Valley of the Whales – Fayoum Province, Egypt
As the landscape of the valley unfolds, you spot the entrance made up of lined non-uniform rectangular amber bricks that are shaped like a skeleton of a large mammal; complete with its skull and vertebra. When the location was announced as a World Heritage site in 2005 for its “outstanding universal value’’, the designed architectural facilities succumbed to the predominance of the unique natural setting and just echoed its surroundings.
Having gone through the trouble of driving for 85 kilometers, 35 of which are spent on a rugged road, the scenery of the spacious desert valley rewards you with a perennial feeling of unconfined comfort. Diverse natural rocks in different shapes, sizes and composition dominate the landscape. Only the position of the sun in the sky defines which shade of yellow will match the view. The surrounding rocks, fine sands, and picturesque dunes could be beige, golden yellow, light brown, caramel, or simply dusky by sunset.
Here, the cryptic process of erosion does not release its own secrets. Why did the energy exercised by the wind and water leave non-identical marks on each individual rock formation? They were all formed under the same geological conditions; however “no two stones are the same,” noted my friend, Barbara.
Some boulders may look like guarding sphinxes; others may appear to be pillars of a sacred temple; another would be bowing in submission to the potent forces of Nature. But all this is just the background for another intriguing value of this place.
After spending the night at our hotel in the main city of Fayoum, the capital of the oasis/province holding the same name, our main destination was ‘Wadi al Hitan’ or Valley of the Whales. This used to be the home of ancient species of whales that lived on this part of Egypt about 40 million years ago when the geography of the planet was totally different.
Over two hundred million years ago, an ancient sea known as Tethys, which is the ancestor of the Mediterranean Sea, stretched to the south, with its southern shores around present day Fayoum. At that time, the environment of this area resembled present day Uganda. With plenty of rainfall, there existedsubtropical and tropical forests rich in trees and vines with fresh water rivers and swamps.
As you walk through the valley, you see fossilized mangroves, the low trees known for their interlacing above-ground roots; this is where the majority of skeletons were found. Apparently these were locations of warm shallow coasts, which attracted creatures for its affluent supply of food, shelter and sunlight.
During the Tertiary period, that occurred 65 million years ago, mammals and other creatures developed and multiplied abundantly in this valley. Skeletons of the predecessors of modern whales, known as Basilosaurus isis, were found with an average length of 18 meters, a slim, eel-shaped body and sharp saw-edged teeth.They used to have hind legs as land dwelling animals before these evolved into flippers to help them swim in the sea.
Skeletons of a smaller species of whales called the Dorudon were also found in the valley. It was 5 meters long and is also believed to provide an important link to modern whales.
When the temperature of the earth increased rapidly and the sea receded, Egypt’s landmass appeared. Some mammals had to change their habitat and evolved into sea creatures.
Scientists also believe that the wind might have pushed dead whales to shallow waters where the roots of Mangroves might have prevented them from drifting further. The organic remains of ancient animals were covered by sediments of sand and rocks and naturally turned into fossils with the passage of years. Again with the constant process of erosion, nature withered away layers and layers of rock and sand, and many fossils were revealed.
In addition to diverse petrified types of trees, other numerous fossilized remains were identified in the same area such as mollusks, rays, crabs, turtles, sea snakes, crocodiles, and ancient sea cows. That is why it is said that Fayoum provides a matchless narration of the history of animal and plant evolution of the Tertiary period.
As early as 1845, explorers have hunted and made a business out of trading in the fossils of Fayoum and unfortunately a lot of invaluable collections have been lost throughout the years. Only in 1989, which is better late than never, the area of Wadi al Hitan that exists within the boundaries of a larger valley known as Wadi el Rayyan, was announced as a protected area by the Egyptian government. Later in 2005, The UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage Site.
Now, vehicles are not allowed into the valley and have to be parked in the exterior orientation area. Collection of fossils is prohibited by law and the information pamphlet explains to visitors that they are allowed to take nothing but photos and to leave nothing behind but their footprints. Fair enough!
The Valley of the Whales is supported by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the Italian Cooperation and Gran Sasso National Park of Italy. Huts that provide information and shade to visitors throughout the assigned 3-kilometer track were built with local mud bricks and plaster and even the signs were made of burnt clay by a local artist.
Here architecture lives in harmony with the environment and does not disturb the aesthetic view of the landscape. The Valley’s creatures might have been extinct for millions of years; but their fossilized skeletons deserve to rest in peace in this open air museum to tell the world about the process of their gradual evolution.
We were on a tour organized by the Spouses Association of my husband’s oil company and we learned how to reach the Valley of the whales the hard way. Experience has always been the best teacher! Their travel agent provided a Coaster mini-bus for the trip. It was the driver’s first time to drive on this road and he was upset because nobody informed him about the roughness of the unpaved last 35 kms. of the way. He refused to comply with the safety speed limit and decided to make us feel that we were going on a ride in a “roller coaster”, which was not funny at the time!! 4×4 cars would have been the best vehicles for this road.
My personal tip. This could be done as a day trip from Cairo, especially if you start early. There are travel agents who specialize in desert safaris and provide a professional service for this kind of tourism. I wish we had known about them earlier! The distance is only 170 kilometers. It would take about 2 hours to reach the Valley of the Whales. It is recommended to use the main highway and not drive through the desert tracks. Allow two and a half hours for your walking tour over there. The location provides facilities such as a cafeteria, rest rooms, and even a camping site. On your way back, you could also visit Wadi al Rayan with its spring oases, picturesque waterfall and Mudawara Mountain that gives a beautiful view of the of the synthesis between the blue lake water and the yellow all-embracing desert.