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This chapter focuses on the oases of the northern Sahara, both those close to and in some cases incorporated within the frontiers of the Roman provinces of Africa. With the exception of some outstanding contributions from our co-author Pol Trousset, there has been little consideration of the potential scale or on the ground reality of oasis development in the Roman frontier region. This is only partly explicable in terms of the lack of detailed archaeological work at these sites – as we shall demonstrate there is quite a lot of fragmentary evidence to support the case for widespread oasis development in pre-Islamic times. In large measure the lack of recognition of the importance of oases here relates to the long-prevailing myth that Rome was confronted in this frontier zone by nomadic (or at best transhumant) peoples. It is hoped that what follows will provoke a full re-evaluation of Rome’s African frontiers and what they were designed to deal with.
This chapter will review the evidence of early oasis development in Western Egypt and Eastern Libya, broadly following the course of the ‘route of the oases’, running west from the Nile to Siwa, then onwards to Awjila and al-Jufra in Libya, where it met the major north-south route from the Mediterranean to Garamantian Fazzan and beyond to Chad. The evidence presented for pre-Islamic oasis development is particularly strong in this part of the Sahara; indeed the origins of agriculture at some of the Egyptian oases went back to the third millennium BC and the route as a whole seems to have been well-developed by the fifth century BC.
We suggest that the ultimate origins of oasis agriculture in the Western Desert are to be sought in the Nile Valley and the Fayum, with a package of plants and irrigation techniques first developed there, then adopted in the oasis depressions of the Western Desert – notably Kharga, Dakhla, Farfara, Bahariya and Siwa (Fig. 3.1).
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