Sunday, May 17, 2009

Siwa Oasis and Libyan/Western Desert

Last weekend I decided to take a trip to Siwa with my friend Brian from AUC. Siwa is a small oasis of about 20,000 people in western Egypt, near the Libyan border. Much of Egypt's bottled water comes from Siwa. I felt confident enough to go without a plan, having no idea what to do or see and how to do it. The only thing I did to plan was make sure to buy our bus tickets to Marsa Matruh in advance.

We left for Marsa Matruh from Turgoman Station around 9:45pm on Thursday night, but of course Egyptian inefficiency had to come into effect here. The bus made a stop in Giza to pick up two passengers, so we didn't actually leave Cairo until past eleven. We arrived in Marsa Matruh around 4am. Matruh is the largest Egyptian city west of Alexandria along the Mediterranean Sea coast. I didn't get to see much of it since it was early morning, but it looked to be a bustling, clean, and interesting city. When we got to the bus station in Matruh, we realized the bus to Siwa didn't leave until 8am. We were very cold and not too keen on waiting around for four hours, so we accepted a taxi driver's offer to take us to Siwa for 200 LE.

Marsa Matruh at 4am.

I don't remember much of the ride to Siwa since I was asleep, but our driver was pretty annoying. During the three hour drive, he smoked an entire pack of cigarettes, had several cups of tea, blasted "habibi" Arabic pop, and kept the window open the whole way to keep him awake. The road from Matruh to Siwa is nothing but desert, and with the window open, it was extremely cold.

When we arrived in Siwa, the driver brought us to a bunch of different hotels to help us find a place. We were really sick of him so we just paid him his money (along with another 50LE he requested) and had him leave.

We checked into a hotel along the main square in Siwa called Al-Kilaani. The price was 120 LE for a two-person room. It was very clean, and included breakfast and air conditioning, so it was worth the price. The management spoke a little English.

View from Al-Kilaani Hotel of the main circle in Siwa.

It's hard to describe the atmosphere in Siwa town itself. It was 7am on a Friday (prayer day), so there was hardly anyone around. The town itself consists of a circle with several roads emanating from around it. There are restaurants and markets along the circle, along with a brand new bank (the only one in the region), a police station, and a new tourist office. It was not contaminated by pollution like in Cairo, but rather dirtied by many of the same things one would find on a farm.

Dominating the main circle in Siwa is Shali Fortress. The fortress is open all the time, so we were able to wander around by ourselves. It's a strange-looking place, as most of the walls have been destroyed to some extent, leaving jagged formations. Even more interesting is that some of the villagers actually live on buildings connected to the fortress, and probably have been living there for hundreds of years.

Views of and from Shali Fortress.

After Shali, we went to a restaurant along the main circle for breakfast. We noticed only a couple tourists pass by, and then we met up with three other AUC kids who were also visiting for the weekend.

After eating we made sure to buy tickets back to Cairo, since we both had to be back in class on Sunday morning. Along the way, we noticed something very incongruous: an EgyptAir mobile staircase for entering airplanes parked on the side of the road. The nearest airport is in Marsa Matruh, so it made no sense. I think the Egyptian government made a good move to block the addition of an airport near Siwa. As it is, Siwa requires a long journey by land, so most tourists avoid it. I think it should be kept this way, since the Siwan way of life is still very much alive and untainted by tourism at present. This one of the reasons it was such an amazing place to visit.

It just didn't make sense.

Observing the construction of a Siwan building.

I have no idea what this contraption was.

Brian with donkey cart.

Siwa was probably the most culturally conservative place I've been anywhere. All the men wore traditional white galabeyyas, with few exceptions. They were very reserved and somewhat quiet for the most part. We saw at most half a dozen women on our trip, though all of them wore a ominous-looking garment consisting of a black robe that covered the entire body including the eyes (the eyes had black mesh) and another scarf with golden designs on top of the head. I think the women stay inside the house at most times. The guidebook says that it is considered rude to speak to a Siwan woman that you don't know, for any reason. All of the people (men) with whom I spoke in Siwa were friendly and pleasant, but in a low-key, genuine way. This was in great contrast to Cairo, where everywhere one goes, one is likely to encounter a haggler offering (or demanding) a taxi ride or a chance to buy priceless treasures.

Time does not exist in Siwa. Nobody wears watches or keeps track of time. In Cairo, "five minutes" usually means around twelve to fifteen. Here, it meant about thirty. For the Siwans, it does not really matter much, since they only need to work at their own pace to make a living.

It helps to know some Arabic to travel to Siwa. It is possible to visit without knowing any, but many of the signs are only printed in Arabic, and only a few people that I encountered spoke English. I heard some of the beduins speaking in a form of Berber, which was interesting since it's one of the few places in Egypt where that language is spoken. Most Siwans know Egyptian Arabic, and they were all fairly easy to understand.

There are no taxis in Siwa. There are a few trucks, even more motorcycles, and even more donkey carts. A man had bicycles to rent out to tourists, so we picked them up for 15 LE for the day. We traveled out of the town along some of the winding dirt roads on our bicycles toward Mount Dakrar, passing under forests of palm trees and occasionally passing a villager carting branches or lumber via donkey.

Riding around Siwa and outskirts.

Mount Dakrar was just a tiny mountain in a desert area, but it had a good view of the oasis. There were a bunch of abandoned mudbrick houses at the foot of the mountain, which we investigated.

