|Siwa Oasis, Egypt|
When I arrived at 6am, the dusty main square populated with Berbers perched on donkey carts was not exactly the image of the Oasis that I had formed in my mind. The crumbling Siwa Shali, the ancient fortified home of Siwan families in the past, was also a great surprise to me. It is made with Karsheef, which is clay, salt and sand mixed with water and baked in the sun. I later saw that most of the older houses in the area were made with this material. I was not expecting to find a “cob” town in an Egyptian Oasis, 30 miles from the Libyan border.
Alexander the Great visited Siwa the year after he conquered Egypt in 332BC. He wanted to consult the oracle of Amun, Egypt's famous sun god. Supposedly, he reached the desert by following birds. He wanted to ask the oracle who killed his father. The answer was that his father was not dead and that Amun was his true father, making him an Egyptian Pharaoh. The temple of Amun is located on the Hill of Aghurmi, home of the abandoned fortified village of Aghurmi. I enjoyed walking around this mud building all by myself, as I rode my bike there. But as I was getting ready to leave, a large tour group was coming in.
At first, the town does not seem to justify the two weeks I allotted for this part of the trip, but the days seep away very quickly with numerous trips to the springs, temples, desert, and the long meals at Abud and the East/West restaurants. It is also a very mellow town for Egyptian standards, making it enjoyable to just be at the place and let time slip by.
Some of the five salt lakes look as large as the sea. Fatnas Island is surrounded by a great expanse of salt water and mud flats. The greenish mud is easily noticeable in areas where the water level is low throughout all the lakes. This must have been where the raw material was found for the buildings made with karsheef. By noticing the landscape, it becomes very obvious that this whole area was once part of an extinguished sea, probably from the paleolithic era. This was specially obvious when I took a safari into the Sahara and Bir Wahed hot springs (see separate post about this.)
As a hot springs lover, I rented a bicycle for a week to search for them. Riding on the dirt roads, with thousands of palm trees on both sides, I often passed by donkey carts carrying the local Siwan women. They were always dressed from head to toe, including their faces, and wrapped in traditional tarfottet, a blue embroiled garment. This must be the traditional way women have been dressing for thousands of years. On the rare occasions they were seen unaccompanied by a man, or child (male) they walked in clusters of three or four.
The first hot springs I found, Aman Ykden, five kilometers from town, behind Dakrour mountains, was my favorite. The temperature of the water was perfect and the place very well taken care of. Outside, I could get a massage from the pouring hot water out of the large pipes.
Cleopatra's Bath is the most famous spring because of its historical background. Originally, it was known as 'the Spring of the Sun' and has been mentioned since Herodotus' times. It is believed that Cleopatra enjoyed bathing in the bubbling spring when she visited the oasis to consult the Oracle of Amun. But it was not my favorite as it is a cold spring.
Abu Shrouf spring is 25 miles from town, known as a healing spring. Although the road there was very interesting, with huge expanses of salt water on both sides of the road, there was no one there when I arrived and since I was alone, I didn't want to stay there by myself. So I didn't even go into the water there.
Loffi hot springs was another favorite. Karl, a fellow British traveler and I hired a donkey cart to take the five miles from town, near Fatnas Island. It was already 5pm and I didn't want to cycle in the dark. The feeling of riding a donkey cart back to town in the dark with stars above us, added to the already high state of relaxation we were in after soaking for two hours.
I was very lucky to even have a social life while in Siwa. I met Mona, an Egyptian woman from Alexandria, a PHD student, who was teaching pottery to groups of local women in different communities. Mona knows a mutual friend, Stephan, an Austrian man I met in Dahab. She invited me to join her in some of the pottery classes.
I was mesmerized by the local women without their face veils and seeing how they interact. As they came in, they greeted everyone else in the room by shaking hands before taking their place on the floor where we were working. Some of them had beautiful faces and smiles and they all welcomed me and invited me to return.
In one of our outings, Mona and I were invited by the local sheik to visit his farm, where he was building a karsheef home surrounded by palm trees, olive groves and fruit trees. He also had cows and sheep, housed in a mud compound. It is too bad that karsheef is becoming a way of building for the richer. I've heard that as foreigners buy land and property from locals, the new houses are made of white bricks which is a third of the price of karsheef. That is too bad, because this material is not as cool and it gets very hot in the summer. Besides, this is the way Siwans traditionally built their houses but are not longer able to afford it.
I met Another friend of Stephan, Christine, an English woman who has a house in Siwa; Dirce, a Brazilian woman who lives in Alexandria and is building a house in Siwa. I also hung out with several friends of Mona, her husband, and a French Canadian couple who were staying at the the same hotel as me. We went to the hot springs together, to the Gebel al-Mawta, Mountain of the Dead, a small necropolis from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, saw the sunset at the edge of the sea of sand and had a few meals together at Abud and Siwa Shali Lodge.
On my 12th day in Siwa, Karl said he was going to Alexandria the next day to catch the train to Cairo from there and I decided to join him. I was not in for another all night trip to get out of town, so this was a perfect opportunity to slip out early on a Monday morning. This little Berber community made a strong impression on me and I may return one day.