Siwa Oasis

Isolated by hundreds of kilometres of desert, Siwa Oasis remained virtually independent from Egypt until the late nineteenth century, sustaining a unique culture. Yet despite – or because of – its isolation, outsiders have been drawn here since antiquity. The legendary Army of Cambyses was heading this way when it disappeared into a sandstorm; Alexander the Great journeyed here to consult the famous Oracle of Amun; and Arabic tales of Santariyah (as the oasis was known) were common currency into the nineteenth century. In modern times, Siwa has received visits from kings and presidents, anthropologists and generals. Tourism only really began in the mid-1980s but has gathered steam since then.

The oasis offers all you could ask for in the way of desert beauty spots: thick palm groves clustered around freshwater springs and salt lakes; rugged massifs and enormous dunes. Equally impressive are the ruins of Shali and Aghurmi, labyrinthine mud-built towns that once protected the Siwans from desert raiders. Scattered around the oasis are ruined temples that attest to Siwa’s fame and prosperity during Greco-Roman times.

Visitors are also fascinated by Siwan culture and how it is reacting to outside influences like TV, schooling and tourism. Nowadays, it is mostly only older women who wear the traditional costume, silver jewellery and complex hair-braids; younger wives and unmarried women dress much the same as their counterparts in the Nile Valley. But the Siwans still observe their own festivals and wedding customs; and among themselves they speak Siwi, a Berber tongue.

Though things are changing, the Siwans remain sure of their identity and are determined to maintain it. Siwans remain deeply conservative in matters of dress and behaviour. The tourist office asks visitors to refrain from public displays of affection, and women to keep their arms and legs covered – especially when bathing in pools. Women should also avoid wandering alone in places with few people around, especially palm groves (which is seen here as an invitation to sex). Local people are generally more reserved than Egyptians, and invitations home less common.

The best time to come is during spring or autumn, when the Siwans hold festivals and the days are pleasantly warm. In winter, windless days can be nice, but nights – and gales – are chilling. From May onwards, rising temperatures keep people indoors between 11am and 7pm, and the nights are sultry and mosquito-ridden. Even when the climate is mild you’ll probably feel like taking a midday siesta or a swim.

Brief history

Beyond the fact that it sustained hunter-gatherers in Paleolithic times, little is known about Siwa Oasis before the XXVI Dynasty (664–525 BC), when the reputation of its Oracle spread throughout the Mediterranean world. Siwa’s population seems to have been at risk from predatory desert tribes, so their first settlement was a fortified acropolis, about which Classical accounts reveal little beyond its name, Aghurmi, and its position as a major caravan stop between Cyrenaica and Sudan. The Siwans are related to the Berbers of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, and their language is a variant of the Berber tongues, so their society may have originally been matriarchal.

Shali and early Siwan society

According to the Siwan Manuscript (a century-old compilation of oral histories whose sole copy is seldom shown to outsiders), repeated Bedouin and Berber raids had reduced Aghurmi’s population to a mere two hundred by the twelfth century AD. Around 1203, seven families left Aghurmi to found a new settlement called Shali, whose menfolk are still honoured as the “forty ancestors”. Later, newcomers from Libya settled in the oasis, giving rise to the enduring distinction between the “Westerners” and the original “Easterners”, whose historic feud began after they disagreed over the route of a causeway that both had undertaken to build across the salt lake of Birket Siwa. Nonetheless, both coexisted within a single town built of kharsif: a salt-impregnated mud which dries cement-hard, but melts during downpours – fortunately, it rains heavily here only every fifty years or so. Fearful of raiders, Shali’s elders forbade families to live outside the walls, so as the population increased Shali could only expand upwards, with passageways regulated to the width of a donkey.

Bachelors aged between 20 and 40 had to sleep in caves outside Shali, guarding the fields – hence their nickname, zaggalah (club-bearers). Noted for their love of palm liquor, song and dance, they shocked outsiders with their open homosexuality. Gay marriages were forbidden by law in 1928, but continued in secret until the late 1940s. Today, Siwans emphatically assert that homosexuality no longer exists in the oasis – whatever may be said on gayegypt.com – and resent foreign gays inveigling their youth (who may be ostracized or gaoled as a consequence). Local Salafists believe that gays should be thrown to their death from a high place.

Another feature of Shali was the tradition of violent feuds between the Westerners and Easterners, in which all able-bodied males were expected to participate. Originally ritualized, with parallel lines of combatants exchanging blows between sunrise and sunset while their womenfolk threw stones at cowards and shouted encouragement, feuds became far deadlier with the advent of firearms. Despite this, the Siwans immediately closed ranks against outsiders – Bedouin raiders, khedival taxmen or European explorers. The Siwan Manuscript relates how they considered poisoning the springs with mummies in order to thwart the Muslim conquest.

