The over-night trip was pretty exhausting, 500+ Km along the road from Cairo to Matrouh and then around 300 Km to the south into the western desert. After 9 hours of straight travel, the only thing you need to see is a warm meal, a hot bath and a clean bed. But what I saw as I entered Siwa completely shattered my hopes.
As I stood in the center of this very small town, starring at the crumbling ruins of the 12th century fortress that locals call Shali and which constitutes the old town of Siwa where inhabitants resided safely within its walls, and listening to nearby shop-keepers in the typical nomadic garments as they communicate in a local dialect of a centuries old Berber language unspoken in any other area in Egypt, I was simply perplexed! In the exterior, it was just a humble village where houses are still built from clay, and where the local means of transportation are limited to donkey-driven carriages and carts. It seemed to be the literal opposition to modernity. “Just another village, not far from my home-village in the delta”, I thought.
I found my condolence in the soon-to-start desert safari that we were scheduled to join as soon as we arrived in town. And so I separate myself from even those small traces of modern life that manifests itself in houses, shops and imported goods that fill up the town center, and immerse myself in an eternal view of the golden sands. Just miles and miles of endless dunes that leaves you totally disoriented and bewildered, needless to say SCARED, as the 4 WD vehicles race up and down the steep slopes.
Right before sunset, we stop over a high sand dune and indulge into a tiring contest of sand boarding; a Sisyphean task where we’d sit or stand on a wooden board, slide down the dune and then breathlessly struggle our way up the absorptive fine sand. After sunset, a camp is set up and people gather around the bonfire for a delicious fire-cooked meal. When darkness falls, the desert sky is covered by a blanket of a thousand stars so close you can almost reach out and pick up a bunch of them.
Our rented bikes navigate us as we follow the Lonely Planet map through the palm fields and olive gardens which surround the town center in an almost perfect circle. The long leaves touch our heads gently and we stretch out our hands to pick some dates. It was the sweetest dates I ever tasted, fresh off a palm tree. It was only our second day in Siwa and we couldn’t be more eager to have our own tour in its whereabouts, so we rented some bikes from a local shop and headed on a lonely-traveler adventure across the fields. Four km away from the town, the hill of Aghurmi stands ahead as we approach the small ticket office on the side of the road. We climb up the short hill into the ruins of the temple of the Oracle.
At some point in time, probably around 700 BC, this temple which was originally built in worship to the sun god Amon-Ra, housed a divine oracle whose fame was widespread in the eastern Mediterranean. However, the temple itself has placed itself in historical tales because of one single visit. In 331, Alexander the great, having conquered Egypt which was then ruled by Persians, set sail from his newly-founded city of Alexandria, reached Mersa Matruh, and marched toward Siwa along the desert route that we’ve just used only yesterday. As it was customary for each of the pharaohs of Egypt’s 28th Dynasty to travel to Siwa to be acknowledged at the temple there as the son of Amon-Ra, Alexander was no less. He wanted the same declaration of divine power to legitimize his conquest of Egypt and put himself on the same footing as the pharaohs. As we enter the temple, or what’s left of it, nothing seems apparent of such a great history. The site is more of crumbled walls and passages than any specific structure. However, the magnificent panoramic view of the town and its surrounding fields and natural springs is alone worth the 4km trip.
We take a different route back to the center of town. On the way we stop by a large field to have our lunch. We’d grabbed some tuna cans, bread, cheese and some drinks from the local supermarket early this morning, so all we had to do was a dinner table, so we improvised one! A few wooden logs thrown here and there did the trick, using some as seats and a couple of them as a table to lay our food on. Soon, we had company too, as some local children with ages ranging from 4 years old to 10 years old gathered in silence watching us from afar. We tried to invite them over but they wouldn’t approach, they just giggled and exchanged naughty remarks about the “strangers in their field”. One of them, a skinny 7 years old boy had the courage to ask us if we would like some dates. It’d have been such a silly question to ask him “from where?”, so we just nodded. He then literally “walked” his way up a three storey palm tree in an unspoken agility, held the end of his red shirt with his teeth and filled the gap in between with some dates then “walked” – this time backwards – again down to earth. He dropped the dates right in front of our amazed eyes and ran back to join his gang. We wereso touched by the gentle gesture that we insisted to offer the kids some biscuits in exchange, the younger ones showed interest, but the older ones quickly refused politely saying that give-away food is for charity, and they wouldn’t accept charity. A wave of disappointment at my “modern” life acquired culture struck me as I realized the pride of a 7 -10 bare-footed years old in simple clothes who understand the difference between “need” and “desire” almost instinctively.
As we reach the center of town we realize that we have to ride one more kilometer out of town, this time towards the north and along the main road, in order to visit “Jabal Al Mawta” or the “mountain of the dead”. We park our bikes in front of a souvenir booth and head to the ticket office. The area was loaded with tourists, and accordingly security personnel were checking on every visitor, asking where you came from and in which hotel you are staying. Past the security clearance, we make our way up the eng
After a 10 kilometers bike ride all day, it’s only sane to have some rest. So we head back to the hotel for a quiet nap that lasts till eight in the evening. We had heard during the day that a café near Cleopatra spring offers a nice dinner over a bonfire and if we’re lucky there’d be a Siwan show. Not exactly knowing what to expect a “Siwan show” to be, we rent a couple of donkey-carts to take us to the spring. Moving through pitch black narrow lanes among the fields, it takes us around 15 minutes before we could see the bonfire and hear the loud chanting accompanied by soft drum beats. Suited in a secluded area right in the middle of the endless fields is this natural water spring known a Juba spring or Cleopatra spring. In the morning, it looks like a circular swimming pool, and is treated as one too since most visitors cannot resist taking a dive into its emerald water. Right next to the spring is a small café, with wooden rooftop, wooden chairs and woolen rags and pillows spread about. A bonfire is lit in the middle of the yard next to the spring, while candles are spread all around the concrete edge of the spring. Diners are invited to pick up their food from an open buffet set up inside the café, then choose their seat in the yard, circling the Siwan ensemble of men in their local costumes of white “gelbab” and head cover – called “hammudi” – who enthusiastically chant in their special Siwan language to the beats of a couple of drummers. A couple of them also perform some sort of a traditional belly dance as part of the entertaining show.raved stone steps marking the route to the top. The entire platform of the mountain is covered with grave hol es, sometimes only inches apart, such that the whole mountain is but one huge necropolis. The tombs date from the 26th Dynasty, the Greek (Ptolemaic) and the Roman periods and some of them are open for visitors. The most popular ones show paintings of ancient Egyptian gods on their walls alongside hieroglyphic scriptures. Reaching the tip of the mountain you have yet another marvelous panoramic view of the whole oasis and its surroundings.
It’s next to impossible to experience Siwa in just two days, let alone summing up a history that is as old as history itself in just a few pages. But our visit to Siwa had to come to an early end as we had to head back to Alexandria early next morning. However, these two days had left an imprint on my soul that would probably last forever. It is said that Siwa casts a spell on all its visitors, just one visit is enough to make you addicted to it forever. So, I’m sure that this will not be the last I see of this wondrous land. Siwa still has a lot of treasures to discover and deeper culture to experience, so let that be another story to tell.
By: Shereen Adel