Views from Mount Dakrar.

After heading back into town, we arranged a desert tour with our hotel management. The trip cost 150 LE per person (about $27 USD) for a five hour trip in a LandCruiser with a beduin. Two Egyptian guys visiting from Cairo also came with us.

A desert fox greets you in Al-Kilaani Hotel.

Although I'd been in desert areas before, I had never been miles into the desert surrounded by nothing but sand. It was hot of course, but very picturesque.

The open desert.

In the middle of the desert there are two springs in an area known as Beer Wahed: the hot one and the cold one. The hot spring is contained in a small pool, with bubbling natural hot water. The cold spring is a few kilometers away; it's a tiny pond of fresh cold water, swarming with minnows. I got to run around the desert for awhile before jumping in the cold water and then having tea with some beduins.

Hot spring.

Running around.


The only other people we saw in the desert were a few other LandCruisers with their respective guides. At one point, another guide got stuck in the sand, and a few other jeeps had to dig him out and then tow him away.

Stuck...and freed.

The beduins are experts at desert driving. The dunes in the Libyan/Western Desert are massive in some places, and getting across the desert in the LandCruiser meant descending some of these hills. There were several hills that most definitely exceeded a sixty percent grade, so it felt like a roller coaster drop.

Practically vertical.

After the springs, we were taken to a portion of the Great Sand Sea. Part of the Mediterranean Sea had flowed over his land many years ago, and lots of shells and bits of coral remained in the sand. The hills began to block out the sun and the sun started to set, so the weather became very comfortable. There was a feeling of complete isolation here, as evidenced by some of the pictures.

Great Sand Sea.

The final stop was watching the sun set in the west over Libya. The weather was cool and the sky was covered with all sorts of colors.

Watching sunset over Libya.

This is my favorite picture.

The trip to the desert was probably one of the most amazing things I've ever seen, and that alone was worth the long drive from Cairo. I would insist that anyone who goes to Siwa take a trip to the desert.

That night we went to a cool outdoor restaurant not too far from the main circle in Siwa. We met up with the other AUC students in Siwa, except they surprised us by showing up in galabeyyas they bought in Siwa. It was quite amusing to see the look on the waiter's face when they ordered in English, wearing galabeyyas.

AUCians in galabeyyas, restaurant in Siwa.

The next day we had breakfast at the hotel and rented the bikes for another day. We took a trip over to the Temple of Umm Bayad and the Temple of Amun. The Temple of Amun was the only tourist attraction in Siwa that we had to pay for (15 LE), but the ticket came with a Siwan guide. He only spoke Arabic, but we were able to understand around twenty percent of what he said. At one point, he started speaking fusha (Classical Arabic), which was the first time I've ever heard it spoken in a personal setting. The Temple of Amun, also known as the Oracle, had a long history about it, and was visited by Alexander the Great during his reign.

Temple of Umm Bayad.

Temple of Amun.

Roads outside Siwa.

After the temples, we visited Cleopatra's Spring, where Cleopatra supposedly bathed at one point. It consists of a deep well with cool water that bubbles up from the bottom, suitable for swimming. There was a restaurant right next to it, where we had lunch. Some of the local Siwans came for a swim, but we were the only non-Egyptian tourists there.

Cleopatra's Spring.

Cleopatra's Spring and the Temples were a little over 5km to the east of Siwa town. After visiting them, we went all the way on the other side of the oasis, about 6km west of Siwa town. There was Ain Fatnas (Fatnas Spring), similar to Cleopatra's Spring, though actually on an island in the middle of the oasis and connected by a small causeway. Part of the oasis had dried up since the beginning of spring, so it wasn't really possible to tell that we had crossed over to an island, but looking across the other side one could see the rest of the oasis. There, we met a few Spanish and French guys who were students in Alexandria, and hung out with them for awhile.

Ain Fatnas.

We rode our bikes back into Siwa town just in time to catch the sunset. We returned our bikes and then hopped on the bus back to Cairo. The bus to Cairo took ten hours, though we made a few stops along the way. The most interesting one was a small coffeeshop in the middle of the desert. When we arrived, there was no power, only a lantern lighting up the shop. A few soldiers were hanging around with the owner. The bus made a stop in Marsa Matruh to let off a few people, and then we arrived in Cairo around 6am, with enough time for me to get back to my apartment and to school for my 10:30 class.

Sunset across Siwa Oasis near Ain Fatnas.

Dusk on the road to Marsa Matruh.


  1. Shane,

    Congratulations for your post regarding the SIWA oasis. The pictures are amazing and your comments smart and well documented, except for one MAJOR aspect of SIWA !!!!!!

    How could you have missed it ...

    Shane, SIWA is the only remaining spot in Egypt where people are AMAZIGH (or "Berbers" if you like) and speak the Amazigh ancestral language of ancient people of the region called Nasamones notably by Herodotus.

    How could your local guide/friend miss this fundamental aspect of SIWA ? Or is it that he himself know nothing about Egypt's history, his own history ? I can't believe it ...

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  3. Hello Imazighen,

    Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I did mention in my blog that I heard some people speaking a form of Berber, though I didn't really investigate it further. Unfortunately my guide didn't speak any English so I didn't get to hear about any of the history of the oasis.

  4. Great report ! Lots of people told me to go to Siwa and desert but your text and photos made me really feel like I want to go there.
    Yes, of course, people from Siwa are berbers...