The Western Desert was given this name by the British to signify this as the edge of the empire and preferred this to the real name of the Eastern Sahara or the Libyan Desert. The Western Desert refers to the entire part of Egypt on the west side of the Nile. It covers an area of some 700,000 km2 (a little larger than that of Texas), thereby accounting for around two-thirds of Egypt’s total land area. This immense desert to the west of the Nile spans the area from the Mediterranean Sea southwards to the Sudanese border. The desert’s Jilf al Kabir Plateau, at a mean altitude of some 1000 m, constitutes an exception to the uninterrupted territory of basement rocks covered by layers of horizontally bedded sediments forming a massive plain or low plateau. The Great Sand Sea lies within the desert’s plain and extends from the Siwa Oasis to Jilf al Kabir. Escarpments (ridges) and deep depressions (basins) exist in several parts of the Western Desert, and no rivers or streams drain into or out of the area.
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The government has considered the Western Desert a frontier region and has divided it into two governorates Matruh to the north and New Valley (Al Wadi al Jadid) to the south. There are seven important depressions in the Western Desert, and all are considered oases except the largest, Qattara, the water of which is salty. The Qattara Depression, which includes the country’s lowest point, encompasses 19,605 square kilometers (7,570 sq mi), which is similar to the size of Lake Ontario. It is largely below sea level and is 133 meters (436 ft) below sea level at the lowest. Badlands, salt marshes, and salt lakes cover the sparsely inhabited Qattara Depression.
Limited agricultural production, the presence of some natural resources, and permanent settlements are found in the other six depressions, all of which have fresh water provided by the Nile or by local groundwater. The Siwa Oasis, close to the Libyan border and west of Qattara, is isolated from the
rest of Egypt but has sustained life since ancient times. The Siwa’s cliff-hung Temple of Amun was renowned for its oracles for more than 1,000 years. Herodotus and Alexander the Great were among the many illustrious people who visited the temple in the pre-Christian era.
The other major oases form a topographic chain of basins extending from the Faiyum Oasis (sometimes called the Fayyum Depression) which lies 60 kilometers (37 mi) southwest of Cairo, south to the Bahariya, Farafara, and Dakhlah oases before reaching the country’s largest oasis, Kharijah. A brackish lake, Birket Qarun, at the northern reaches of Al Fayyum Oasis, drained into the Nile in ancient times. For centuries sweetwater artesian wells in the Fayyum Oasis have permitted extensive cultivation in an irrigated area that extends over 1,800 square kilometers (695 sq mi).
- Siwa Oasis
- Bahariya Oasis
- Farafara Oasis
- Dakhlah Oasis
- Kharijah Oasis