The Associated Press
CAIRO -- Egypt's antiquities department announced Wednesday the discovery of a 3,500-year-old settlement in a desert oasis, showing the existence of vibrant desert trade routes that stretched from the Mediterranean down into Sudan from the early days of the Egyptian civilization.
The settlement at Umm el-Mawagir in Egypt's Kharga Oasis, more than 300 miles (500 kilometers) south of Cairo, has been excavated for the past year by a Yale University expedition, whose initial findings suggest it was an administrative post with massive baking facilities, possibly to feed local troops.
"The amount of bread production was pretty amazing," said John Darnell, head of the expedition, citing discoveries of ovens, bread molds and storerooms at the site, far out of proportion to its size.
"It's probably a good bet they were basically baking enough bread to feed an army, literally," he said.
The site was home to a few thousand inhabitants and also includes remnants of mudbrick buildings, similar to those used for administrative purposes in the Nile Valley to the east, suggesting close contact between the two regions.
The settlement sheds light on ancient Egypt's Second Intermediate Period (1600-1569 B.C.), when the Egyptian pharaohs were trapped between the Hyksos invaders of Asia in the north and a Nubian kingdom in the south. The oases and their trade routes were likely key to the survival of the Egyptian kingdom.
The ancient routes stretched from the Darfur region in Sudan through the oases and the Nile Valley up to the ancient Palestine and Syria, with long caravans of donkeys bringing wines, luxury goods and wealth along with them. It would at least be 1,000 years before the camel made its appearance.
"The oases were large well watered nodes along major Egyptian caravan routes that had traffic coming in from all over the known world," said Darnell, contrasting their importance in antiquity to their relative isolation in modern times.
"2,000 years ago these (oases) were major trade emporia where you would have been passed everyday by caravans bringing in much more exotic material than you could find in Kharga Oasis today," he added.
The discovery is part of Yale University's 18-year Theban Desert Road Survey which seeks to rediscover the old trade routes and ascertain the level of interaction between the peoples of the Nile and the Sahara Desert in ancient times.
Discoveries over the last several years, have increasingly highlighted the importance of the oases in ancient Egypt. Finds such as the "golden mummies" dating from a 1,000 years later discovered in 1999 in Bahariya Oasis indicate these communities' wealth and prosperity.