 400 geographical miles; and as the day's journey of a caravan never exceeds twenty, and is seldom more than sixteen of these miles, double the time allowed by him.--not ten, but twenty days--is required for performing it. Either, therefore, a station within ten days' journey of Upper Aegypt has been dropt out of the text of Herodotus, or he must intend another Oasis, or El-Siwah is not the ancient Ammonium. If we bear in mind, however, that the Greater Oasis (El-Khasrgeh) [p. 2.458]and the Lesser (El-Dakkel) were both accounted nomes of Aegypt, we may fairly infer that the ten days' journey to Ammonium is computed from one of them, i. e. from a point considered as proper Aegyptian ground. Now, not only does the road from Thebes to Ammonium lie through or beside the Greater and Lesser Oasis, but their respective distances from the extremities of the journey will give nearly the number of days required. For El-Khargeh, the Great Oasis, is seven days' journey from Thebes; and thirty hours, or (15 x 2) nearly two days more, are required for reaching the Lesser Oasis; from whence to Ammonium is a journey of eight days, which, allowing two days for passing through the Oases themselves, give just the twenty days requisite for performing the distance. There were two roads which led from Thebes to Oasis Magna. The shorter one bearing N. by Abydus, the other bearing S. by Latopolis. For the former forty-two hours, for the latter fifty-two, were required, to reach the Great Oasis. (Cailliaud, Voyage à l'Oasis de Thebes, 1813.) The Oasis of Ammonium is about six miles in length, and three in breadth. The soil is strongly impregnated with salt of a fine quality, which was anciently in great request, both for religious purposes and the tables of the Persian kings. (Arrian, Arr. Anab. 3.41.) But notwithstanding its saline ingredients, the ground is abundantly irrigated by water-springs, one of which, “the Fountain of the Sun,” attracted the wonder of Herodotus, and ancient travellers generally (4.181; comp. Wilkinson, Mod. Egypt and Thebes, vol. ii. p. 358). It rises in a grove of dates, S. of the Temple of Ammon, and was probably one of those tepid springs, found in other Oases also, the high temperature of which is not observed during the heat of the day, but which, by night, are perceptibly warmer than the surrounding atmosphere. A small brook running from this fountain flows soon into another spring, also arising in the date-grove; and their united waters run towards the temple, and, probably because their ancient outlets are blocked up, end in a swamp. The vicinity of these brooks confirms the statement of Herodotus, that in Ammonium are many wells of fresh water (4.181).

The early and high cultivation of this Oasis is still attested by the abundance of its dates, pomegranates, and other fruits. The dates are obtained in vast quantities, and are of very fine flavour. In favourable seasons the whole area of Ammonium is covered with this fruit, and the annual produce amounts to from 5000 to 9000 camel-loads of 300 pounds each. Oxen and sheep are bred in considerable numbers; but the camel does not thrive in Ammonium, probably because of the dampness of the soil. The inhabitants accordingly do not export their own harvests, but await the caravans which convey them to Aegypt and the Mediterranean ports. (Minutoli, pp. 89, 90, 91, 174, 175, &c.) The present population of this Oasis is about 8000; but anciently, when it was at once the seat of an oracle, the centre of attraction to innumerable pilgrims, and one of the principal stations of the Libyan land-trade, the permanent as well as the casual population must have been much more considerable. The ruins of the Temple of Ammon are found at Ummebeda, sometimes called Birbé,--the Ummesogeir of Hornemann (Travels, vol. i. p. 106), about 2 miles from the principal village and castle. Its style and arrangement bespeak its Aegyptian origin and its appropriation to the worship of Amûn, the ramheaded god of Thebes; yet the buildings (the oracle itself was much older) are probably not earlier than the Persian era of Aegypt. The remains of the Ammonium consist of two parts--a pronaos and a sekos, or sanctuary proper. The walls are entirely composed of hewn stones, obtained from quarries about 2 miles off. The surface of the temple, both within and without, was covered with hieroglyphics emblematic of the story and transfigurations of Zeus-Ammon. The plain surface of the walls was highly coloured; and though many of the sculptures are much defaced, the blue and green colours are still bright. The temple itself was of moderate size, and the curtilage or enclosure of the whole is not more than 70 paces in length and 66 in breadth.

The population of this Oasis was, in the time of Herodotus (2.32), partly Aegyptian and partly Aethiopian,--both nations agreeing in their devotion to Zeus-Ammon. The Greeks, indeed, who must have become acquainted with Ammonium soon after their colonisation of Cyrene in the seventh century B.C., put in their claims to a share, at least, in its foundation. According to one tradition, Danaus led a colony thither (Diod. 17.50); according to another, its oracle was established contemporaneously with that at Dodona, the most ancient oracle of Greece. (Hdt. 2.54.) The name of the king, Etearchus, mentioned by Herodotus in his story of the Nasamones, if the form be correctly given, has also a Greek aspect. (Hdt. 2.32.) There can be no doubt, however, that Ammonium was peopled from the East, and not by colonists from Europe and the North.

At the present day El-Siwah contains four or five towns, of which the principal is Kebir ; and about 2 miles from Kebir is an ancient fortress named Shargieh, old enough to have been occupied by a Roman garrison. (Minutoli, pp. 165--167). It is governed by its own chiefs or shieks, who pay a small annual tribute to the viceroy of Aegypt. This Oasis, though known to Arabian writers of the thirteenth century A. D., was first reopened to Europeans by the travels of Browne and Hornemann in the last century.


Proceeding in a SW. direction, and approaching nearer to Aegypt, we come to the Oasis now called El-Farafreh, but of which the ancient name is not recorded. It lay nearly N. of Oasis Minor, at a distance of about 80 miles, and served as an intermediate station both to Ammonium and Oasis Magna.


