In the northeastern corner of the Western Desert sprouts the Siwa Oasis, a place like no other. Less than 60 km from the Libyan border, isolated for centuries by hundreds of kilometres of rolling sand dunes, Siwa was inaccessible by car until an asphalt road was built in the early 1980s connecting it to Marsa Matruh. The 300-km road winds through desert oblivion and suddenly gives way to a striking shroud of green. About 82 km long east-west and 20 km north-south at its widest point, the oasis, 18 m below sea level, shelters 30,000 date palms, 70,000 olive trees and hundreds of bubbling springs. Despite its seclusion, Siwa has long drawn in visitors from afar, captivated by its singular culture and beauty. In the early 20th century, the oasis lured one or two tourists a month. Now, some 8000-10,000 tourists visit every year.
South from Siwa the Sudanese border lies across 700 km of desert. Of this, 400 km is The Great Sand Sea, which, like a frozen storm with waves 100 m high, casts rolling dunes in every direction. Legend tells of a lost oasis and true adventurers still come in search. Perhaps the descendants of Cambyses live on...
Ins and outs
It is possible to approach Siwa from Bahariyya but a reliable 4WD vehicle is essential. The trip takes between six to eight hours, depending on stops, and the cost for the car is E£1200. Enquire at the tourist office on either end of the route if you want to make the 420-km journey. There is one bus direct from Cairo per week, leaving at 1945 from Turgoman station, nine hours, otherwise you will have to change in Alexandria.
You can easily cycle, or hire a
. A couple of places rent motorbikes, though the sandy roads necessitate a bit of experience and a great deal of concentration. Safaris to the outlying villages and springs require a jeep, and trips are easily arranged through most hotels, restaurants and shops.
Mahdi Hweiti, an articulate and wonderfully knowledgeable Siwi native, has been single-handedly manning the tourist office since it opened. He has a wealth of information about the oasis and some fascinating tales, ask him about his ancestors who he says were the first among the re-settlers of the oasis in the 12th century. Documentaries on the region in several languages are available, and Mahdi can arrange tours to nearby sites and help anyone who wants to make a more epic desert venture. Even if you stop by after hours, Mahdi is often hanging out around his office.
now have a department in the police station, open 24 hours.
NoteWith its customs unchanged for centuries, untarnished by the world around, a heightened sensitivity is called for when visiting Siwa. You will quickly see how modestly many Siwan women dress, covered from head to toe in a voluminous blue shawl with sheer black fabric covering their faces - and women visitors are requested to keep legs and upper arms covered. Women travellers should further be aware that walking alone (although perfectly safe) is still regarded as odd behaviour by oasis dwellers, as only a small percentage of married Siwan women even venture out the home and then only to visit family and friends. Also bear in mind that it is unacceptable to take photographs of Siwan women. Alcohol and affection are forbidden in public.
Siwans, currently numbering 27,000, have always been fiercely independent; the oasis only officially became part of Egypt in the 19th century. It has been inhabited, with reliance on the 200 and more fresh, salt, warm and cold springs, since Palaeolithic times. The economy is based on agriculture, dates (the Sa'idi date is preferred for eating) and olives, the date palms bearing fruit in 10 years and the olives in five. Water supply is from natural springs; no pumping is necessary but the springs are capped to provide some control as, ironically, surplus water is a serious problem. Quarrying, transport, trade (and smuggling) are also important and there is an increasing revenue from tourism but labour costs are high as labourers have to be brought in and need food and accommodation.
The people of Siwa are extraordinary, retaining customs and traditions from centuries past, as well as their own language, Siwi, a Berber dialect with Algerian roots. The old script can still be seen embroidered down the centre of ceremonial scarves and clothes, but the ability to decipher it has been lost and the symbols are now used merely as decoration. Traditional Siwan music and singing is haunting and beautiful, incorporating the
, two bamboo pipes that produce five notes by blowing through two mobile reeds and the
, an iron pipe, 70 cm long with six holes akin to a recorder.
