Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Siwa Oasis mini-vacation

The "Alex girls" (Jen and Jennifer), their Swedish roommates (Nomi and Louise) and I spent last weekend in the most western oasis in Egypt, located in the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert, near the Libyan border. From Cairo it took 12 1/2 hours to get there, but it was well worth any time spent travelling.

Siwa is considered "one of the most picturesque and idyllic places in Egypt," according to the Lonely Planet guide, and it's true. Surrounded by sand dunes, Siwa stands as a place with life; lush greenery of date palms, streams and springs, and mud-brick villages. Until recently Siwa was quite isolated. A road to Siwa (through the desert) wasn't built until about 20 years ago, in fact. This isolation natural makes Siwa and it’s people unique in many ways, including their primary language of Berber and their very traditional culture. Many women in Siwa do not leave their home, and when they do they are often covered from head to toe--you can't even see a glimpse of skin or eye. The very young girl, however, roam the streets with the young boys; running around laughing and playing. I even saw a few playing jump rope! Almost all of them have pig-tailed braids tied with large bright ribbons (usually red) on the ends.

When first arriving in Siwa the first thing we noticed was the transportation system--donkey carts! Young boys (some no older than 8) were waiting at the bus station to pick up the locals, other Egyptians, and our little group of women, with a sign on their donkey carts saying, "Siwa Taxi" or "Welcome to Siwa". We hopped on two carts and for Le 10 we went about 100 meters around the corner to our hotel. Although I know this has been the way of transportation for thousands of years, it was the last time I road on the donkey cart because I felt so bad for that small animal carting us around! The donkeys are so cute!

Even though it was already 9:00pm, we ended up heading out for the night with Mahmoud, the teenage man who ended up being our personal tour guide for the weekend. He took us to a hot spring where locals spend time bathing in mud baths and enjoying the refreshing warm water. It was like a massage! Jennifer and I lathered ourselves with the soft mud and soaked up time resting in this natural whirl pool. For the next two days we visited many cold springs (including one named "Cleopatra's Bath") for refreshing dips as well. These natural spring waters bubble up into a large stone pools; some even hold fishes swimming all around. They were full of algae, however, so most of our group did not partake in any fresh water dips.

After a good rest we woke up on Friday with an incredible breakfast of omelettes and crepes with bananas and honey. Without talking more about food, let me just say the food in Siwa was some of the best food I've had in months--and cheap! Anyhow, after our brunch we headed to Shali in the centre of town. Shali is the mud-brick remains of the 13-th century town on Siwa. It’s a "fortress enclave" built from material known as kershef, which are large chunks of salt mixed with rock and plastered in local clay. It's a labyrinth of old homes on a hill, really; with the original structures rising up four or five stories. For centuries few outsiders were admitted inside, but in 1926 a three-day rain (it almost never rains in Siwa!) was so damaging that the inhabitants have mostly abandoned Shali. A few buildings are still used, including a few home and a mosque that has a minaret looking like an old chimney. We met a few boys who took us to their grandfather's old home in Shali, mostly in ruins now. Shali is a photographer and adventurer's paradise, with its maze-like quality and beauty. I had a heyday taking literally 50 photos in there--including sunset photos from the top where you can look over all of Siwa.

My biggest excitement for the trip was a night camping out in the desert, and it was all I wanted it to be! With Mahmoud and a 4WD driver, we took off for the sand dunes in the late afternoon and stormed through the desert sea. Before reaching the sand, we had to flatten our tires so much it seemed wrong to me, but what do I know? Then we took off through the dunes, travelling fast over the hills and swerving around the sand sea. It was like an amusement park ride at times, and I can't believe that vehicle held out. A couple times we took down some steep hills and it was a wonder to me we didn't get stuck. (The vehicle did get stuck later, actually, but we were able to get some help.) After cruising around for awhile we found a good hill to try sand boarding. Much like snowboarding, you slide down the hill on a waxed board (waxed with hand soap!) and pray you make it to the bottom--or just jump off. Most of us decided to go 'sledding' instead, which seemed faster and safer, winding up with sand in our pants (just like snow!) Soon the sun was setting and we jumped back into the 4WD to rush for a great spot to watch the sunset and let our guides set up camp.

Like all good camping experiences, we spent the night cooking dinner on a fire and sleeping out under the stars. During our meal of Siwan cooked vegetables, meat, rice, and tea, we shared songs; Swedish songs, American songs, Egyptian songs, Siwan songs, and Bedouin songs. I’m still not sure what I was saying, other than a lot of “habibi” (meaning “my dear”) but it was a great bonding experience for all of us. We also sang a Happy Birthday to Jennifer, who was turning 23 at midnight. Soon we were all ready for bed and huddled close to one another under blankets and sleeping on small mattresses. Even though it gets so darn cold at night in the desert we had the stars to look at whenever the sand cleared. Of course, being so far away from any light source, the stars shown bright and beautiful! In the morning I woke up with crusted sand in the corner of my eyes and in my ears.

On Saturday we decided to rent bikes and tour the outskirts of the city, travelling on the dirt roads through the oasis palm trees. We visited the Temple of the Oracle, built in 6th century BC, dedicated to Amun and one of the most influential oracles in the ancient Mediterranean. It was so powerful and famous kings sent armies to try to destroy it. One legend, coming from Herodotus, is the tale of King Cambyses, who sent 50,000 men to destroy it and its priests. The army never reached the site, and legend has it they were swallowed up in a sandstorm, only reinforcing the political power of the Amun priesthood. Even Alexander the Great took an eight-day trek through the desert in 331 BC for an oracle consultation. He was seeking confirmation that he was the son of Zeus and that as the new pharaoh of Egypt he was also the son of Amun. Apparently he received the confirmation he desired. :-)

We saw the Gebel al-Mawta--Mountatin of the Dead—a hill filled with honey-comb rock tombs mostly from Ptolemaic and Roman times. The tombs were used as shelters when the Italians bombed the oasis in WWII. At that time many new tombs were discovered by not properly excavated. Apparently British soldiers paid Siwan families only a few piastres to cut away large chunk of the tomb paintings for souvenirs. Still, I really enjoyed the Mountain of the Dead for two reasons. One, the paintings are more recent than those of Luxor and Aswan, and therefore the artistic style is a bit different. Two, one tomb had skeletons and mummies in it! No joke! As tomb #3 was unlocked and we walked in I noticed a full-grown mummy and skeleton to my right and a child's skeleton and mummy on my left. There was also a box with a skull in it--hair still on its head. Wow! We tried asking why these weren't in a museum, but the guard, who knew little English, didn't understand why they would be taken away. "No, most pieces were taken from people...looted...this is what's left." Oh, okay!

By 10pm Jennifer and I were on an over-night bus heading back for Alexandria. A quick mini-vacation, but one of the greatest places I've visited in Egypt thus far.


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