Journey to the fountain of the sun
One of Egypt's best-known tourist destinations, the Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert is a marvelous, magical place, says Ameera Fouad
Once upon a time, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus said he knew a fountain of the sun that ran coldest in the noontide heat. Once upon a time, Queen Cleopatra made herself a bath and a spring in which to bathe in the middle of the Western Desert. Once upon a time, a temple was built in Siwa to honour the ram-headed god Amon-Ra, housing an oracle whose fame had spread by about 700 BCE. Once upon a time, the ancient Greek poet Pindar, who lived between 522 and 443 BCE, wrote a poem about the oracle at Siwa and carved it on a stone stele.
Once upon a time, Egyptian egyptologist Zahi Hawass, former secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, made headlines when he announced that archaeologists had discovered the world's oldest human footprint while exploring a prehistoric site in Siwa. Once upon a timẻê¦ many figures could be cited at this juncture in connection with Egypt's Siwa Oasis, though it is the "fountain of the sun" at Siwa that is perhaps the most celebrated.
Siwa is like no other oasis in Egypt. Standing like the Pyramids in the middle of the Western Desert, it dazzles eyes and captures hearts. Its waters revive the skin, cleansing the face and refreshing the soul. It is an oasis whose palm trees and walled gardens emerge as if by magic in the middle of a sandy desert. It is a place where visitors wish to spend more time, not only in the high season between October and April, but also during the rest of the year. If you don't manage to find a hotel in the oasis itself, don't worry. There are plenty of places in the surrounding desert in which to camp.
Nearly 50 km east of the Libyan border and 560 km from Cairo, Siwa is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Egypt. Both for Egyptians and for tourists it is a place of solace and peace of mind. Its green areas are planted with olives and date palms, taking visitors away from the haste and bustle of their lives. Its fame is based on its being the "City of Amon," the place that was once the home of the Temple of Amon and its oracle and where Alexander the Great once crowned himself as a god and as Pharaoh of Egypt.
The oasis has several hot and cold springs, rather like Queen Cleopatra's famous bath in Marsa Matrouh, 300 km north of Siwa, which is also located in an ancient natural spring. Everywhere in Siwa, whether in the midst of the green areas or in the wide desert sands, hot and cold springs are plentiful, and they invite visitors to dip themselves in as they search for purification of their bodies and souls.
The ruins of ancient temples like Gebel al-Mouta, or the Moutain of the Dead, stand as living witnesses to antiquity, many of them dating back to the 4th century BCE. There are also the remains of old settlements towering above the modern town, and these ruins and fragments of the past, containing remnants of the Islamic, Greek and ancient Egyptian civilisations, allow visitors to see the remains of a mosque and a Roman temple just a few feet away from one another, adding a mysterious air to this fountain of the sun.
Siwa is sometimes thought to be worth visiting only during the high season of winter and autumn. "Who says," asks Hamdy Rad, a galabiyya-clad driver who drives visitors to Siwa in his huge land cruiser, rolling over mountains of sand. "For many tourists, Siwa is the best medical treatment ever, even in the summer heat," he says. "You can't imagine how the hot springs cleanse the skin." Anyone suffering from skin problems or muscle strains, any bone or muscle problem, can be treated here. "We bury you in the sand for two hours a day three to four times a week, and you get the best treatment ever, guaranteed," Rad proclaims.
Back in the car, Rad turns to smile from time to time as he drives across the desert, falling down mountains of sand and then climbing up cliffs, sometimes making his passengers' hair stand on end. At one point, as he hurtles over a peak so steep that the car's underside slams into the crest, threatening to leave it teetering at the top, cartoon-style, Rad seems almost apologetic for what he is putting his passengers through. Yet, safari trips of this sort cannot be missed on any visit to Siwa, and every visitor to the oasis at some point or other enjoys a trip through the surrounding desert, whether by land cruiser or for sand-skiing and sand-boarding.
The sandboards don't have metal edges, and the foot straps are simple to use, fitting onto visitors' feet in a goofy way, just like the boards used for sea-surfing. The wavy mountains and smooth expanses of flat sand, no blemishes to be seen, also cannot flip you over or turn you upside down, unlike ocean waves.
In addition to these activities, visitors to Siwa can also enjoy sitting in the moonlight for a meal of date-marinated lamb served on palm skewers with an accompanying herb salad, all prepared by local Bedouin. Siwan cooking involves burying meat under the sand, with a fire lit above to cook it. The cooking takes less than two hours, and in that time visitors can dance or just sit in the moonlight sipping Bedouin tea in tiny cups.
There is no pollution in Siwa, and very few cars. People walk, take a local carette (donkey cart), hire a bicycle, or ride a horse or camel (though not very often) to reach their destinations, leaving behind more modern forms of transport such as buses, trains or even cars. Many visitors to the oasis choose to sleep outside under the date palms, where they are woken up by falling dates dropping on them from above. They can eat lots of black and green olives, all of the finest favour, soaking their hair in olive oil and adorning themselves with silver made by Bedouin women. Or they can wear galabiyyas decorated with jewelry, a hand-made Bedouin bag looped across their shoulders.
Though they are few in number, statistics indicating that there are now fewer than 27,000 Siwans, the local people are very productive, and the oasis is among the most fertile places in Egypt. Despite living a harsh and primordial way of life, Siwans are very generous and thoughtful. They will think nothing of driving visitors back to their hotels without payment, all the while smiling as they do so. They will give away boxes full of dates with chocolate in exchange for goods from the outside world. Bedouin guides know each and every inch of the town and the surrounding desert. Though they are not often seen outside, Bedouin woman, bearers of traditional customs, may be ready to handprint drawings in henna on visitors' hands, shoulders, feet, or ankles.
Siwa is one of Egypt's most wonderful places to relax, swim and enjoy the beauties of nature. It is also a place in which visitors can contemplate traditional ways of life, admire the old brick architecture of the buildings, looking gnarled and quite unique, and dip their bodies in the oasis's hot and cold springs and salt lakes. It is a marvelous experience to visit this place, so untouched by modernity or the technology that buzzes almost everywhere else.
As one 19th-century English visitor to the oasis wrote, "the famous Oasis of Siwa cannot be said to have fallen from its high estatẻê¦ only it has stood still while the world went on" (Wilfred Jennings-Bramly, A Journey to Siwa in September-October 1896).