The English Patient
, has drawn attention to this area. With increased tourism, the building of an Olympic Pool and stadium that seats 20,000 (complete but not yet open) and the upsurge of luxury hotels, there have long been plans to open the adjacent military airport that guards the nearby Libyan border to commercial traffic. This could increase the visitors, currently about 100 a week, to vast numbers to be accommodated in planned luxury tourist villages and almost certainly damage the very essence of this remote area. Locals dread the day. Visit before it's too late.
Siwa deserves some time - to appreciate the oasis in all its splendour, moving slowly is essential. There are hot and cold springs to swim in, ancient tombs housing beautiful paintings, and the temple of the Oracle that has attracted pilgrims for centuries (Alexander the Great, among them). Much of the pleasure lies in simply wandering around the sultry town or biking through dusty palm groves and no visit would be complete without at least one night in the desert, underneath far too many stars to count and blanketed by the silence of the Great Sand Sea. The Siwans' low-key nature is a further refreshing respite from the hustlers of other heavily trafficked destinations.
The main settlement was medieval
, straddling two low hills within the depression, but now abandoned. The ruins of the old town established in 1203 are still impressive and the minaret of the 17th-century mosque (which is in use) remains. In parts, the walls and alleyways are being reconstructed and despite the ravages of time and rain many buildings are still surprisingly high, but generally a wander through Shali is like traversing a giant sandcastle. The mud-brick walls and towers are floodlit at night, a splendid sight. Stretching away from the base of the old city, new stone dwellings, mainly single storey, have been constructed. They are certainly not so attractive but probably much more comfortable. Until recently, Siwans painted their houses in celebration of portentous events such as weddings, and a pale blue tint saturated the town. Now, the ornamental daubs and patterns around doors and windows have faded away as all new buildings are required by regional government to be a traditional mud-brick colour to merge in with the desert surrounds. The new mosque of Fuad I, a solidly built structure of stone in the pleasant style of the late 19th-early 20th century, is the natural centre of the new town. Adjacent to it is the tomb of Sidi Soliman, a local saint, where you might be lucky enough to witness a Sufi
on Thursday nights, although this practice is beginning to die out. There is one traditional
remaining in Siwa, on the eastern edge of Shali, driven by donkey power and in operation only at the end of the olive season around December/January. Arrangements to visit can be made at the tourist office.
House of Siwa Museum
showcases artefacts, clothing and decorations used until very recently in the houses of the oasis. The building was made using traditional techniques and materials.
salt lake and
, 5 km southwest of town, is a popular mini-excursion from Siwa. The walk is pleasant, but a little too long if it's hot. A bike ride is better, or you can hire a
(donkey cart) to take you, wait an hour, and bring you back. Unfortunately, a government irrigation effort in the middle of the lake has resulted in a significant receding of water and the death of the famed leaning palm. Fatnas (or Fantasy Island as its known in tourist lingo) has managed to retain much of its beauty, however, and is always a good spot for a picnic. There is a cold spring-fed pool, perfect for swimming in (women should wear opaque T-shirt and shorts), and a small coffee shop that offers
and soft drinks. The sunsets overlooking White Mountain and the surrounding
are spectacular. Camping is possible, inquire with Omran, the kind man who runs the café. Take precautions against the many mosquitoes.
The temples, spring and mountain described below can be linked into an easy half-day circular bike ride, plus the few hotels and attractive camps exploiting the peace and isolation around the edge of Jebel Dakrur provide an opportunity to stop for lunch. There are two temples dedicated to Amun near the deserted village of Aghurmi 3 km east of Shali. The
Temple of the Oracle
is built on a large rock amid the remains of the village. It dates back to the 26th Dynasty and, though crudely restored by German archaeologists, rambling around the ruins in the footsteps of Alexander cannot fail to leave an impact. There are spectacular views of the nearby Temple of Umm 'Ubayda, Jebel Matwa and across the palm groves to the shimmering salt lakes. The site of the second temple,
from the 30th Dynasty is marked by an area of fallen blocks in which one wall - all that survived the 1877 earthquake - is left standing, carefully inscribed and with blue and green hues still visible.
