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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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’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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.