Siwa Oasis; Like most tourists to Siwa Oasis, you’ll be wiping your eyes as you drive 300km south from the coast across the monotonously featureless and arid desert.
This is Egypt’s most beautiful oasis, surrounded by jagged sandstone hills, the Great Sand Sea, and palm trees.
Hundreds of thousands of olive, fruit, and date palm trees shade and chill the valley’s mud-brick cottages hidden in the foliage.
Siwa’s seclusion helped preserve a civilization distinct from Egyptian culture. Siwa Oasis, established by Berbers (roaming North African tribes) just a few hundred years ago, was almost autonomous.
It was only in recent years that the oasis has had touch with the rare pilgrim seeking the famed Oracle of Amun. Local customs and Siwi, the Berber language, still rule.
Siwa Oasis is more about relaxing with a cup of tea or a sheesha and reminiscing about the good old days. It’s hard to be pressed in a city where donkey carts outnumber cars.
Hectares of palm trees beckon wandering, several cushioned cafés urge relaxing and meeting with tourists, and scores of clear springs ask for dipping.
As more independent travelers find this secluded oasis, locals are increasingly conscious of preserving traditions and curbing unrestrained ‘development’ that has afflicted other famous tourist locations in Egypt.
History of Siwa Oasis
Late 2007 a human footprint was discovered in Siwa Oasis that may be three million years old, making it the world’s oldest known human print. The discovery of flints in the oasis adds to the enigma of Siwa’s early past.
The earliest monuments in the oasis originate from the 26th dynasty, when the Assyrians conquered Egypt. Egyptologists believe it dates back to the early 21st dynasty, when the Amun priesthood and oracles were popular across Egypt.
The oracle’s renown worried the Persians, who invaded Egypt in 525 BC, ending the 26th dynasty. It is said that the Persian king Cambyses’ lost army was dispatched to destroy the oracle and vanished in the desert.
This only increased the oracle’s status and the Amun priesthood’s political authority. The oracle’s power expanded, as did Siwa’s popularity.
In 331 BC, Alexander the Great led a small company through the desert in jeopardy.
The priests of Amun, the greatest Egyptian deity subsequently linked with the Greek god Zeus, supposedly pronounced him a god’s son.
Later coins depicted Alexander with the ram’s horns connected with Amun. Ptolemaic leaders eager to establish themselves made the journey.
Siwa Oasis is considered one of the most isolated places in the world.
The graves in Gebel al-Mawta provide witness to the oasis’s richness. The fall of Roman power, the breakdown of the trade route, and the overall reduction in oracular influence all led to Siwa’s increasing obscurity.
No proof exists that Christianity ever reached Siwa, where priests continued to worship Amun until the 6th century AD. The ferocious Siwans repulsed the Muslim invaders who crossed the desert in 708. It is stated that by 1203 just 40 men remained in Aghurmi, leaving to construct the new fortress-town of Shali.
Around the 12th century, the oasis turned to Islam and prospered trading date and olive products with Libyan Fezzan and Bedouins. WG Browne came in 1792, and Frederick Hornemann in 1798, but most encountered violent natives, and some barely missed death.
Siwans were known for being fiercely independent and antagonistic to non-Muslims. En 19th century Egypt had trouble winning the allegiance of the oasis.
During WWII, British and Italian/German troops drove each other out of Siwa and Jaghbub, 120km west of Tripoli, until Rommel moved on.
However, it remained geographically isolated until the 1980s when an asphalt road linked it to Marsa Matruh.
As a consequence, Siwans have their own Berber dialect and culture different from the rest of Egypt. It presently has 20,000 Siwans and over 1000 Egyptians.
Siwa’s calm ambience is the major draw, despite the amazing views buried in the deep palm trees.
The day appears to be spent strolling around palm trees or sipping tea as the inhabitants go about their business.
Visits to one of the area’s great springs provide further diversions, and bicycles can be rented almost everywhere.
The old fort of Shali, Aghurmi, and Gebel al-Mawta are all in Siwa Town.
It is easy to organise day outings by jeep to nearby towns, the desert or Bir Wahed, with its cool freshwater lake and hot springs. Or plan an overnight excursion into the Great Sand Sea.
Siwa is a beautiful small town with a market square and lanes leading off into the palm trees. It contains a modest exhibit of traditional clothes, jewellery, and crafts characteristic to the oasis.
A Canadian ambassador worried that Siwan culture and its mud-brick buildings would be lost in a sea of concrete and modernization. To see the museum, contact the tourist office or the custodian at the neighbouring Town Council Building. The remnants of the 13th-century mud-brick stronghold of Shali dominate the town’s center.
The maze of crowded dwellings was once four or five floors high and housed hundreds of people.
No one outside was let in for centuries, and even fewer returned to tell the story. But three days of rain in 1926 did more damage than any invasion, and residents relocated to newer, more comfortable residences with running water and electricity throughout the decades.
Only a few structures remain, notably the mosque with its historic chimney-shaped minaret.
There’s an ancient donkey-powered oil press back here, and you can hear a real-life metal smith at work if you go around the fort’s perimeter.
With each rain, more of these structures crumble. But Siwans are learning to cherish their history and the need to protect it.
Authorities recently teamed together with an international NGO to rebuild the stronghold using traditional construction methods.