(also called Cleopatra's Pool although it has nothing at all to do with the lady) was mentioned by Herodotus. It is supposed to change temperature during the day but in reality the change is due to the relative difference between air temperature and the temperature of the person dipping in. Women are advised to swim in a long T-shirt and shorts, though the constant presence of a policeman keeps the area hassle-free. You're likely to find the pool empty most of the day, though Fridays are more crowded. The cute adjacent café makes it a good rest point on a bike ride, even if you don't fancy getting in the rather algae-infested water.
, the 'mountain' that sprouts up in three mounds about 4 km southeast of town, is the site of Siwa's annual
l in October . The summit awards stunning views of the oasis all around and is worth climbing. The salt lake shimmers amid a blanket of palms, with the Great Sand Sea abruptly encroaching on the edge. In July and August around midday when it's hot enough to cook a chicken outside, sufferers come from afar to be buried in the
) around Jebel Dakhrur with the hopes of alleviating their arthritis, rheumatism and even impotence.
, or Mountain of the Dead, is a conical hill about 1.5 km north from the centre of Shali. It is honeycombed with tombs from 26th Dynasty to the Roman period, varying from small chambers to large composite excavations complete with columns and wall paintings. Anything worth stealing has long since been removed. During 1940 many items were 'sold' to the visiting troops by Siwans who had moved into the tombs for security. Of the tombs open to visitors that of Si-Amun, a rich local merchant, is the most striking, with wall paintings of him and his family, of Nut the goddess of the sky, and a very recognizable maple tree. Others that are open include the Tomb of Mesu-Isis, the Tomb of the crocodile and the Tomb of Niperpathot (for which the custodian will bring a key), which is in relatively poor condition. There are panoramic views towards the Great Sand Sea from the top of the hill.
Among the most beautiful spots to visit around Siwa is
, an enchanting hot spring set amid silky dunes and a lush garden, about 12 km off road from town (permits required). It is no longer possible to camp here, and sadly rubbish has begun to accumulate now that the Bedouin man who used to be permanently based at the spring has had to move on. Most safari guides will stop en route at one of the natural sweet water cold pools, perfect for swimming. In the vicinity, there are plenty of opportunities to climb dunes and rocky summits, search for fossils or go sand-surfing.
Out to the east from Siwa is
, a huge saltwater lake, visible from the summit of Jebel Dakhrur, and quite a desolate place due largely to its high salinity. Still, its silvery water and salty edges offer a stunning reflection of a sunset. Near the edge of the lake, some 37 km southwest of town, the beautiful spring
bubbles up invitingly. The water is a deep shade of blue and so clean you can see the bottom and schools of little fish. It's undisputedly the nicest pool around, and often empty, save the female donkeys that are supposedly confined to the area for mating. Whenever a local loses his donkey, the first question asked is 'have you been to Abu Shrouf?' Going to Abu Shrouf is also a widely known euphemism for 'did you have sex?' Lone women travellers, be cautious if a man invites you to accompany him alone to the spring. Further south along the lake, there is a small Bedouin village and the ruins of
, an old community that once tended the lushest gardens in the oasis until an Italian bombing raid in 1940 led to its abandonment. There is the dwindling remains of a small temple and an age-old circular olive press worth a look, as well as a nearby hill dotted with old Roman tombs.
West of the town, the road skirts the northern edge of Birket Siwa, along a honey-toned rockface speckled by the square pockets of hundreds of tombs, to the
cluster of settlements known as
. It was here, near the village of Balad El-Rum, that Greek archaeologists claimed to have discovered the tomb of Alexander the Great under the remains of a Doric Temple. After about 35 km the tarmac peters out at the Bedouin village of Behay Al-Din on the shore of
, where you can swim in the salty water. The ridge here is scattered with the fossils of shells and sea creatures, and not only has splendid views of the lake and mesas but is a marvellous vantage point from which to watch a sunset turn the world of cream-coloured sand to rose-pink.