Anyone for desert?
Deep in North Africa’s vast Western Desert lies remote Siwa Oasis, its fortress, fossils and freshwater springs irresistible magnets.
An eight-hour drive west from Cairo, Siwa is not exactly on the way to anywhere. It’s a last outpost, a green refuge in a sea of stony desert plains and restless dunes that morph and roll on the whim of the wind.
In Shali, the oasis’ main town, the taxis are carettas – donkey-drawn carts – women are cloaked from head to foot, the bank is made of mudbrick and the centre of the town is a decrepit 900-year-old fortress. The fortress suffered during a rare deluge of rain in the 1920s, which dissolved the mudbrick that is now crumbling back into the earth. Siwa is far from the touts and package tours of the Nile. Until just a couple of decades ago there was no sealed road to the oasis. The nearest major city, Marsa Matruh on Egypt’s north coast, was a five-day camel trek when Westerners first “discovered” Siwa in 1792.
Here in the desert, the midday siesta is religiously and sensibly observed. In the shade, sitting on hand-woven cushions and drinking sweetened lemon juice, a local breaks the silence. “There could be a third world war and you wouldn’t know about it here in Siwa,” he says. We all nod silently and resume our positions, leaning back against the ancient walls of kershef, the traditional brick made of salt, sand and clay.
Siwa did hit the headlines recently with claims of human footprints up to three million years old. There was life before such adventurers: the marine fossils littering the nearby sands are relics of an ancient sea that filled this basin some 50 million years ago. Travellers have long been lured here by the 230 freshwater springs that bubble up from the hot sand, converting the desert into palm gardens and olive groves. Flamingos and other long-limbed waterfowl linger in shallow lakes coloured a delicate pink from the salt that lies beneath the surface, while pools have such evocative names as Cleopatra’s Pool – in defiance of any evidence the Egyptian queen actually bathed here.
The oasis was a stopover on the trade routes along which camel trains ferried spices and slaves across North Africa into Europe and the Arabian Gulf. The mudbrick villages are scattered between the palm gardens and chalky ridges pocked with hand-hewn catacombs where Roman bones have rested since Ptolemaic times, 300 years before Christ.
It was at this time that Alexander the Great visited Siwa’s legendary Oracle of Amun. In 331BC the conqueror consulted the oracle’s wisdom and declared himself the son of the god Amun before embarking on his successful Egyptian campaigns. Even today, the temple ruins seem to echo with a million questions whispered into the walls by those before and after Alexander, seeking truth and clarity.
While there have been villages clustered around the oracle’s hilltop location since Paleolithic times, Shali Town was settled by Berber tribes in the 13th century and is now home to about 10,000 Siwans and Egyptians. Autonomous and isolated for centuries, Siwans speak their own, originally unwritten language, Amazigh, its roots shared with the Berber tribes of Libya, Morocco and Algeria. They dress, think and act differently from their Egyptian counterparts, and exist in a culture far from being a museum exhibit, despite the encroachment of the outside world.
“I am Siwi first, Egyptian second,” says my young guide, Gomma, urging his donkey along the dirt path leading to the beauty spot of Fatnis Island, to drink tea and watch the sun set over the saltwater lake. The joys of Siwa are simple.
However, in a scene that’s being played out the world over, Siwa’s young men are far more interested in cheap Chinese motorbikes than contrary little donkeys. The times are also changing for Siwan women. Married women once never left their homes without being draped in a blue-and-white cloth from head to toe, with a black gauze scarf obscuring their faces. Now, the black robes of the Nile Delta are fashionable amongst unmarried girls and a handful of these fiercely protected women work in a co-op set up by the Egyptian entrepreneur and Adrère Amellal eco-lodge owner Dr Mounir Neamatalla. The women’s traditional embroidery and weaving skills are sold in Fair Trade agreements on the streets of Europe and the US, and their jewellery is being reproduced for the tourist market, keeping the designs alive. While they’re happy to chat openly to other women, the girls veil their faces when photographed, all the time their hands, tipped with henna-painted fingernails, working instinctively.
Thanks to its isolation – and being declared a protected area by the Egyptian Government – the oasis has escaped much chemical pollution. Eco-entrepreneurs are capitalising on the pure landscape, balancing business with environmental sustainability as they grow certified organic olives, herbs and dates, and establish ecologically sustainable farming techniques within the Siwan agricultural economy.
For travellers, their efforts at Siwa’s preservation are immediately obvious: this is no Disney desert, you don’t get here by accident, but by design. At night, the oasis is quiet as only a desert town can be quiet, without heavy trucks and souped-up cars. The sand sea on the town’s outskirts seems to suck the very sound from the air, unlike Cairo’s ever-present grumbling. Here, the only sounds are the crackling of the beeswax candles and the occasional night-bird until dawn breaks with the crowing of cocks, the raucous complaint of a donkey and the muzzein’s call to prayer.
On the edge of a lake, right in the middle of the desert, with no electricity – this eco-lodge is about as remote as it gets. The 40 rooms are built from rock and clay, water for the pool comes from a natural spring. Food is organically grown and each evening guests are treated to a Bedouin-style candlelight dinner amid the dunes.
Built into the walls of the Shali fortress with energy-saving kershef design, this lodge promotes indigenous handmade crafts, local food and warm Siwan hospitality.
+20 4 6921 0100.
Kilims, embroidery and jewellery are for sale at the House of Siwa Museum, Shali.
Off Market Square, Siwa.
+20 4 6921 0111.
Traditional and modern Siwan jewellery, adventure tours and accommodation.
17 Ahmed Heshmat Street, Zamalek.
+20 2 2737 3014.
Traditional Siwan handicrafts in Cairo.
1300 853 953.
Bespoke trips to Siwa Oasis.
Abercrombie & Kent
1300 851 800.
Tailor-made educational trips to Siwa Oasis.
1300 364 512.
Includes Siwa on its overland adventure from Libya.
Source Qantas The Australian Way February 2010