Before Shali, Siwa’s major village was Aghurmi, 4km east of present-day Siwa. Alexander the Great consulted the oracle in the 26th-dynasty Temple of the Oracle in 331 BC.
It was dedicated to Amun (also known as Zeus or Jupiter Ammon) and was a potent emblem of the town’s prosperity. Its authority was such that some kings sought its wisdom while others dispatched armies to destroy it.
The Oracle Temple now stands in the northwest corner of Aghurmi’s ruins. The buttressed temple was inadequately repaired in the 1970s, yet it remains an intriguing historical landmark. It provides amazing views of the Aghurmi ruins and the oasis palms.
The Temple of Umm Ubayd, dedicated to Amun, is about 200m farther down the route. A causeway linked it to the Oracle Temple for oracle ceremonies. The building was erected by Nectanebo II during the 30th dynasty.
A Siwan governor in need of construction material blew up the temple in 1896 to build the town’s current mosque and police headquarters. Part of an inscription-covered wall has survived.
Gebel al- Mawta, a tiny hill north of Siwa Town, is dotted with rock tombs, most dating from the 26th dynasty, Ptolemaic, and Roman periods.
The Siwans utilised the tombs as refuge when the Italians bombarded the oasis during WWII. Many new graves were found but not adequately explored.
Ahmed Fakhry describes British troops paying Siwan villagers to chop off portions of tomb murals to retain as souvenirs in his book Siwa Oasis.
Some artworks have survived the harm. One of the most stunning is at the Tomb of Si Amun, where gorgeously coloured reliefs depict the deceased man making sacrifices and pleading to Egyptian gods.
The incomplete Tomb of Mesu-Isis has a lovely red and blue snake portrayal above the entrance; the Tomb of Niperpathot has inscriptions and rudimentary drawings in the same reddish ink as current Siwan pottery; and the Tomb of the Crocodile has a yellow crocodile depicting the deity Sobek.
Siwa’s palm trees conceal a plethora of active springs. Continuing beyond the Temple of Umm Ubayd, the route leads to the most renowned spring, Cleopatra’s Bath (Spring of the Sun). In a big stone pool, the pure natural spring water gurgles up into the air. Women should avoid swimming here during the day unless they want to risk the attention. The Tanta Waa café adjacent has showers.
Fatnas Spring, a tiny island in salty Birket Siwa (Lake Siwa), has a similar but more isolated pool. The pool is 6km from Siwa Town and surrounded by palm trees and luxuriant foliage, earning it the moniker ‘Fantasy Island’.
Women should not swim alone and should leave their bikinis for the Red Sea beaches.
Among the palms is a little café where you may relax and smoke sheesha or enjoy a refreshing beer.
Beautiful site to see the sunset. To ease the lake’s drainage, the Ministry of Agriculture built a ‘island’ that now overlooks salty mudflats rather than water.
Local experts recommend a trip to Bir Wahed, a 15km distant freshwater lake on the border of the Great Sand Sea.
Over a steep hill, a big hot spring with sulphurous water bubbles in a pool and streams out to irrigate a garden awaits.
It’s weird to swim in the lake and then relax in a hot spring as the sun sets over the dunes.
The rose’s thorns are mosquitoes that bite around dusk. Away from town, ladies may swimsuit without bothering neighbours.
Bir Wahed is only accessible by 4WD, therefore you’ll need to hire a guide and vehicle. Visit Bir Wahed with a permit.
The oasis itself has about 300,000 palm trees, 70,000 olive trees, and several fruit plantations. More than 300 freshwater springs and streams nourish the vegetation, which attracts quail and falcons.
A few abandoned settlements located 15km northwest of Siwa Town. Kharmisah features five natural springs and excellent olive gardens.
Around 100 Roman graves are carved into the adjacent hills, and the remnants of a stone temple are said to be Alexander the Great’s last resting place. Both Berber communities are accessible by bus.
About 2km west of here lies Maraqi, where a Greek archaeologist claimed to have uncovered Alexander’s tomb in 1995.
Her results sparked a debate, and Egypt’s authorities cancelled her permission and shuttered Shiatta, 60 km west of Siwa Town, situated on the Great Sand Sea.
An ancient Egyptian boat, probably used to travel to the Temple of the Oracle, was unearthed 7m below the surface of the salt spring.
This location is now mostly utilised by Bedouin tribes for animal grazing and offers spectacular desert mountain vistas.
More springs are east of Siwa Town. Ain Qurayshat, 27km from town, boasts the oasis’s biggest free-flowing spring. 7km east of Ain Qurayshat, in the next palm thicket, is Abu Shuruf, a clean spring with healing properties.
The 3m deep clean water pours into Lake Zeitun, another big saltwater lake. 5km gets you to Az-Zeitun, an abandoned mud-brick town pounded by the sand and wind.
Hundreds of Roman-era graves unearthed 2km beyond Az-Zeitun are now being excavated, although nothing has been uncovered thus far.
3km from Az-Zeitun lies Ain Safi, the final human settlement before the sand dunes that extend for hundreds of kilometers south to Al-Kharga Oasis. Ain Safi has 30 Bedouin families.
Get a robust vehicle to see these sites. Itineraries are available from the tourist office, restaurants, and hotels. Except for Shiatta, no permissions are required.