Modern Siwa

Paradoxical as it sounds, Siwa’s biggest problem is an excess of water, Smelly, mosquito-infested ponds attest that the water table lies only just below the surface, and the water supply is saline or sandy, so residents have to collect water from springs by donkey. Engineers are installing a water-purification plant at Dakhrour, but it will be some years before it’s finished.

The road to Mersa Matrouh (completed in 1984) has spurred exports of dates and olives, along with tourism to the oasis, Some five hundred Siwan women are now stitching traditional embroidery for an Italian company, earning twice the local wage for an agricultural labourer: the unmarried ones have saved so much money that they can be choosy about taking a husband.

Meanwhile, the Siwans’ desire for breeze-block houses with proper bathrooms rather than the traditional dusty mud-brick dwellings has alarmed conservationists. Britain’s Prince Charles is among the VIPs backing the Friends of Siwa Association, a conservation body set up by Mounir Nematalla. Many locals regard the Friends of Siwa as a scam to embezzle donations, and resent Nematalla for expropriating part of Shali for his own profit.

In 2002, Italian NGOs helped establish the Siwa Protected Area to safeguard some 7,800 square kilometres within and beyond the oasis. The three protected zones harbour mammals (two species of gazelles and four kinds of desert fox), birds (26 species breeding locally, plus seventy migratory) and prehistoric fossils. There are no restrictions on visiting these zones, though a permit is needed for some trips.

Around Siwa Oasis

Although the Siwa depression is some 82km long and up to 28km wide, cultivated areas amount to less than two thousand acres and the total population is only thirty thousand; in some areas both population and cultivation have diminished since salination turned ancient gardens into barren kharsif. Nearer town, dense palm groves and wiry olive trees are carefully tended in mud- and palm-leaf-walled gardens. Siwa has over three hundred thousand palm trees, each yielding about 90k of dates a year and requiring some 30l of water every day.

Aghurmi

From Siwa’s Midan el-Souk, you can follow a country road through the palm groves – a pleasant walk if it isn’t too hot and you’re not intending to venture far beyond AGHURMI and the ruins of the ancient Siwans’ first fortified settlement. Raised on a hill 12m above the plain and entered by a single gateway, ancient Aghurmi had its own well, rendering it impervious to sieges, and was home to the celebrated Oracle Temple of Amun, whose former petitioners included Alexander the Great. The fortified ruins still afford a superb view encompassing the salt lakes of Birket Siwa and Birket Zeitun, Jebel Dakhrour and Siwa Town in the distance, and a great mass of palms.

Oracle Temple

Fakhry dates Aghurmi’s Oracle Temple (signposted as the “Alexander Crowning Hall”) to the reign of the XXVI Dynasty ruler Amasis the Drunkard (570–526 BC) but reckons it evolved from an older site dedicated to Amun-Re, which others have attributed to the ram-headed Libyan god Ammon. A hilltop citadel encloses the temple, along with deep wells that enabled the occupants to withstand seiges.

A Persian army sent to destroy the Oracle was obliterated by the desert; emissaries from the Athenian statesman Cimon (or Timon, as Shakespeare misspelt it) were told of his death as it happened; and Lysander tried bribery to win the oracle’s endorsement of his claim to the Spartan throne. But the most famous petitioner was Alexander the Great. Having liberated Egypt from its hated Persian rulers and ordered the foundation of Alexandria he hurried to Siwa in 331 BC. It’s thought that he sought confirmation that he was the son of Zeus (who the Greeks identified with Amun), but the oracle’s reply – whispered by a priest through an aperture in the wall of the sanctuary – is unrecorded, and Alexander kept it secret unto his death in Asia eight years later.

Temple of Amun

In ancient times the Oracle Temple was linked by a ritual causeway to a Temple of Amun, which is known locally as “Um Ubayda”. Probably founded by Nectanebo II (360–343 BC), who also rebuilt the Temple of Hibis at Kharga Oasis, a bas-reliefed wall and giant blocks of rubble are all that remain of this once-substantial XXX Dynasty creation after it was dynamited by a treasure-hunting local governor in 1897.

