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Astronauts discover an ancient heart-shaped oasis in Egypt just in time for Valentine's Day

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Last May, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) were flying 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth when they noticed a heart-shaped oasis blooming in the Egyptian desert. Today (Feb. 14), our space friends are releasing this stunning image as a special Valentine for the entire world, courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory website.

Known as the Faiyum Oasis, this lush heart in the desert is a broad wetland basin that extends over 450 square miles (1,200 square km) – about one and a half times the area of the five boroughs of New York City. While it is nothing as populous as New York City today, NASA estimates that the oasis has maintained human life for around 8,000 years and served as a staging ground for some of the most ambitious architectural projects in ancient history.

The oasis was once a sparkling lake called Lake Moeris, and it was fed by a natural channel of the adjacent Nile River known as the Bahr Yussef. According to the geography department of University College London (UCL), the lake's existence was dependent on seasonal floods from the Nile. When the Nile floodwaters were too low, ancient Egypt's rulers would sometimes take drastic measures.

There is evidence that 4,000 years ago, a succession of pharaohs handled a particularly severe water shortage by expanding the Bahr Yussef to manually return water to the region.

According to the UCL website, "this was one of the world's first big national hydrological initiatives." "The 12th Dynasty kings responsible were Amenemhat I-III, who earned the moniker 'engineering kings.'"

Today, the old lake is known as Qarun Lake (seen below the heart in NASA's image). The rest of old Moeris' broad lakebed remains a rich oasis that sustains many villages, cities, farms, and orchards - as you (and the astronauts) can see in the grey patchy sections that comprise the oasis's core in the image above.