It’s as you climb down into your first cave that you realize that the desert has captured your imagination. Luckily for us, one of the rarest caves in the world is only a two-hour drive from Cairo.
We never really hear that much about caves in Egypt, and yet, to my surprise, the nation is home to one of the rarest examples. In terms of its formation, it is matched by just one other in existence.
Located in the governorate of Beni Suef – with Maghagha and Beni Mazar the nearest cities – Sannur Cave was accidentally discovered in 1991 by quarry workers on the hunt for Egyptian “marmar stone”, a variety of marble. Just under a year later, the cave was declared a protected natural site.
Into the desert
The whole event was nothing but a coincidence. Bored at work one day, I came across an organised trip to Sannur. Googling the cave, I found almost nothing about it online. Intrigued by the notion of a rare and ancient cave – and the fact that it was just a day-trip away – I called a friend and suggested we go. A few days later, we were on safari to a magical place that we knew nothing about.
We began by heading to Beni Suef. About 100 kilometers south of the city, we went off-road, driving into a light, sandy vastness. The experienced driver turned left and right at various marks on the road – but to us inexperienced Cairenes, we were simply a dot on a flat expanse of sand.
While it is technically easy to reach the cave, it is advisable to go through a trusted organizer, or hire a local guide familiar with the place. I went with AstroTrips, but there are other options out there, such as Cairo Hiking.
After driving for hours – and seeing nothing but desert sand – we came across an acasia tree, standing completely alone, surrounded by nothingness. As was explained to us, this tree is the only one for hundreds of kilometers; its roots go very deep, tapping into a reservoir that keeps it alive. It is a poetic scene, a case of beauty surviving even in the harshest of environments.
Moving on to our final destination, we reached a simple police station, where we had to register that we were entering a marble excavation area. The point here is that if we did not confirm our return with the same police unit by end of the day, they would begin searching for us.
The protected area of Wadi Sannur (Photo: Butheina Shalan)
A further 20-minutes of driving and we arrived. The first thing we saw was a spiral road heading downwards, at the end of which were some old rusty stairs leading to a metre-wide hole.
Leading us into the cave was another pair of ladders – consisting of wooden rungs and metal side rails – tied to the rocks with ropes.
While it all sounds a bit challenging, it was pretty easy. The only real challenge – at least for me — was the mental hurdle of trusting that the stairs would not give way.
As my feet finally stepped onto the cave’s sandy floor, I saw an array of gigantic calcium carbonate formations, including pointy stalactites and stalagmites. Parts of the cave – which is roughly 15 metres highy and just as wide – were decked out with lights, highlighting interesting areas and formations.
Geologists say the cave was created by groundwater percolating down through the earth, while the interesting rocky features are the result of calcium carbonate carried in the water.
The age of the cave is estimated at around 60 million years. To be precise, there are two chambers, one estimated at 60 million years old, the other 20 million years old. These are connected by a narrow corridor, just a metre long, and the whole thing extends for around 700 metres.
It is this coupling of two formations from vastly different eras (a staggering 40 million years apart) that marks out Sannur as among the rarest natural spots in the world.
It doesn’t take an expert to see the remarkable difference between the two chambers. One has long-and-pointy formations sticking out every direction, like an underwater cave on a reef, while the other has uniform bubble-like formations covering every inch of its walls.
One of the magicical features of Sannur is the internal temperature. It was sunny outside the cave, yet inside it remained cool and breezy. We were told that the temperature hardly changes at all through the seasons.
This fact was a little difficult to comprehend, given that the cave is in the middle of Upper Egypt’s desert, with only a small hole connecting it to the outside world.
Another fact that was shared with us – although we were not able to confirm this – is that the human heart rate slows down slightly inside the cave.
A couple of hours later, and it was time to leave this unique and ancient part of Egypt – and return to bustling Cairo.