Cleopatra Bath

From the Temple of Amun follow the path on to reach Ain Juba, known to tourists as the Cleopatra Bath. A deep circular pool of gently bubbling spring water, it has no connection with the legendary queen but is a fine place to bathe if you don’t mind spectators at the cafés surrounding the pool (there are changing rooms behind Tanta Waa) or lots of Siwan men bathing on Friday mornings and at sunset.

Tamusi Bath

Being fully visible to anyone passing along the trail, Ain Juba has always been shunned by local women in favour of the more secluded Tamusi Bath where Siwan brides once ritually bathed and removed their adrim (a silver collar signifying puberty) on the eve of their wedding day. Today, the spring-fed pool is barely less public than the Cleopatra Bath due to the presence of Ali’s Garden, which serves tea and sheesha.

Jebel Dakhrour

Heading on from the Cleopatra Bath, bear left at the fork and take the first path on the right through clover fields and groves of palms to emerge in the desert near Jebel Dakhrour. This rugged massif hosts the annual Eid el-Siyaha and affords stunning views. In contrast to the verdant oasis and the silvery salt lake of Birket Zeitun, the southern horizon presents a desolate vista of crescent dunes and blackened mesas: the edge of the Great Sand Sea.

Visitors can experience a loud echo in the basin between the first and second peaks to the right, where Siwans often go to sing. Near the summit of Jebel Nasra is a crevice with a vein of red clay that’s used to decorate pottery. Jebel Tunefefan (Mountain of Pillars) is named for three caves with man-made pillars, which were once dwellings and later tombs. Any Siwan in the vicinity can point you towards these two peaks.

Last but not least, immersion in the hot sand around Dakhrour is famously efficaceous for certain medical conditions; several places out here offer the chance to go sand bathing.

Fatnis Island and Birket Siwa

Another popular destination is Fatnis Island, on the salt lake of Birket Siwa. En route you’ll pass the Abu Alif Bath, where farmhands wash; beyond the palm groves, follow a causeway across salt-encrusted pans onto Fatnis, where palms surround a large circular tiled pool, fed by fresh water welling up from clefts in the rock 15m below. A stall sells tea and sheesha.

Actually, Fatnis is no longer an island. Birket Siwa has receded and a barrage now divides it into a drainage reservoir and an intensely saline remnant (seven times saltier than the Dead Sea), which blackens the surrounding vegetation. Despite its faintly acrid smell the lake looks beautiful, with sculpted table-top massifs on its far shores.

Sidi Jaffar

The largest massif overlooking the lake is called Sidi Jaffar by Egyptians but was previously designated by British cartographers as Jebel Beida (White Mountain) and is still known to Siwans in their own language as Adrère Amellal. Whatever its name, this area deserves a visit just to see the amazing architecture of its two eco-lodges.

Adrère Amellal and Taziry eco-lodges

Beside the western shore of Birket Siwa is the extraordinary Adrère Amellal eco-lodge (access only with written permission from the Shali Lodge in Siwa Town): a vast, fantasy qasr-style hotel built entirely of kharsif, palm logs and salt slabs (used instead of glass). The brainchild of Cairene entrepreneur and environmental engineer Mounir Nematalla, the eco-lodge is designed to save energy and water and recycle waste products on its organic farm. Being the kind of hotel whose guests arrive by helicopter (or private jet into Siwa’s military airport), it can be entirely empty for weeks and then suddenly filled with VIPs, gofers and bodyguards. When not booked out, they don’t mind the odd visitor looking around, providing you get written permission first.

The smaller but otherwise similar Taziry Ecolodge, nearer the Maraki road, doesn’t require prior authorisation for a visit.

Bir Wahed

Perhaps the best excursion Siwa has to offer is Bir Wahed (Well One), amid the outer dunes of the Great Sand Sea, which provides an affordable experience of this magnificent landscape, otherwise only available on deep-desert safaris.

Two salt-water ponds and a freshwater lake (where people usually swim on the way back) are followed by a magical hot pool the size of a large jacuzzi, irrigating a lush palm garden. The well was dug in the 1960s to find oil, but produced sulphurous water (37°C) instead. To soak up to your chest, puffing a sheesha, while the sun sets over the dunes all around, is a fantastic experience. Women may wear bathing costumes without offending any locals. The only downside is that mosquitoes are awful from dusk till dawn.

From here you can pursue a nature trail through limestone outcrops strewn with marine fossils, and enjoy sand-surfing or rolling down the sides of huge knife-edged dunes (sand-boards can be rented in town if the safari operator doesn’t provide them). Excursions also usually feature some dune-bashing (driving over dunes at high speed).

