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.
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 w 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.
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.Read More
- Around Siwa Oasis
Beyond Siwa Oasis
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.
If you’re seriously into desert travel, Qara Oasis (often pronounced “Gara” or “Djara”) has a compelling fascination. The only inhabited oasis beyond the limits of the Siwa depression, it has been aptly called “Siwa yesterday” due to its isolation. Qarawis still live entirely from their palm groves and vegetable plots, irrigated by seventeen wells. Legend has it that these could only sustain 314 people, so whenever a child was born, an elder would have to leave the oasis.
Until flooding rendered it unsafe in 1982, the Qarawis occupied a Shali-like fortress atop “a solitary white mushroom of rock”, edged by a “high smooth wall, impregnable to raiders, with one black tunnel for a street”, as the explorer Bagnold saw it in the 1920s. Now, most families live in new stone houses on the plain. People trace their ancestry from the Hamudat tribe, a mixture of Bedouin, Berbers and Sudanese (some of them runaway slaves).
Visitors are so rare that the villagers turn out to welcome them and serve a meal in their honour. Qarawis speak Berber among themselves, but Arabic is widely understood.
Beyond Qara the land plummets into the Qattara Depression, which is seven times the size of all the Western Desert oases combined and, at its lowest point (141m below sea level), the deepest depression in Africa. The salt marshes and lakes at the foot of the northern escarpment were regarded as an impenetrable obstacle to Rommel’s Panzers during the Battle of El-Alamein.
Planners have long dreamed of piping water 38km from the Mediterranean to the depression, utilizing the fall in height to generate hydroelectricity and run desalination plants and irrigation systems, but all attempts have foundered through lack of capital. There is, however, exploration for oil at many points in the desert between Qattara and Mersa Matrouh, with upgraded tracks identified by the logos of oil companies. Local Bedouin are bitter that World War II minefields have only been cleared to allow drilling, while their ancestral grazing grounds remain hazardous to enter.
Siwa to Bahariya
Following the ancient Darb Siwa caravan trail, the 420km road (tarmackd for 250km) from Siwa to Bahariya takes four to six hours to drive and has six checkpoints which provide assurance that vehicles which break down will be missed, but otherwise there are no sources of water, nor any fuel – and mobile phones are beyond signal range. Safari operators charge £E1500 for up to four people to travel to Bahariya; £E2000 with one or two stopovers en route; or £E2500–2800 to carry on to the White Desert and camp there. Cars must travel in convoy leaving the Carpet Factory at 7am, while travel permits and an army guide with a satellite-phone are mandatory
Easily reached on foot from the road, Areg Oasis (pronounced “Arej”) is surrounded by striated chalk buttes which look like giant brioches that have sat in the oven too long. Regarded as a haunt of bandits by nineteenth-century travellers, its cliffs are riddled with scores of tombs. A tablet from Alexandria records that the population of Siwa, Bahrein and other now-deserted oases numbered four hundred thousand in Persian times.
Ten kilometres off the road, Bahrein Oasis – named after its two azure salt lakes – is awash with custard-coloured sand, hemmed in by croissant-shaped buttes riddled with Greco-Roman tombs. Seductive as they look, the salt lakes are surrounded by mushy sand and salt crusts that can trap unwary vehicles, and if safari groups camp here they do so in the palm groves on the far side, away from the mosquitoes and protected from sandstorms.
Nuwamisa and Sitra oases
Nuwamisa Oasis, roughly 3km off the road from Siwa to Bahariya, looks equally lovely, with a salt lake rimmed by palms and crescent cliffs – but its name, “Oasis of the Mosquitoes”, is all too true. Millions of mosquitoes swarm as soon as the sun goes down, making camping a nightmare even if you’re all zipped up in your tent.
Safari groups prefer to camp in Sitra Oasis, 15km away, which isn’t so badly infested. Traditionally a watering hole for Bedouin smugglers bringing hashish into Egypt, it is still sometimes used as a fuel-cache by motorized traffickers in various contraband.
For the final 45km of the journey to Bahariya the road skirts the whale-backed Ghard Kebir (Great Dunes), voyaging south from the Qattara Depression and destined to arrive in Bahariya in a few hundred years.
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 w 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.
Permits and excursions from Siwa
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.
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 (t 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 (t 010 0203 0215, e email@example.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).
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.