OASIS MINOR (Ὄασις μικρά, Ptol. 4.5.37; δευτέρα, Strab. xvii. p.813; O. Minor, Not. Imp. Or. 100.143: the modern El-Dakkel), was situated SE. of Ammonium, and nearly due W. of the city of Oxyrynchus and the Arsinoite nome (El-Fyoum), lat. 29° 10′ N. Like El-Siwah, the Lesser Oasis contains warm springs, and is well irrigated. Under the Romans it was celebrated for its wheat; but now its chief productions are dates, olives, pomegranates, and other fruits. It has a temple and tombs of the Ptolemaic era. The Lesser Oasis is separated from the Greater by a high calcareous ridge, and the station between them was probably at the little temple of Ain Amour. (Cailliaud, Minutoli, &c.) Oasis Minor seems to be the same with that entitled by some Christian writers (e. g. Palladius, Vit. Chrysost. p. 195) γείτων τῶν Μαζίκων, and “Oasa, ubi gens est Mazicorum” (Joann. in Vit. Patrum, 100.12), the Mazyci of the Regio Marmarica being the people indicated.


OASIS TRINYTHEOS, or the Oasis of El-Bacharieh, [p. 2.459]is the nearest of these desert-islands to the frontiers of Aegypt, and nearly due N. from Oasis Magna. It lies in lat. 28°, a little below the parallel of the city Hermopolis in Middle Aegypt. There is a road to it from Fyoum, and its principal village is named Zabou. The soil is favourable to fruit; but there are no traces of its permanent occupation either by the Aegyptians or the Persians; and its earliest monuments are a Roman triumphal arch, and the ruins of an aqueduct and hypogaea, containing sarcophagi. In this Oasis was made the discovery of some ancient artesian wells.

The description of the wonders of the Oases by an historian of the fifth century A.D. (Olympiodor. ap. Phot. Bib. p. 61, ed. Bekker) leaves no doubt of the existence of such artificial springs; but as their construction was unknown to the Greeks and Romans no less than to the Aegyptians, the secret of it was probably imported from the East, like the silkworm, at some period anterior to A.D. 400. Several of these wells have recently been discovered and reopened (Russegger, Reísen, vol. ii. pp. 284, 399); and the depth disclosed does not materially differ from that mentioned by Olympiodorus (supra), viz., from 200 to 500 cubits. This far exceeds the bore of an ordinary well; and the spontaneous rise of the water in a rushing stream shows that no pump, siphon, or machinery was employed in raising it to the surface. In this Oasis, also, alum abounds. (Kenrick, Anc. Egypt, vol. i. p. 74.)


OASIS MAGNA (Ὀάσις μεγάλη, Ptol. 4.5.27; πρώτη, Strab. xvii. p.813; ἄνω, Olympiod. ap. Phot. Bibl. p. 212, ed. Bekker), the Great Oasis, sometimes denominated the Oasis of Thebes, as its centre lies nearly opposite to that city, is called ElKhargch by the Arabs, from the name of its principal town. This, also, is the πόλις Ὀάσις and νῆσος μακάρων of Herodotus (3.26), and is meant when the Oases are spoken of indiscriminately, as by Josephus (c. Apion. 2.3). In the hieroglyphics its name is Heb, and in the Notitia Imperil Orient. (100.143) its capital is termed Hibe. The Oasis Magna is distant about 6 days' journey from Thebes, and 7 from Abydos, being about 90 miles from the western bank of the Nile. It is 80 miles in length, and from 8 to 10 broad, stretching from the lat. of Tentyra, 25° N., to the lat. of Abydos, 26° 6′ N. Anciently, indeed, owing to more extensive and regular irrigation, the cultivable land reached further N. The high calcareous ridge, which separates it from the Lesser Oasis, here becomes precipitous, and girds the Oasis with a steep wall of rock, at the base of which the acacia of Egypt and the dhoum palm form thick woods. The Great Oasis must have received a Greek colony at an early period, since Herodotus (3.26) says that the “city Oasis” was occupied by Samians of the Aeschrionian tribe, who had probably settled there in consequence of their alliance with the Greek colonists of Cyrene (Id. 4.152), Yet none of its numerous monuments reach back to the Pharaonic era. It was garrisoned by the Persians; for the names of Dareius and Amyrtaeus are inscribed on its ruins (Wilkinson, Mod. Egypt and Thebes, vol. ii. p. 367); but the principal buildings which remain belong to the Macedonian, if not indeed to the Roman era. Its great temple, 468 feet in length, was dedicated to Amûn-Ra. The style of its architecture resembles that of the temples at Hermonthis and Apollinopolis Magna. Like other similar spots in the Libyan Desert, the Great Oasis was a place of banishment for political offenders (Dig. xlviii. tit. 22. 1. 7.4), and for Christian fugitives from the Pagan emperors. (Socrat. 2.28.) At a later period it abounded with monasteries and churches. The Greater and the Lesser Oasis were reckoned as forming together a single nome, but by the Roman emperors were annexed to the prefecture of the Thebaid. (Plin. Nat. 5.9. s. 9, duo Oasitae; Ptol. 4.5.6, οἷς νόμοις προσγράφουται αἱ δυό Ὀασῖται; see Hoskins, Visit to the Great Oasis; Langles, Mém. sur les Oasis; Ritter, Erdkunde, vol. i. p. 964.) [W.B.D]

hide References (8 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (8):
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 17.50
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.180
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.32
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.54
    • Herodotus, Histories, 3.26
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 5.9
    • Arrian, Anabasis, 3.4
    • Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 4.5
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: