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Gilf Kebir (جلف كبير), or Jilf al Kabir , is a
plateau in the remote southwest corner of Egypt. It was named the Gilf Kebir
(Great Barrier) by the first European to sight it. This
7770-square-kilometre limestone and sandstone plateau roughly the size of
Switzerland rises 300m from the desert floor.
The Gilf Kebir contains the Kebira Crater, a 950-meter (3,100-foot) impact
crater, dating to 50 million years ago crater, and part of a field that spreads
over 4,500 square kilometers (1,750 square miles) more than 75 times larger
than Earth's next largest known crater field.
The Uweinat mountain range at the very south of the plateau is shared between
Egypt, Libya and Sudan.
The Gilf Kebir is mentioned in Michael
Ondaatje's novel 'The English Patient'. It was also the site of the recent
discovery of a bag which had been lost in the Second World War by a dispatch
rider (Alec Ross) of the Long Range Desert Group, part of the British Army. This
contained the rider's personal letters and photographs, and had been well
Gilf Kebir is known for its prehistoric (Neolithic) petroglyphs
Karkur Talh and Karkur Murr: major eastern valleys of the Uweinat contain one of
the richest concentrations of rock art in the whole Sahara
Western Uweinat: Shelters under the huge granite boulders in the western Uweinat
contain numerous paintings, including the famous sites of Ain Doua
Jebel Arkenu, Jebel Kissu & Yerguehda Hill, the lesser granite massifs around
Uweinat have many smaller sites
Mogharet el Kantara in the southern Gilf Kebir contains only one known rock art
site, a cave discovered by Shaw & party in 1936
Wadi Sora in the northwestern Gilf Kebir: the "Cave of Swimmers" (or Swimmers'
Cave, discovered by the Hungarian Count László Almásy (The English Patient),
plus many other paintings nearby;
The North-western half of the Gilf Kebir aside from Wadi Sora has only a few
scattered engravings, of an apparently very ancient age
In January 2003, Zarzora Expeditions and Jacopo Foggini independently announced
the discovery of a major new rock art site in the Western Gilf Kebir (Foggini-Mestekawi
Gilf Kebir is a flat-topped limestone plateau located about 150 kilometers north
of Gebel Uwaynat, covering over 7,770 square kilometers. It is situated in the
southwestern corner of Egypt about 720 kilometers from the Nile and 960
kilometers from the Mediterranean. Like a huge shelf the size of Switzerland, it
is nearly dissected in two by a large cap.
It rises 300 meters from the desert floor (1075 meters above sea level), forming
one of the most formidable barriers in Africa. Dozens of wadis extend into the
desert around its perimeter. these wadis were formed by water erosion in a
wetter phase thousands of years ago in the late Tertiary age. Then it was a
great divide, draining water in all directions, north, south, east and west.
The cliffs in the south and the southwest are the highest. The cliffs in the
northeast have been broken down into small islands of land. Wind and water have
combined to work away at the Gilf Kebir for over 100,000 years. Although it
probably took its present form in the late Tertiary, or early Quaternary time,
the only reason it is still standing is its tough cap of solidified sandstone.
The northern portion of the Gilf Kebir is drowning in sand from the Great Sand
Sea. It is helping the wind break down the Gilf into small islands and cones.
That sand is whitish. The sand at the middle of the plateau is reddish. Wadi
Hamra, as its name states, if filled with red sand. The southern portion of the
Gilf is 5.800 square kilometers. The sand on the western.
Around 9500 BC, the monsoonal system shifted
northward and lakes formed around the Gilf. Then, by 4500 BC the conditions were
once again arid.
Penderel, in a paper presented to the Royal Geographical Society in June of
1934, says that John Ball was the first westerner to see the Gilf, while on
patrol in 1917. However, credit for the discovery is given to Prince Kamal
al-Din, who actually reached it, skirted its southern cliffs, fixed it on the
maps and named in in 1926.
In 1932, an expedition was mounted to explore the Gilf by air. It included Sir
Robert Clayton-East-Clayton, Count Laszlo Almasy, P. A. Clayton and Penderel.
As a bit of trivia, one may note that the fictional story, the "English
Patient", was based on the life of Almasy. He came from an untitled Hungarian
family, but claimed to have driven the car of the last Hapsburg king, Karl IV.
In return, the king made him a count.
They discovered several valleys rich with vegetation, including what would later
be known as Wadi Hamra, Wadi Talh and the Wadi Abd al-Malik. These valleys were
used by tribesmen for grazing and some explorers believed that they were the
lost oasis of Zerzura.
