Anthony Doerr once said: “Leave home, leave the country, and leave the familiar. Only then can routine experience—buying bread, eating vegetables, even saying hello—become new all over again,” and that is exactly what happened to me in my last short trip to Siwa Oasis.
Siwa Oasis is considered one of the most isolated places in the world. It is located in the far western desert of Egypt, and is about 300 km from the Mediterranean coast to the southwest of Marsa Matrouh, 820 km from Cairo, the capital of Egypt, and 65 km from the Libyan border.
Although most of the land of Siwa Oasis is nothing but desert and sand, palm and olive trees will greet you lightly on both sides of the road. Within minutes you will find yourself surrounded by palm trees growing everywhere— in the streets, between the houses and on the land. Even most of the roads resemble paths between rows of palm trees that line the roads with palm fronds from all directions. In other words, Siwa Oasis is an artistic painting among the sand dunes.
Visiting Siwa Oasis - the land of "Jupiter Amon" as the pharaohs called it, or "Taswa" according to Ibn Khaldun - is necessary for those looking for recreation and lovers of beautiful places with a distinctive cultural heritage, as well as being a promising area for creative people looking for stimuli for the imagination because it combines the serenity of the desert, the beauty of tall palm trees, and hills of soft sand.
Siwa Oasis is inhabited by about 42,000 people who speak both Berber (an Amazigh language) and Arabic. The population is divided into 12 tribes, including Al-Zanain, Al-Haddadin, Lahmouda, Al-Sarahna, Aghurmi and Umm Al-Saghir. Siwa is considered a global tourist destination because of its popularity for various types of therapeutic tourism such as burial in hot sand and bathing in lakes with sulfurous water. In addition to natural preparations and natural products, such as olive oil, dates and salt, and in addition to its beautiful pristine nature, there is the character of its residents who have preserved their traditions and heritage, historical monuments and unique architectural character. The area’s mild weather and safety encompasses and pervades the atmosphere of life in Siwa.
It is usually advisable to visit the oasis during the winter months. If you plan to head to Siwa anytime soon, here are a few suggestions for places to visit and activities into which to immerse yourself.
ENJOY A JOURNEY THROUGH HISTORY AT THE TEMPLE OF AMUN
The Temple of Amun, or the Temple of Revelation, or the Temple of Predictions, or the Temple of Alexander are all names of the most important monument in the Siwa Oasis. A foyer was built to receive Alexander the Great where he was pronounced the son of Amun.
It was built on a large flat rock located 4 kilometers from the center of the city in an area called Aghurmi.
The temple witnessed many changes and many fingerprints were placed in it during the Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, and even Islamic eras. The temple contains a mosque, a minaret, rooms for the pharaohs’ priests, corridors, a well of holy water, and Roman walls.
It is divided into two halves, the first is Pharaonic while the second is “Ptolemaic and Islamic.” On the second floor of the temple, one can see the cluster of oasis houses and their salt lakes, the green palm plantations that surround them, and other archaeological monuments as well as the mountains.
TAKE A STROLL THROUGH THE SHALI FORTRESS
Shali Fortress is one of the most famous archaeological sites that attract foreign tourists because it a model of Siwa's old life in miniature. This is loved by tourists who come from different countries looking for it and renouncing modern technology.
Legend says that the fortress was built by forty men in order to protect Siwa from enemies. It was built from a material called 'kershef' (salt rocks from the local salt lakes and mud). It is on a high plateau surmounted by two peaks, one in the far west and the other in the east, on which many kershef houses were built.
You can walk up to the top of the fortress to witness spectacular views of the oasis and its surroundings.
Among the most important structures remaining in the city is the Old Mosque, which is considered the oldest mosque in Siwa. It is rectangular in shape divided into three naves parallel to the qibla wall. It has two eastern and western doors. On the qibla wall there is the minbar and the mihrab.
TAKE A DIP IN THE SALT LAKES
Siwa’s salty waters are said to cure sinuses, as well as skin and eye infections. Siwans carve the salt into lamps that are said to filter the air when illuminated. Siwa boasts hundreds of salt pools and lakes throughout the oasis – and you can float on their waters just like at the Dead Sea.
