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Published: December 29th 2008
Spectacular Siwa Oasis
Travelling Canucks alive & well atop Mountain of the Dead overlooking palm groves with desert in the background!
On the Long Road to Siwa Oasis
Our prearranged transport arrived at our hotel while we were at Starbucks picking up our venti lattes, muffins and croissants for our long journey. Our bags were already loaded in the back of the van, which permitted us room to stretch and move around during our 9 hour journey with four stops along the way!
First stop: Commonwealth Cemetery at El Alamein. It was a serene, somber place to acknowledge the sacrifices of the fallen soldiers at the famous battle that marked a shift in the fortunes of the Allied Forces in World War II. It was nicely laid out, well-maintained and worth a visit. We decided to pass on visiting the war museum, which seem to mostly be an open air museum of World War II vintage transport vehicles.
Our next stop: Marsa Matrouh Hotel Bathroom. Mama Canuck’s tendency to plan for any possible scenario, since the bathroom facilities were less than ideal, was appreciated by all!
Third stop: Cleopatra’s Beach 7km east of Marsa Matrouh. Surrounded by jagged rocks protruding from the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea, Cleopatra’s Beach is an idyllic spot. Unfortunately, we wasted no
time and quickly got back into the van to get gas before our journey south of Marsa Matrouh into the desert, since it is the last chance for filling up.
Siwa Oasis has only been opened up to tourism within the last 20 years with growth in the tourist trade growing leaps and bounds over the past 10 years with the recent paving of the road to Siwa. That is what we thought until we hit a patch of road under construction at the start of our desert journey south and wondered if the 300 km trip ahead of us was going to be on graded dirt road. Is this what they meant by paved? Fortunately, after taking 45 minutes to travel 50km, we hit the asphalt and there was no looking back. In fact, we only looked forward to getting to Siwa, as we were constantly reminded every 5km on this 2 lane highway how many more kilometers to Siwa we had to go! Although the first 7 hours of our 9 hour journey was interesting, the last 2 hours was more barren desert than any traveler should have to bear!
Fourth stop: Pit stop. No gas
stations on route, just a pit stop half way to our final destination and 1.5 hours to go! While our driver had tea while smoking his sheesha, the Travelling Canucks chose the safe option, bottled coca cola and sprite!
It seemed as if we had travelled to another planet with barren desertscapes for as far as the eye could see. It became increasing overcast and cool as the day wore on. By the time we reached Siwa, our final stop, it was under the cover of darkness. Our driver’s driving practices were exemplary, but his English was limited as were his navigation skills!
We arrived on the outskirts of the oasis around 5:45pm, but our driver could not find our lodge despite asking directions. Papa Canuck’s cell phone became our life line when we called the hotel staff for directions since everyone we asked seem to send us in different directions! We finally arrived at our hotel around 6:30 after having a grand tour of Siwa!
We were warmly welcomed by the front desk personnel, who were helpful translating since Mama Canuck was under the misunderstanding that the driver took Visa; fortunately, the Travelling Canucks had made
Al Walking in the Footsteps of Al
Temple of the Oracle where Alexander the Great visited in 331 BC. Alex the Great visits in 2008 AD!
several ATM withdrawals in anticipation of our arrival in Siwa, otherwise, we would have had to search for an ATM! While the driver seemed mildly perturbed when Mama Canuck asked him for a receipt, we felt better knowing we had his confirmation that he had received the 50% deposit for our return trip. No matter, we had generously tipped him so all was forgotten!
Rahim led the way to our room with the two heaviest bags in hand to the top floor, gave us a tour of our large triple room with lounging area and welcomed us. We immediately headed for the hotel restaurant where we sat on cushions around a wooden table rather than sit under the palm groves since it was chilly outside.
We had joined another couple and quickly started up a conversation. We quickly discovered that we had a lot more in common than being interested in Siwa. His son and family live and work in Vancouver, which he visits regularly. What a small world it is!
