Thursday, April 28, 2016

Short Story: Egypt’s Remote Siwa Oasis – A Must See!

Siwa Oasis is one of the lesser visited areas on the Egyptian tourist trail and most certainly off the beaten track.

It’s two days out of Cairo and really warrants an overnight by the sea in Marsa Matrouh. One thing I cannot recommend enough is to read a book called Siwa Oasis by Ahmed Fakhry; it gave me such an amazing insight into history, people and was ultimately the reason why I had to go there.

The Siwa Oasis, located between the Qattara Depression (which extends below sea level) and the Egyptian Sand Sea in the Libyan Desert, feels very much like the place that time forgot. Things move at a glacial pace and don’t have the modern trappings of the larger cities of Cairo or Alexandria. At 50 miles in length and 12 miles wide, it isn’t big so two action-packed days could suffice to explore of the most isolated settlements in Egypt. The oasis was officially added to Egypt by Muhammad Ali of Egypt in 1819 and the spoken language is called Siwi, a dialect of the Berber language. The isolation of the oasis sparked the unique culture of Siwa which is evident in the styles of local pottery, costume, and styles of embroidery. The drive to Siwa is stunning and as I passed endless seas of towering date fields, it was obvious what the main agriculture is.

Of course when you arrive, it is hard to miss the striking ancient fortress of Shali, built on natural rock and made of salt, mud-brick and palm logs. This stunning, yet crumbling fortress is so prominent it towers five stories above the town itself, and at sunset is magical for photography. It reminded me of how Edinburgh Castle is such a prominent fixture in the town. So why would you want to visit Siwa Oasis? Well, here are 7 very good reasons why so my question is, why wouldn’t you?

Before I get into it, I’ve already mentioned that Siwa is remote so if you’re expecting luxury then you won’t find it here. If you’re expecting hostels you won’t find them either, but a decent 2-3 star hotel will do just the trick. Just make sure you book in advance and take enough money as the cash machines can’t be relied upon.

Cleopatra’s Pool – Spring of Juba
On a hot day, a dip in one of Siwa’s most famous attractions is a welcome relief. I wouldn’t say the water is particularly clean but when it’s baking hot, who cares. Cleopatra’s pool is a stone pool fed by a natural hot spring, where the Egyptian queen herself is said to have swam on her visit to Siwa. Travellers have been diving into the heated springs for years. Top tip – if you’re female it’s advisable to wear a t-shirt and shorts unless you like an audience.

Great Sand Sea
Siwa is the northern gateway and the perfect starting point for a safari expedition into a truly magical landmark. Covering over 72,000 square kilometres and forming the northern edge of the Sahara, the Great Sand Sea is the world’s third largest dune field. It’s possible to spend a night under a blanket of stars at one of the basic desert camps which is about as remote as you will ever get. It gets cold in the evening so take warm clothes, but the night sky is something which will, and excuse the overused phrase, take your breath away! I’ve only seen similar skies in Namibia where there are more stars than sky.

Shali Fortress
The Jimi Hendrix song ‘Castles made of Sand’ springs to mind. As you drive into Siwa the sight of Shali will set the tone for your experience here. This mud brick disused fortress comes alive at sunrise and sunset and is the best time to visit when the shapes paint looming images over the town. It is made from chunks of salt mixed with rock and mud known locally as ‘kershef’ and was once a labyrinth of corridors, five stories high and served to prevent invaders from entering. After heavy rains for three days in 1926, the damage was so extreme that most inhabitants have moved to safer pastures. What you’re left with is magnificently impressive and brings the history of Siwa alive.

Pass me the Peace Pipe
Smoking a shisha pipe, or hubby bubbly as its well-known is something every visitor must do when visiting the Middle East. I love it actually, especially the apple flavour and washing it down with a sweet Egyptian tea is like a burger and fries, it just works!
There are loads of cafes which surround Shali and the main drag of Siwa, my advice is to order yourself a shish and glass of tea at sunset and sit back and relax, but be sure to keep your camera to hand. It’s a brilliant place for people watching but please ask before you take photos, the people of Siwa do tend to get offended and they have no issue causing a scene.

Graeco-Roman Tombs
The Roman tombs will offer you a true sense of the life the Romans led in Siwa. You can see how they adapted Egyptian motifs to Roman customs and they reveal a different side of Egyptian history you may not have been expecting; it certainly surprised me. There are awesome views of the mountain and cascading date plantations and from up here, you’ll easily remember that you are in fact in an oasis in the desert!

Mountain of the Dead – Gebel al-Mawta
The Mountain of the dead is a hill side full of tombs which were unknown to 19th century explorers. This huge limestone attraction was used as a hideout during WWII when the battles raged around Siwa. Worth noting that The Tomb of the Crocodile contains a painting of a crocodile (funny that), the Tomb of Miso-Isis contains the owners skull and the Tomb of Niperpathot has red ink drawings; all of which are worth checking out. One word of warning is they stink of wee and animals who seek refuge from the sun, you’ve been warned.

Dakrur Mountain
Gebel Aldakrur is one of the several mountains and hills surrounding the town of Siwa, and is literally littered with caves. OK so the caves are not that inspiring and don’t contain the same marking you will find at the Mountain of the Dead, but there is no better place for views of the Siwa Oasis proper. It is said to be one of the healthiest places in Siwa and it is famous for treating illnesses, personally I went there for the views which are without question…spectacular!

So for anyone visiting Egypt or the first time or returning to Egypt and looking for something different, Siwa should most definitely be on your bucket list.

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