Maraki

Maraki is the collective name for several villages at the western end of the Siwa depression, separated from the main oasis by a rocky desert riddled with over two hundred tombs and caves. Although the area was intensively cultivated from Roman times until the fifteenth century, most of the existing buildings are modern breeze-block structures, as the old mud-brick ones were destroyed by a deluge in 1982, which forced residents to shelter in caves at nearby Balad el-Rum.

Balad el-Rum: the “Tomb of Alexander the Great”

In 1991, Balad el-Rum (Town of the Romans) made international headlines when Liana and Manos Souvaltzi announced their discovery of the “Tomb of Alexander the Great” beneath a ruined Doric temple. Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities initially endorsed the Souvaltzis’ claim, but backed off after the Greeks failed to refute criticism that they’d misread vital inscriptions, revoked their licence and moved all the stones to a depository (not open to the public, though you might be able to look inside for baksheesh).

Girba Oasis and Shiatta

Beyond the military checkpoint at Bahaj al-Din a track runs off to Girba Oasis, which despite its many salt-flats (sabkha) provides grazing for the herds of the Bedouin Al-Shihayat tribe, whose main settlement is at Shiatta, 20km away. During the early twentieth century, both were halts on the Masrab el-Ikhwan (Road of the Brotherhood) from Jaghbub Oasis in Libya, whereby Senussi preachers reached the Western Desert oases (masrab is the Siwan word for a camel route, called a darb in other oases.)

Since the 2011 revolutions in Egypt and Libya, the thinly guarded international border has been crossed with impunity by smugglers armed with AK-47s and RPGs, who have burnt crops to punish local sheikhs for providing information to Egyptian border guards stationed in the vicinity.

Shiatta

Shiatta’s beautiful, deep-blue salt lake is thought to be the remnant of an ancient, less saline one that stretched as far as Aghurmi. Divers have found fossils of fifty-million-year-old crocodiles, an underground river (part of the aquifers and waterways beneath the Libyan Desert) and the submerged remains of a Roman or pharaonic solar boat that might have been used for ritual voyages to the Oracle Temple. Endangered long-horned and Dorcas gazelles sometimes graze around its shores. Bring a bottle of fresh water to rinse off the salt after swimming in the lake.

Around Birket Zeitun

The largest salt lake in the oasis, named after the olive trees that flourished around it in ancient times, Birket Zeitun is visible from Jebel Dakhrour, from where a causeway crosses acres of mud, attesting to the lake’s slow recession. Only the far shore is inhabited, with villages that flourished in Roman times before centuries of slow decline set in.

Ain Qurayshat

The lake’s increasing salinity is both the cause and result of depopulation: as fewer irrigation works are maintained, more warm water from the Ain Qurayshat spring flows unused into the lake, crystallizing mineral salts as it evaporates. The source is enclosed by an industrial-sized concrete tank where you can bathe – but be careful of underwater ledges.

Abu Shurouf

Better bathing can be found 35km southeast of Siwa Town at Abu Shrouf, where there’s a large kidney-shaped pool of cool, clear, azure water with bug-eyed fishes, opposite the Hayat mineral water bottling plant. The village beyond is notable for harbouring all the female donkeys in the oasis, which are kept and mated here. In Siwan parlance, “Have you been to Abu Shurouf?” is a euphemism for “Have you had sex?”

Al-Zeitun

Further out along the lake, AL-ZEITUN was once a model Senussi village tending the richest olive groves in the oasis until it was abandoned after an Italian bombing raid in 1940. Near the far end is a smoke-blackened Ptolemaic kiosk-temple where the locals once sheltered from bombs. Hundreds of Roman tombs riddle the hills between Al-Zeitun and Ain Safi, the last hamlet in the oasis before the Darb Siwa to Bahariya Oasis enters the deep desert.

Sand saunas

Being immersed in hot sand has long been recognized as good for arthritis, rheumatism and spinal problems, and sufferers come from all over Europe to be treated in Siwa. The treatment is offered from June to September, and involves being buried up to your neck in sand at Jebel Dakhrour. Treatment courses last three to five days, with twenty-minute sessions (two or three daily) interspersed by sips of medicinal tea to induce sweating, and hours of rest in a tent or mud hut. Sand saunas can be arranged through the Al-Zaytuna Resort (£E300/person/day including all meals). Don’t bring any valuables to the isolated sand-bathing sites, as thefts by locals at Dakhrour have been reported.