We had a truly memorable evening with this German archaeologist leading a mission in Siwa over the last couple years in search of answers as to
why the Greeks found Siwa so interesting. He had lived in Egypt for most of his working life and shared his knowledge of the history and life in Siwa to our delight. It could not have been a better ending to our long journey to Siwa.
Why Visit Siwa?
Siwa Oasis is known as one of the most unique, fascinating and beautiful oasis in the Western Desert, if not one of the least accessible oasis in Egypt, which is why we decided to make the long journey.
Siwa Oasis lies 60 feet below sea level and on the edge of the Great Sand Sea. With over 1000 hot and cold springs, a large, saltwater lake west of the city, called Siwa Lake, 70,000 olive trees, and over 300,000 date palm trees, Siwa Oasis has to be one of the most beautiful landscapes in Egypt.
Siwa is famous for its dates and olives in Egypt and around the world. Olive oil is still made in the area by crushing the olives with stones. The dates are gathered by zaggala (stick bearers), who must remain celibate until the age of forty.
While Siwa is located on the old
No sign of Cleopatra in Siwa Oasis, but the name sounds exotic!
date caravan route, its isolation insulated it from outside influence so it has been able to retain its North African heritage. With a population under 30,000, Siwans continue to have their own Berber culture, customs and language, called Siwi, although Arabic is being increasingly spoken. Their traditions, rites, dress, decorations and tools differ from those of the other Western Oases and until World War II, it was hardly governed by Egypt, and remained mostly a Berber community for the prior thirteen centuries.
Despite the modern world encroaching on the Oasis, their culture is founded in their deep faith in Islam and traditional interpretation of the scripture. Siwan girls are often married by the age of 14. Women are covered in traditional clothing with long shawls and black veils that shield their face and bodies from the eyes of the world. Little communication with the world outside their immediate family is allowed. Most women can be seen walking or taking donkey carts filled with children. Men with their sons can be seen working in the olive and date groves, in the markets, driving donkey carts or working in the tourist trade as hotel and restaurant workers or as desert guides.
Men spend social time gathering in coffee houses and the streets in the centre of Siwa.
For this reason, visiting Siwa Oasis is like taking a step back in time given the cultural traditions and practices. Mosques dot the village which consists of a number of fruit and vegetable stalls, olive stalls, date and spice stalls, coffee and sheesha houses, and restaurants. The markets offer traditional handicrafts, such as pottery, baskets, jewellery and embroidered woven cloth, which are unique to Egypt.
Donkey carts are the primary mode of transport for the locals and tourists, with motorcycles, commercial trucks, and 4x4 SUVs for desert transport starting to take over the streets of Siwa.
Visiting Siwa Oasis offers tourists the opportunity to experience a different Egypt than the Egypt that is overrun by tourists, tour buses and large hotel chains.
Touring Siwa Oasis
The next morning, we waited for the call to prayer, which was at 6am; unfortunately, we had to wait until 8am until breakfast was served. We soon headed out in search for an ATM in Siwa since our funds were severely depleted. We waited for our driver, Mohammed, to cart us around by donkey power.
Canucks in Carretta
Touring the oasis by donkey powered cart. Headscarves rule in Siwa!
Riding in our carretta was great since it had cushions to sit on and a rope canopy to shade us from the desert sun. We had a great day visiting all the sites, although our donkey was rather sluggish.
The first site we visited was Gebel al Mawta, the Mountain of the Dead. It is a Roman-era necropolis featuring dozens of rock-cut tombs. As the German Archaeologist suggested, we spent time viewing Set Amun’s tomb under the guidance of an Egyptologist who spent a lot of time taking us through the interpretation of the tomb’s decoration to give us the story of the family’s tomb. It was fascinating; unfortunately, there are no pictures of the tombs permitted.