Many visitors to Siwa come away with a small chunk of salt, a white or pink souvenir of these magical lakes, which is broken off the pool’s edge by their guide and offered as a keepsake.
CLIMB THE MOUNTAIN OF THE DEAD
The Mountain of the Dead, (in Arabic Gebel Al-Mawta), is located in Siwa Oasis and is a mountain where several tombs were carved at its base, terraces, and at the top. Most of the tombs are Roman and differ in terms of shape and size. Some of them are just small pits in the ground while other tombs are symmetrically carved with recesses and rooms inside.
The Mountain of the Dead is one of the main attractions of Siwa Oasis and was discovered in 1944 during World War II.
History tells us that the people of Siwa went to the mountain to hide when German, British and Italian troops were fighting in this part of the desert. Along the way, they discovered the existence of the pharaonic tombs.
Local legend says Alexander the Great may also be buried there. However, his grave has not been found yet.
TREATMENT IN DAKRUR MOUNTAIN
At the outskirts of the southern oasis, on the opposite side of the Mountain of the Dead, Dakrur Mountain is located with its hot sands which are useful in treating rheumatic diseases. The mountain enjoys a special spiritual status among the people of the oasis.
Siwa residents celebrate every year by going to Dakrur Mountain and staying for three days in old houses and tents on the mountain in celebration of their annual feast which started 160 years ago, after the end of the wars and disputes between the western tribes and eastern tribes of Siwa.
DON’T MISS WATCHING SUNSET IN FATNAS ISLAND
Fatnas Island is called the “Island of Magic and Imagination” and it is one of the most wonderful places in the world where you can enjoy the scene at sunset. It is also one of the 20 most important tourist sites in Egypt. The island is to the west of Siwa and stretches over 15 acres. It presents a wonderful vista as the island is surrounded by a lake which itself is surrounded by palm trees.
This small island is located 10 minutes from Siwa town. You will find date farms on the island which also has a fresh water spring in which you can swim.
The magic of the scenery is complemented by the scattered mountains and the great sea of sand with its enormous dunes and its unresolved secrets.
Fatnas Island attracts the attention of tourists and residents with its water springs, which are estimated to be ten springs characterized by the purity of their water as well as a moderate temperature at all times of the year.
SWIM IN CLEOPATRA’S BATH
Cleopatra’s Bath is also called the Eye of the Sun and its name dates back to the 5th century BC, when the historian Herodotus described it by this name. It is one of many natural water springs, fed naturally by the underground water and is considered the best known water spring in the area. There is a belief that Queen Cleopatra bathed in these waters which are set in a landscape surrounded by palm trees and sand.
Situated about 800 meters south of the Temple of Um Ubeydah, Cleopatra’s Bath is frequented not only by tourists but above all by Siwans, who enjoy its transparent and hot water.
HEAD TO THE SAND DUNES FOR SAND-BOARDING OR SAFARI TRIPS
Spanning over 72,000 sq. km, the Great Sand Sea adjoining the oasis is marked as the world’s third-largest dune field. Whether you’re into sandboarding, quad biking or simply camping out in the desert amid the vast, uninterrupted serenity, make sure you reserve a day for this fun-packed desert expedition.
You can also enjoy watching the sunset, and the stars at night, as the sky in Siwa is clear because it is far from the hustle and bustle of the city. Additionally, you can enjoy the experience of drinking Siwan tea and having dinner in one of the desert reserves.
DON’T FORGET TO BUY LOCAL SOUVENIRS
The Oasis is famous for being the largest olive farm in Egypt, where you can buy olive products ranging from natural oils to olives. You can also buy the finest types of dates. If you’re into colorful handmade products and embroidered garments, then you’re in for such a treat at Siwa. Famous for its excellent craftsmanship and gleeful patterns, Siwa is sure to offer you a myriad of souvenir gifts that you may want to buy for yourself or for your friends and family back home.
Siwa, that tender spot; where cruelty dissipates, all the convictions of the cement blocks collapse, and all the taboos of the gray city collapse; to find yourself in an honest moment with all that is real, and to rediscover a new meaning of life.