Permits and excursions from Siwa

Though most of Siwa Oasis is freely accessible, you need a 24-hour permit from Military Intelligence to visit Bir Wahed, Shiatta and Qara Oasis, or to travel the road to Bahariya. In each case there’s a fee of £E40 per person, and you must supply a photocopy of your passport details the day before (two days before Fri & Sat). Applications can be processed by local safari operators or through the helpful Native Siwan Association, and any problems can usually be resolved with the help of Mahdi al-Hweiti at the tourist office. Multi-day permits (for the Qattara Depression or overnight stays in the oases between Siwa and Bahariya) are harder to obtain and need to be submitted through a fully licensed safari operator at least a month in advance.

Excursions

Jeep safaris are the rule in Siwa, but camel-trekking is also possible. Wherever you plan to go, it pays to shop around. Siwa’s tourist office can often arrange trips more cheaply than safari operators based at hotels, shops or restaurants. Among those worth asking are the Keylany and Palm Trees hotels and Ali Ashwaraf (010 0304 1191) who hangs out at the handicrafts shop next door to Abdou’s. Camel-trekking is also available (to guests only) at Adrère Amellal and the Taziry Ecolodge. The Safari Adventure Shop (010 0203 0215, elsiway@hotmail.com) near Siwa’s bank has a wide range of equipment for rent, from sleeping bags to dune-surfing boards and GPS handsets (deposit required).

Siwan Crafts

Traditional crafts still flourish in Siwa, though some designs and materials are new. Authentic wedding dresses embellished with antique coins, shells or beads, and black robes with orange or red piping, have narrower braiding than the versions made for the tourist market. Women also weave carpets and all sorts of baskets made from palm-fronds. The largest is the tghara, used for storing bread; smaller kinds include the red and green silk-tasselled nedibash or platters like the tarkamt, used for serving sweets. They also mould pottery and fire it at home in bread-ovens, creating robust cooking and storage pots, delicate oil lamps and a kind of baptismal crucible called the shamadan en sebaa. Popular buys include the adjra, used for washing hands, and timjamait, or incense burners.

Unlike the gold-loving Egyptians, Siwans have traditionally preferred silver jewellery, which served as bullion for a people mistrustful of banks and paper money. The designs are uniquely Siwan, influenced by Berber rather than Egyptian heritage. Local silversmiths once produced most of it, but in modern times it has largely come from Khan el-Khalili. Broad silver bracelets and oval rings wrought with geometric designs are the most popular items with visitors, while Al-Salhat, with its six pendants hung from silver and coral beads, is the easiest type of necklace to identify. You’ll also recognize the tiyalaqan, a mass of chains tipped with bells, suspended from huge crescents; and the qasas, an ornament for the head consisting of silver hoops and bells suspended from matching chunks of bullion.

Margaret May Vale’s Sand and Silver (sold at the tourist office) is the definitive guide to Siwan handicrafts.

Siwan festivals

Traditional Siwan festivals rooted in Sufism are anathema to the Salafists who have become increasingly powerful in the oasis since the 2011 Revolution. Believing that Muslims should only celebrate Islamic New Year, the Prophet’s birthday and the end of Ramadan, they regard other moulids as akin to paganism and have now succeeded in putting an end to the traditional Moulid at-Tagmigra (honouring Siwa’s patron sheikh, Sidi Suleyman) and Ashura celebrations for children, with singing and torchlit processions.

Other Siwans have, however, so far ignored their demands to abolish Eid el-Siyaha, when around ten thousand people gather at Jebel Dakhrour to celebrate the date harvest with three days of festivities. Quarrels are resolved, friendships renewed, and everyone partakes of a huge feast after the noon prayer, blessed by a sheikh from Sidi Barrani. Many outsiders come too, and are made welcome – though women should keep a respectful distance from the circles of men performing Sufi zikrs. Siyaha occurs during the period of the full moon in October, unless this coincides with Ramadan, in which case it’s postponed until November. It’s wise to reserve a room well in advance and get there several days early, as buses to the oasis fill up nearer the time.

Another event – far from traditional – is the Siwan Art Project, founded by the enterprising Nematalla. Staged every two or three years, the Art Project (featured on siwa.com) has previously seen thousands of kites set ablaze on Dakhrour and a “Ship of Siwa” launched on Birket Zeitun. The 2011 event was cancelled due to post-revolutionary insecurity, but it will hopefully take place in 2013.

Beyond Siwa Oasis

Beyond the Siwa depression are five smaller oases, visited by relatively few tourists. Qara, far away on the edge of the Qattara Depression, makes a rewarding day-trip, while travellers bound for Bahariya can see something of Areg and Nuwamisa, if not the more secluded oases of Bahrein or Sitra.