Next, we toured two temples dedicated to Amun. One was established by Ahmose II and the other by Nectanebo II. They were left in ruins, but it is fantastic to see ruins in situe, rather than in museums.
Believe it or not, the Greeks put Siwa Oasis on the map. How? Alexander the Great of course! Almost immediately after taking Egypt from the Persians and establishing Alexandria, Alexander the Great consulted the Oracle of Amun in 331 BC. While Al
was not the first to experience problems in the desert, as whole armies before him had been lost in the sand, Al’s caravan got lost, ran out of water and was even caught up in an unusual rainstorm, which saved him from perishing in the desert. Although what the oracle said to Al remains a mystery, Al was pronounced a god, an endorsement required for legitimate rule of the country. Fragmentary remains of the Temple of the Oracle with some inscriptions from the 4th century BC, lie within the ruins of Aghurmi. It was amazing for our Al to walk the path that Al walked!
While there is no evidence that Cleopatra VII visited this Oasis to consult with the Oracle, as well as perhaps bathe in the spring that now bears her name, we visited Cleopatra's Bath and enjoyed a cold drink from the café since it was heating up in the desert! It was there that we again met a crazy Brit from Liverpool swimming in all the pools in the Oasis.
We continued on our donkey driven cart tour of the Oasis through the olive and date palm groves, coming across numerous springs, the crazy
Brit who seemed to be following us, and ruins along the way. While school-aged children can be heard in the playgrounds on Sundays, as Friday and Saturday are their days of rest, young children play in the sandy lanes that wind through the palm groves with little more than garbage to play with. The Siwans are very poor as the older generations remain subsistence farmers. Although younger Siwans earn more money than their parents did as a result of their growing reliance on the tourist trade, the children live in poverty. Despite their living conditions, the children greeted us warmly with smiles and laughter at the sight of Mukluk! Luckily, we brought lots of candy to give to them. Fun at Fatnas Island
Surrounded by mud flats, Fatnas Island is a palm-fringed peninsula located on the edge of the saltwater lake. After enjoying one hour of rest back at the hotel, Mohamed got a fresh set of hooves since our last donkey was exhausted dragging the Travelling Canucks in the carretta all day. Unlike our first donkey, this one was revving on all cylinders so we arrived in time at Fatnas Island to enjoy a wonderful sunset over
the lake while drinks from the garden café were delivered at the lake’s edge and we chatted with some Welsh adventure tourists.
After the sunset, we returned back to our carretta and unbenounced to us, we entered into a donkey cart race. We quickly took the lead and then our Welsh friends seem to come from behind in a carretta driven by a young boy with the smallest, ugliest donkey in Siwa! It was great fun as we left many in the dust, including the eccentric Brit who kept asking us if we had seen Al! Sandblasted in the Great Sand Sea
Drinking black tea with mint and sugar in the downstairs sitting room, strewn with cushions and warmed by a wood burning fire, we discussed the arrangements to take a trip into the Great Sand Sea at 11:00am the next day.
We spent the morning climbing the Shali Fortress, the ancient fortress of Siwa built of natural rock, made of salt, mud-brick and palm logs, that towers five storeys above the modern town. As a result of rains, it has been abandoned. It was in 1203 that Siwans moved from the ancient town of Aghurmi
and established this fortified city built with only three gates called Shali, which simply means town, to defend against Berbers and other invading forces.
We then went back to the hotel to get ready for our trip to the Great Sand Sea after making another trip to the ATM! So much for our travel budget! Siwa is such a small village that fellow travelers keep crossing each other’s paths. The bank is certainly one of those meeting places! Since we are all looking for Egyptian cash! Credit cards are not widely accepted in Siwa!
Our driver in his Toyota 4x4 met us at the hotel and we toured a natural spring, around an ancient settlement, and a Bedouin village with the only camels for 400 km, before we arrived at the edge of the Great Sand Sea.
