In Egypt, millennia-old cave keeps captivating visitors

Sunday 13/11/2016
Gara Cave from inside. (Haitham Salah)

Cairo - The pieces of glittering rock dangling from the ceiling in the millennia-old Gara Cave in Egypt’s Western Desert have an unearthly feel about them.
The few rays of the sun that reach into the dark cave reflect brazenly off the rocks, turning them, in the eyes of onlookers, into irresistible crystals that mesh with the bar­ren and desert surroundings of the cave.
Gara Cave, between Egypt’s Bahariya Oasis and the southern province of Asyut, about 350km south-west of Cairo, is a most rare archaeological treasure trove in the heart of Egypt’s desert. The cave formed from water coming in con­tact with Egypt’s Western Desert climate over millions of years.
“It is a stunning place by all measures,” said Ahmed Hussein, a guide who helps tourists explore the wonders of Egypt’s Western De­sert. “True, the cave is completely off the beaten track but the effort visitors must make to reach it is re­ally worth it.”
Gara Cave used to attract thou­sands of foreign tourists every year but it has been hit hard by the big drop in tourism numbers affecting Egypt for more than a year. None­theless, the cave is an important stop on the itinerary of local explor­ers, desert lovers and adventurers.
Dozens of Egyptians visit the cave every day, giving guides such as Hussein hope that the tourism industry will soon bounce back.
The cave was discovered by a German explorer hundreds of years ago but fell into oblivion until it was rediscovered in the late 1980s by another German explorer.
It is one of few magnificently decorated caves in Egypt. About 30 metres wide and 8 metres high, the cave contains diverse animal for­mations engraved on its rocks. The engravings, specialists said, sug­gest the area — now a desert — was populated in the past.
The engravings date to the Neolithic Age, beginning about 10,200BC in parts of the Middle East.
The icicle-shaped rock forma­tions of the cave, produced by the precipitation of minerals from wa­ter dripping through it, and its sta­lagmites offer visitors a rich treat of nature’s work to contemplate and researchers wonderful material to study, archaeologists said.
“The stalactites hanging down from the ceiling of the cave like tree leaves are engineered by na­ture’s perfect hand,” said Egyptian archaeologist Hussein Abdel Rah­man. “My career has taken me eve­rywhere in the Middle East region but I assure you that Gara Cave is unequalled by regional archaeolog­ical standards.”
Most visits of the cave start in Cairo and include the White Desert in the nearby Farafra Depression. The White Desert has massive chalk rock formations that were created by the occasional sandstorms in the area.
Other must-see landmarks in the area include the Golden Mummies Museum, the Tombs of Nobles and Alexander Temples in the nearby Bahariya Oasis.
Some visitors camp inside the cave, lie on their backs and contem­plate its rock formations. Others enjoy lunch in the open at the foot of the area’s sand dunes.
Packages tours to the area, in­cluding meals, one night’s accom­modation and transport, cost $200- $300, Hussein said.
“Some tour operators even or­ganise cheaper tours, depending on the package itself,” he said.
Ehab Hamdi, an Egyptian lawyer, said he learned about the cave a few years ago after a friend visited and raved about its wonders.
“It was only then that I decided to visit the cave with a group of my friends,” Hamdi said. “Enter­ing such a place and seeing the colours of the rocks inside it and their strange shapes is actually like a dream.”