By Susan Ryan
Siwa Oasis is the most westerly of Egypt’s oasis, about 725 km from Cairo, with Libya just 50 km away. It is worth the trek even if your children usually ask “are we there yet?” after an hour of travelling. Reaching Siwa takes between eight and 10 hours by bus or car from Cairo, but if you break the journey up with stops in Alexandria and Marsa Matrouh you will better appreciate the variety of landscapes you pass through. If you have four days or more for your Siwa trip, it is ideal to have a day in one of those coastal cities before your immersion in desert for the last four hours of travel.
The centre of Siwa features the circa 13th Century fortress town of Shali, built from kershef, an earth salt mix still used to build some homes. Definitely climb the path to the top of Shali for views across the Oasis and a perspective on the places you will be visiting. Also close to the centre of town is Gebel Al-Mawta, the Mountain of the Dead,which contains rock-cut tombs from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.
The lush Oasis exists thanks to water, trapped thousands of years ago in the underlying rock, which makes its way to the surface in springs. Some spring pools are small, others are large enough for swimming, and their waters range from cool to 40 degrees. Cleopatra Spring (Ain Guba) with its large, deep pool is a favourite. From Shali it is 10 minutes by car, a little longer by donkey cart, which is a fun experience especially for children who do not have much exposure to non-domestic animals, or an easy 40 minutes walk which takes you through residential area and then the shade of palm gardens. There are cafés at the Spring where you can enjoy the view of the pool and look out to Gebel Dakrur, a nearby mountain where the annual harvest festival is held in October during the full moon.
15 minutes walk from here is the Temple of the Oracle, whose most famous visitor was Alexander the Great. He trekked through the desert to Siwa to consult the Oracle of Amun and was supposedly told his fate—that he was the son of a god and that he would go on to conquer not only Egypt, but the then known world. Entry to the temple costs 25 Egyptian pounds ($4), and in addition to exploring the Temple you get wonderful views across the Oasis.
For more relaxing away from town in beautiful scenery, the two essentials are the Bir Wahed spring and Fatnas, which is the perfect place to watch the sun set over a salt lake.
Trips into the surrounding desert are part of the Siwa experience and can include exhilarating sand-boarding or simply walking among the dunes, followed by dinner and camping under the stars, sometimes with traditional music performed. In the desert young naturalists will enjoy finding marine fossil beds, from the times when this area was a sea, so bring your magnifying glass.
If you tire of exploring, you really don’t need to wander from the centre of town to fill your day. Some hotels have their own pools, some offer massage, or watch Siwan life pass by from one of the cafés or restaurants and browse the stores that sell olives, dates and other local products.
Siwa was not a common destination for tourists until after the late 1980s and while the culture is evolving, much remains of the traditions and customs that make life in Siwa distinctive from that elsewhere in Egypt. Siwans have their own language, Amazigh, which is a Berber dialect, but Arabic is commonly spoken and as elsewhere in Egypt many people speak some English and other languages. In the stores and, if you are fortunate to be invited, in the homes of the Siwans, visitors interested in crafts will be fascinated by the distinctive baskets, pottery, jewellery, and the embroidery which features on traditional wedding garments and on the tarfutet, a cotton cover that envelopes the women when they are outside their homes.
Accommodation options range from backpacker level to five star ecolodges. As everywhere in Egypt, children are treasured here; if you travel with them, their interaction with both the Siwan children and adults may make it easier to get to know the people.
Siwa rarely has rain, but keep in mind that desert temperatures on winter nights can drop to only a few degrees. That makes Siwa the perfect winter destination, with enough sunshine for exploring all day, followed by hot spring bathing at night with steam rising from the waters, you and the children will be completely revitalized before you make the trek back to your city.
What to pack: swimming costume and towel, warm clothes for winter nights, binoculars for watching the birds, the frogs in the canals, and the views; an astrological map for identifying stars in the clear night skies would be a great last minute addition.
Siwans are conservative, and while they are used to tourist visitors it is considerate to cover your arms and legs, for women especially. Swimming in the springs are not mere tourist attractions but used daily by the Siwans, you will also be more comfortable if you swim covered.
Susan Ryan is an Australian born writer and photographer.
“I first visited Egypt in 1993 and I fell in love with this extraordinary place and its people during repeated visits. In November 2010, I moved to live in Siwa Oasis on the far west of the Sahara. In January 2012, I moved to Sinai and the Red Sea, on the other side of Egypt. I continue my work as a writer about architecture, design, travel, culinary explorations and cultural exchange. You can see more of my writing and photographs at Mind’s Eye Writing and Photography and my just born blog on Egyptian food Delicious Egypt.”
Tags: Alexander the Great, Berber, Cleopatra, Desert, Fantas, Featured, Kershef, Oasis, Oracle, Sahara, Shali, Siwa