Exploring the Great Sand Sea was a highlight of our stay in Siwa. Unfortunately, the winds picked up and we later realized most desert safaris had been cancelled for good reason! Despite the windy conditions, nothing could detract from the sheer beauty of the desert and the power of Mother Nature was felt as the sand shifted under our feet
Siwan Handicraft Shop
Bargaining in the market is fun but exhausting!
and the sand drifted from the top of the dunes into the blue sky.
After a couple of hours in the desert, winds picked up and we soon realized that going any further was futile given we were sandblasted every time we ventured out from our vehicle and visibility worsened as the blue sky turned to beige.
After stopping at a Bedouin camp for a roast chicken lunch and tea, we headed back to Siwa. Our original plans included a trip to the hot spring at Bir Wahed and watching the sunset from atop of the amazing dunes that tower overhead. Despite our disappointment, it was an unforgettable experience being in the desert and enduring a “Saharan Sandstorm” to boot! The Travelling Canucks’ luggage is about 5lbs heavier with sand from the Great Sand Sea and Mama Canuck can justly claim being blown over in the desert. If only Papa Canuck had caught this fall on tape! The Travelling Canucks certainly amused our driver who was caught laughing at us on more than one occasion.
Staying in Siwa Oasis
We stayed three nights at Shali Lodge, which is nestled in a lush palm grove about 300m
from the main square, down a quiet unpaved road that winds through palm trees. Although it is only a 3-minute walk from the central square of Siwa, the sounds of chickens, donkeys and call to prayer can be heard throughout the day. Its location is great!
Our large room had lots of curving mud-brick walls that are rough, sandy plaster with subdued lighting at night with a massive exposed-brick bathroom. The hotel has a centre courtyard with small pool that was surrounded by rooms on the first floor. Our room was located on the second floor with great views of the starry desert sky and surrounding palm groves.
Arched doorways, terra-cotta or carved olive wood light shades, and simple furniture hand-carved with traditional motifs really make this place unique. Budget accommodation with a friendly and warm staff. While the up keep of the property could be better, it is an almost insurmountable task whilst living on desert sands.
I would recommend this small, charming mud-brick hotel as a second choice to its sister hotel, Albabenshal, which is a newer hotel located in the center of town within the ruins of Shali. The restaurant at Albabenshal was superior
to Shali Lodge’s restaurant, called Kenooz Siwan. Both restaurants offer traditional dishes, but Albabenshal’s restaurant was far better than Shali’s.
For breakfast every morning at Shali Lodge, we enjoyed delicious French crepes filled with banana, pita bread with homemade marmalade, olive jam, and date jam on the roof amidst the top of the palm trees, with a view across the grove. Breakfasts were unbeatable.
On our last day, we were finally able to post our blogs since the Internet had been down across Egypt for the first week of our trip. As we blogged, we chatted with the locals/hotel chaps and learned a lot about their lives and they learned of ours. We hope to keep in touch with a school teacher we met who is modernizing the way boys and girls are taught in a new school of 20 kids from the ages of 10 to 16. We hope that perhaps we can help in some small way, we just do not yet know how best to do that.
We got up early, packed our bags and ate our last breakfast before driving to Cairo with the same driver. Hopefully, he won’t have trouble finding our
hotel in Cairo! Although our time in Siwa Oasis has sadly come to an end, our memories will live on! We will especially remember the travelers we met from Great Britain, Germany, France, and Austria, the hotel staff we got to know and the children in the streets that greeted us with their friendly smiles and hellos. With Siwa in our rear view mirror as we drive to Cairo to spend Christmas, drops of rain fall on our windshield to our delight. No pangs of homesickness, it is raining in the desert! Although Canuck Junior tells us that all our friends in Vancouver will be enjoying a white Christmas, snow in Cairo would be a miracle! We wish all our friends and family a memorable Christmas and All the Best in 2009!
We have great photos, but the Internet is so slow we would spend all our time in Egypt uploading photos. So check back later!
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