Archaeological work was begun in 1933 by
Fronbenius, focusing on rock art. Prehistory work began with Bagnold's
expedition of 1938, done by O. H. Myers and H. A. Winkler. This expedition was a
joint effort of the Egypt Exploration Society, which supported Myers, Gray and
Winkler, and the Royal Geographical Society, which provided grant money to
Bagnold. During World War II the Italians had a base in the region, while the
British set up at Uwaynat. The Long Range Desert Group of the British Army were
active in the area.
The Bagnold-Mond 1938 expedition spent a month working around the Gilf Kebir.
They did a huge amount of survey work, archaeology and geophysical and
geological investigation. An additional month was spent at Uwaynat where Hans
Winkler joined them. While Winkler was at Uwaynat, Bagnold and Peeol went north
along the western side of the Gilf and found two more rock art sites, one of
which was a totally new discovery.
Recent exploration began with Misonne, the Belgian who crossed 600 kilometers of
the high plateau in 1969. He found that sheep, foxes and lizards lived on top of
the Gilf. Issawi in 1971 and 1972 did a geological survey, followed by Wendorf
in 1974 and al-Baz in 1978. Between 1976 and 1977, the Deutsche
Forschungsgemeinschaft and the Academy of Sciences of Egypt launched an ongoing
geological program under the leadership of Lkitzch and supported by the
Continental Oil Company (CONOCO).
In 1978, a new type of explorer came to the Gilf Kebir and Gebel Uwaynat,
looking for answers to questions that were from out of this world. The two week
expedition of seven Americans and nine Egyptians led by Farouk al-Baz was to
"verify in the field interpretations of tonal variations and surface patterns
observed on Earth-orbital photographs." They wanted to compare the Libyan
Desert, particularly around the Gilf and Uwaynat, to photos they had of Mars.
Northern Side of the Gilf Kebir can be a bit disappointing to some, as it has
broken down considerably over the years and one does not have the sense of
approaching a huge plateau with many high cliffs and wadis as one does on the
southern and western sides. However, there is a spectacular event taking place
here. The southern edges of the Great Sand Sea have now reached the Gilf Kebir,
and one can observe two great natural forces at war with each other.
In two huge valleys before Lama Point they clash in an incredible phenomenon.
The sand is filling up these wadis. The individual dunes climb over each other
on the far side of the wadi, forming a moving ladder that eventually reaches the
top in the far left corner. Here the sand spills onto Lama Point. There must be
trillions of tons of sand banked up against the far wadi wall, climbing up and
over and up and over, fighting its way to the top.
Lima Point sits at the southwestern side of the first valley. After it, at
Almasy Mountain comes the second dune filled valley. Here, too, the dunes are
climbing. They look like they are eating the Gilf and they have reached the top
of it here as well. During the coming decades we shall see if they succeed in
breaking down the Gilf. What happens once they all reach the top is anyone's
The plateau of the Gilf Kebir itself is gravelly and mostly featureless, with
big slabs of basalt in some places and at least one old riverbed. The edges of
the plateau are another matter. Like a voyeur, one peers into amazing worlds
filled with exotic scenes.
As one travels north-northwest along the western edge of the scarp, valley after
valley can be seen from the top. Where the northeastern scarp has few true
cliffs, just eroded hills and dune filled valleys, the northwestern side is all
cliffs and spectacular views onto the Libyan plain below. Along here, there is a
Black Valley, a Red Sand Dune Valley and a valley where one can walk down to the
desert floor. All of these are to the south of one of the most famous valleys
called the Wadi Sura, the Picture Valley of Almasy.
At the extreme northern section o the Gilf Kebir stand the entrances of three
wadis known as Wadi Hamra on the northeast, Wadi Abd al-Malik in the center and
Wadi Talh on the northwest. These are the tree valleys that Almasy claimed were
the lost oasis of Zerzura.
In 1933, on the next trip into the desert by
car, Almasy talked with an old Tebu called Ibrahim Abd al-Malik, a caravan guide
from Kufra who had been one of the Kufra refugees. It was Ibrahim who called the
wadi Abd al-Malik, Servant of the King. He also spoke of Wadi Talh, the Valley
They entered the Wadi Abd al-Malik on May 3rd. It is a long valley with lots of
acacia trees. There were sites of Tebu camps with grass huts and baskets. On May
5th, Almasy found a second wadi, perhaps the Wadi Talh. Then the group left for
Uwaynat, where they met up with Ibrahim again. Now, the old Tebu gave up the
final bit of information. There was a third valley in the group and it was
called Wadi Hamra, the Red Valley (It had already been found by P. A. Clayton).
Here were the three wadis of Zerzura mentioned by Wilkinson in 1830.
At the lecture given by Bermann at the Royal Geographical Society, one more
piece of the puzzle was finally revealed, "As to the name 'Zerzura', our Tebu
friend Ibrahim, asked where Zerzura lay, said, 'Oh, those silly Arab people,
they do not know anything; they call these three wadis in the Gif, Zerzura, but
we local people know their real names.'"
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