A Different World In Egypt
This past weekend, Ronit, Shai and I piled in the car for a road trip. Not just any road trip, but a sort of pilgrimage for expats living in Cairo; over 450 miles to Siwa oasis near the Libyan border. For those that have been, Siwa represents a part of Egypt completely different from every other section of the country; the quiet culture, the isolation, and the old traditions set it apart from all that we had previously seen here.
Siwa has always been fiercely independent- the distance alone guarantees that no one just stumbles upon Siwa accidentally. Over 300 km south from the Mediterranean, and sitting on the edge of the Great Sand Sea of the Sahara, only the most hardened desert trekkers knew where to find Siwa. Alexander the Great took an 8-day trek to Siwa in 331 BC to visit the Oracle, and it was here that the priests of the god Amun declared that Alexander himself was a descendent of the gods. While we found Siwans to be friendly, no one there declared us to be descendents of a god. Siwa was part of the trading routes since Pharonic times, but Siwans have always sheltered themselves from outside influence. Starting in 1203, all Siwans lived inside the Shali, a walled community of small dwellings and narrow alleys made from mud infused with salt from the nearby lake. Only the men ages 20-40 were allowed outside to work the fields. But in 1926 a large rainstorm came in and the Shali practically melted away. And while Siwa was brought under control of Egypt by King Fouad who visited the oasis in 1928, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Siwa felt any connection with the rest of Egypt, and this was because an actual paved road was built, connecting the oasis with the Mediterranean resort city of Marsa Matruah.
The oasis contains over 150 fresh water springs that help irrigate the desert, and Siwans have grown olives and dates for centuries. These spill into the two salt-water lakes that flank either side of Siwa town. The flow of extra water into a salt lake isn’t the tragedy you might think in the middle of the desert; Siwa actually suffers from an excess of water, and the town is crowded with foul-smelling, mosquito-infested pools. The cleaner springs have been built into circular pools by cement and rocks. Some visitors take a dip. We decided to pass.
The town is now an interesting mix of old traditions and imported culture. Many of the houses are still built from the salt-infused mud, but many of these prop up a satellite dish. Married Siwan women cover themselves completely with a black veil that shades their face from prying eyes and reminded me of a character from Star Wars. But their male counterparts all carry cell phones, drive motorcycles, and are savvy business men capitalizing on tourist dollars (or Euro as the case may be). We went to see a Siwan band play at the Cleopatra Baths. We sat around on cushions and listened to the simple, but melodic music. It was percussion based, with 4 drums, and one wooden flute, accompanied by lots of singing and clapping hands. As the melodies rose and fell, it reminded me more of African music than Middle Eastern music. It seemed we could have been anywhere in the Sahara and at any time dating back hundreds of years. And yet, in talking with the owner of the Cleopatra Baths restaurant, he is really trying to recreate the hedonistic Dahab of the 1980s, where he spent his teenage years. With his British wife tending the non-alcoholic bar mostly serving backpackers coming through, he was only part way there. It seemed this was typical of Siwa; stuck between an ancient culture and the progress that development inevitably brings.
But the real beauty of Siwa lies not in the town or the springs or lakes, but rather in the expansive desert that continues in almost every direction for over 72,000 square kilometers. Just a few kilometers into the desert and you can feel the complete and silent isolation. We visited fossilized seashells, proving the entire area used to be under water. And we visited the warm and hot springs of Bier Wahid. The cold spring, which isn’t actually that cold, looks like a small pond in the middle of the sand and is completely out of place. But it was a great place to cool off after sand boarding (its hard work climbing back up those dunes!). After seeing the solitude of the Great Sand Sea, it is easy to picture why Siwans are the isolationists that they are. It is both lonely and beautiful, with a deafening silence that can be so relaxing and so maddening all at the same time.
I wonder if Siwa will eventually drop its guard and let the hustle and bustle of Cairo catch up. I hope not. What makes it so magical is that it is so different, so isolated, so pure.