In the Footsteps Of Harding King
There is a tree in the middle of Dakhla oasis which, according to some locals, possesses a soul. They call it the tree of Sheikh Adam, and it has stood for centuries at the heart of one million square miles of vast, almost waterless isolation, a space once considered to be amongst the most inhospitable places on the planet. A British scientist and explorer W.J. Harding-King reached this spot in 1909 and declared the tree to be a symbol of everything magical about the desert, “a land where afrits, ghuls, genii and all the other creatures of native superstitions are matters of everyday occurrence; where lost oases and enchanted cities lie in the desert sands.”
A land of lost legends is being slowly turned, house by house, road by road, into the most improbable of solutions to Egypt's rapidly-escalating population crisis. The Cairo-based government is aiming to turn over three million acres of arid ground into green farmland over the next decade, and provide a home for up to 19 million Egyptians along the way. Nothing less than an entire new valley of life is being scheduled to rise, phoenix-like, from the sand.
It will be the country’s biggest construction project since the pyramids, cost billions of dollars, and according to many scientists, is so bold as to be completely unachievable. Metamorphosing beyond all recognition the ‘untouched’ wilderness of the Western Desert that Dr Harding-King stepped into one hundred years ago, which forms the eastern fringe of the Sahara and spans parts of Egypt, Libya and Sudan. On the centenary of his remarkable expedition, we followed in his footsteps to find a forgotten hinterland in flux.
Commissioned by FT Weekend Magazine. Published in Internazionale (Italy), Geographical, The National Review