Siwa Oasis

Ah, just saying the name conjures up images of palm trees surrounded by a sea of sand, caravans and camels and a sky full of stars. Siwa pretty much fits the bill -- you just need to substitute camels with jeeps and donkeys, the favored methods of transportation nowadays. Situated far into the desert, 550 kilometers west of Cairo and near the Libyan border, Siwa is an island full of date palms, olive trees, farms and lots and lots of spring water. Our guidebook describes it as "undoubtedly one of the most picturesque and idyllic places in Egypt," and they're right.

The small town atmosphere and the gentle Siwan disposition made it easy for us to get around and get to know the locals (ten tribes of Berbers and a handful of Egyptians) as well as other travelers. We rented bikes one day and cycled to the ancient ruins and puttered along dirt roads through small villages. We crawled around the Ancient Fortress of Shali -- the mudbrick remains of a 13th century fortress enclave, and now a magnificent backdrop to the town center.
And we went to Cleopatra's Spring, a hot spring with a palm frond hut, for a music party out under the stars. The Siwan music is quite different from Egyptian music; it had a tribal sound not unlike other parts of Africa.

One day we went to visit the House of Siwa Museum but found it to be closed. Later that evening our Australian friends told us that the caretaker of the museum (Mohammed) had offered to open the museum up for people whenever they wanted to see it. Next thing we knew we were standing in total darkness outside the museum doors waiting for Mohammed and another Siwan man (Ali) to figure out what to do about the electricity -- the outside lights had flickered on and then off, and the inside lights showed no signs of spark. After crawling around on the roof for a couple of minutes, he shouted to Ali to run and get candles. "I am so sorry," he said. "If you want we can see the museum by candlelight, and for your trouble I will not charge you the entry fee [what amounted to 44 cents in U.S. dollars]." Well, do you really need to ask what we did? When was the last time you saw a museum by candlelight? The tour was more than we could ask for. The museum is a replica of a traditional Siwan home, furnished with their baskets, cooking gadgets, cushions, jewelry and clothing, each item being displayed carefully by the soft candle. They shared some of the Siwan customs with us and told us how they were slowly changing or dying as their people were exposed to the outside world, and we learned about the different tribes of the oasis and how they governed themselves in a democratic way. When we got to the end of the tour and were making our way back down the stairs to the door, the electricity fizzled and ticked and the lights popped back on. We wanted to pay Mohammed for the tour since we thought it was fantastic, and offered him more than the published entry fee, but he would have none of it. He accepted our 44 cents, no charge for the candles.

One of the most spectacular experiences for me while in Siwa was jeeping out into the dunes of the desert. I will always be a mountain person, but I have to say, hanging out in the desert was precious, too. Rolling, shifting, soft sand the color of honey, quiet beauty and immense power.

After cruising up and down dunes a bit we stopped at a place that appeared to be a dried up lakebed with lots of fossils, mostly seashells jutting up through a hard crust of sand. We climbed up the dunes from there and gazed out afar, 360 degrees around us. Continuing on we visited an area called Bir Wahed ("first spring" in Arabic), that also contained a small body of water called Cold Lake. Haven't figured it out quite yet, but they have a small fish farm there. (Both the fish and the farm were small.) One of our guides (Aloush) told me that "Fish eat the shadows of the palm trees." I figured there's quite a bit out in the desert I don't know about or understand, but I think I'd like to find out.


It's time to stop now, and I hope you found this an interesting place. We're off to India now to explore more mysteries. Please know that you're on my mind and in my heart


Siwa Pictures The Main Picture Page