El-Qaf - Djara Cave
In Africa, contrary to Europe and Asia, rock art in caves is a rarity. The majority of African rock art sites are not in caves, but rather in rock shelters (abris). These are shallow and thus flooded with daylight all the way to the back-most areas. Rock shelters form through weathering of softer rock stratum underneath harder stratum and are thus shallow. Among the known rock shelters in the Egyptian Western Desert are the prominent “Cave of the Swimmers” (Rhotert 1952: 53-61) and “Cave of the Beasts” (Le Quellec et al. 2005: 193-225; Le Quellec & Huyge 2008: 90-91) in Wadi Sora.
Unlike rock shelters, caves are for the most part, natural cavities in the earth’s crust that are surrounded by hard rock and filled with air, sediment or water, with a minimum size that allows people to enter them” (Wrede 1996: 10).
Such a cave is Djara in the Egyptian Western Desert, located on the Egyptian Limestone Plateau, approximately halfway between Asyut in the east and the Oasis Farafra in the west. Extensive areas of this solution cave (pers. comm. H.W. Franke 2001) are no longer filled with daylight, which is why it seems appropriate to speak of cave art with respect to the rock art found here. Up to now, the only other similar situation known in Egypt is the ca. 13m deep cave in the Wadi el Obeiyd (Barich 1998), near the Farafra Oasis.
Some safari outfits run trips to El-Qaf (also known as Gara or Djara), beyond the limits of Farafra Oasis. Entered via a shallow depression in the desert, this remote stalactite cave was known to local Bedouin long before it was “discovered” by Gerhard Rohlfs in 1873, though its whereabouts were subsequently forgotten until it was rediscovered by Carlo Bergmann in 1989.
Archaeologists have since found stone arrowheads and knives in the cave predating similar tools in the Nile Valley by five hundred years, suggesting that Neolithic technology originated in the desert.
The cave was formed some 100,000 years ago but its limestone formations stopped growing when the rains ceased about 5000 BC. Since then it has filled with sand to a depth of 150m – what’s visible today is a fraction of its total size.
Some of the pure white stalactites and veil-formations are six metres tall; each one resonates with a different note if gently tapped at its point. Bring lighting, since there’s none in the cave.