What Is an Oasis in the Desert?

An oasis with palm trees in the middle of a desert
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An oasis is a lush green area in the middle of a desert, centered around a natural spring or a well. It is almost a reverse island, in a sense, because it is a tiny area of water surrounded by a sea of sand or rock.

Oases can be fairly easy to spot—at least in deserts that do not have towering sand dunes. In many cases, the oasis will be the only place where trees such as date palms grow for miles around. For centuries, the sight of an oasis on the horizon has been a very welcome one for desert travelers.

Scientific Explanation

It seems amazing that trees could sprout in an oasis. Where do the seeds come from? As it happens, scientists believe that migrating birds spot the glint of water from the air and swoop down for a drink. Any seeds that they happen to have swallowed earlier will be deposited in the damp sand around the waterhole, and those seeds that are hardy enough will sprout, providing the oasis with its tell-tale splash of color in the sand.

Caravans in desert areas such as Africa's Sahara or the dry regions of Central Asia have long depended on such oases for food and water, both for their camels and their drivers, during difficult desert crossings. Today, some pastoral peoples in western Africa still depend on oases to keep themselves and their livestock alive as they travel through deserts between different grazing areas. In addition, many kinds of desert-adapted wildlife will seek water and also take shelter from the blazing sun in local oases.

Historical Significance

Historically, many of the major cities of the Silk Road sprang up around oases, such as Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan), Merv (Turkmenistan), and Yarkand (Xinjiang). In such cases, of course, the spring or well could not be some mere trickle—it had to be almost a subterranean river in order to support a large permanent population, plus travelers. In a few cases, like that of Turpan, also in Xinjiang, the oasis was even large enough to support irrigation works and local agriculture.

Smaller oases in Asia might support only a caravanserai, which was essentially a hotel and tea house set out along a desert trade route. Generally, these establishments were fairly isolated and had very small permanent populations.

Word Origins and Modern Usage

The term "oasis" comes from the Egyptian word "wh't," which later evolved into the Coptic term "ouahe.The Greeks then borrowed the Coptic word, reworking it into "oasis." Some scholars believe that the Greek historian Herodotus was actually the first person to borrow this word from Egypt. In any case, the word must have had an exotic flavor to it even back in ancient Greek times, since Greece does not have expansive deserts or oases among its landforms.

Because an oasis is such a welcome sight and a haven for desert travelers, the word is now used in English to indicate any sort of relaxing stopping point—particularly pubs and bars, with their promise of liquid refreshments.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Is an Oasis in the Desert?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-an-oasis-195360. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, February 16). What Is an Oasis in the Desert? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-oasis-195360 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Is an Oasis in the Desert?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-oasis-195360 (accessed April 1, 2023).