Al Qasr's mud-brick maze of an old town is built on the ancient foundations of a Roman city and is thought to be one of the oldest inhabited areas of the oases. Most of what you can see today dates to the Ottoman period (1516–1798), although the creaky, picturesque labyrinth of narrow, covered streets harks back to its ancient origins. During its heyday, this was probably the capital of the Dakhla Oasis, easily protected by barring the fort’s quartered streets.
The winding lanes manage to remain cool in the scalding summer and also serve to protect their inhabitants from desert sandstorms. Entrances to old houses can be clearly seen and some are marked by beautiful lintels – acacia beams situated above the door. Carved with the names of the carpenter and the owner of the house, the date and a verse from the Quran, these decorative touches are wonderfully preserved. The size of the houses here and the surviving fragments of decoration suggest a puzzling level of wealth and importance given to this town by the Ottomans.
There are 37 lintels in the village, the earliest of which dates to the early 16th century. One of the finest is above the Tomb of Sheikh Nasr Ad Din inside the old mosque, which is marked by a restored 12th-century mud-brick minaret. Adjoining it is Nasr Ad Din Mosque, with a 21m-high minaret. Several buildings have been renovated, including the old madrassa, a school where Islamic law was taught and which doubled as a town hall and courthouse: prisoners were tied to a stake near the entrance.
Also of interest is the restored House of Abu Nafir. A dramatic pointed arch at the entrance frames a huge studded wooden door. Built of mud brick, and on a grander scale than the surrounding houses, it incorporates massive blocks from an earlier structure, possibly a Ptolemaic temple, decorated with hieroglyphic reliefs.
Other features of the town include the pottery factory, a blacksmith’s forge, a waterwheel, an olive press and a huge old corn mill that has been fully restored to function with Flintstone-like efficiency when its shaft is rotated. Near the entrance is the Ethnographic Museum. Occupying Sherif Ahmed’s house, which itself dates back to 1785, the museum’s everyday objects try to give life to the empty buildings around them.
The Supreme Council for Antiquities has taken responsibility for the town, but doesn’t charge an entrance fee. It’s helpful to hook up with one of the Antiquities guards (if they're about) for a tour; they will expect a ‘donation’ of LE10. There are signposts scattered around the alleys but some of the highlights are tricky to find. A note to photographers: midday is actually a good time to take pictures here, since that’s when the most light penetrates the canyon-like corridors.
For what may be the most sweeping vistas in any of the oases, hike to the top of the high bluffs that rise from the plateau – just choose the massive ramp of sand that looks most promising and trek on up! Running back down hundreds of feet of sand is an instant regression to childhood glee. From Al Qasr, it takes about two hours to reach the top, and longer if you dawdle, so bring enough water and snacks for the round trip. If the moon is full, set out before sunset and return by moonlight.
If you have your own vehicle, or driver, there are a handful of sights on the secondary road between Al Qasr and Mut that are worthy of a visit. The ruined village of Amhadah has several tombs nearby dating from the 2nd century. Further along towards Mut, the road passes through the sleepy villages of Al Gedida and Qalamun, both of which are home to plenty of traditional mud-brick architecture.