Egypt's 'Great Barrier' a growing draw and danger for tourists

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CAIRO: The remote plateau where a party of 19 foreign tourists and Egyptians was reported kidnapped on Monday only became known to the Western world in the 1920s but has become a growing draw for Western visitors to Egypt.

A vast sandstone and limestone massif that looms 300 meters above the floor of the Sahara desert hard by the borders with Libya and Sudan, Gilf El-Kabir, or Great Barrier in Arabic, is famed for caves which contain some of the world s best preserved prehistoric art.

The region is some 500 km from the nearest settlement of any size – Dakhla, one of the string of oases that relieve the desert southwest of Cairo – and getting there requires an arduous trek by camel or 4×4 vehicle.

The region s remoteness made it an important base in World War II for British-led troops fighting Italian and German forces in neighboring Libya, and it became an important stepping off point for operations behind enemy lines by the famed Long Range Desert Group.

The Wadi Sora, or Cave of the Swimmers, in the northwest of the Gilf featured in the 1996 film “The English Patient based on Michael Ondaatje s novel of the same name that explores the area s wartime connections.Now it again lies close to conflict, with the nearby Darfur region of west Sudan up in revolt against the Khartoum government since 2003.

North Darfur state, which lies close to the Jebel Uweinat mountain range at the southern end of the Gilf, is the traditional homeland of the Zaghawa people who provide much of the support for the Justice and Equality Movement, one of the most hard-line of the rebel factions fighting in Darfur.

Earlier this year, JEM fighters sallying out of North Darfur marched on the Sudanese capital, reaching the satellite city of Omdurman just across the Nile from Khartoum.

But what the tourists come to see are the cave paintings of the Gilf which date back to the Neolithic period, the era of the first farmers, and show that even back then man traded across the vast reaches of the desert.

At that time, some 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, the Sahara would not have been the vast relentless expanse of gravel and dune that is today. The hippos and elephants depicted in the paintings show that then the region was more like the prairies of the Mid-Western United States today.

Egypt has declared its part of the Gilf a national park, although neighboring Libya and Sudan have yet to follow suit.

Until they do the region s prehistoric cave art will not get the protection of UNESCO world heritage status. -AFP

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