Tucked away in the heart of Egypt’s Western Desert, far from the bustling streets of Cairo, lies the enchanting Siwa Oasis.
This remote oasis, nestled between the Qattara Depression and the Egyptian Sand Sea, is a haven of natural beauty and ancient wonders. Renowned for its palm trees, olive groves, and salt lakes, Siwa is a testament to the resilience of life in the harsh desert environment.
A place where the vestiges of the past intertwine with the pulse of the present, Siwa offers a glimpse into a unique aspect of Egyptian culture that has withstood the test of time.
The history of Siwa dates back to ancient times, with inscriptions dating back to the 10th millennium BC. The oasis was a crucial crossroads in the desert trade routes, and its fame peaked during the reign of the ancient Egyptians. The temple of the Oracle, known as the Temple of Amun, played a significant role in the religious practices of the time.
The god Amun was revered as the king of the Egyptian gods, and the oracle at his temple was believed to possess the power to answer questions about the future. The temple was also associated with Zeus Ammon, a fusion of the Greek god Zeus and the Egyptian god Amun, reflecting the cultural exchange that occurred during this period.
Roman Rule and Beyond
Under Roman rule, Siwa continued to flourish, and its oracle maintained its fame, attracting illustrious visitors such as Alexander the Great. However, Siwa’s remote location and the advent of sea routes led to its gradual decline. The oasis regained some of its former glory during the reign of King Fuad and King Farouk of Egypt in the 20th century, who were captivated by its unique charm.
Siwa Today: A Blend of the Ancient and the Modern
The Modern Town
Today, the modern town of Siwa is a testament to the oasis’ resilience and adaptability. Despite being under Egyptian rule, Siwa has managed to retain its own language and local customs, offering a unique blend of Berber and Egyptian culture.
The town’s architecture is a reflection of this cultural amalgamation, with structures built in a traditional style using ‘karsheef’, a local material made from salt and mud.
Tourism in Siwa
Siwa has become a popular tourist destination, with visitors flocking to experience its natural beauty and rich history. The oasis offers a wide range of activities, from visiting ancient sites and soaking in hot springs, to embarking on desert safaris across the Great Sand Sea.
The Natural and Historical Wonders of Siwa
The Great Sand Sea and the Western Desert
The Great Sand Sea, an expansive desert landscape that stretches to the Libyan border, is one of Siwa’s most breathtaking natural attractions. Its vast sand dunes, some reaching heights of 140 meters, offer a mesmerizing view, especially at sunset when the desert is bathed in a golden hue.
The Western Desert, home to Siwa, is a part of the Sahara that extends across North Africa, offering a stark contrast to the lush greenery of the oasis.
The Oracle Temple: A Testament to the Past
The Oracle Temple, also known as the Temple of Amun or Ammon, is a significant historical landmark in Siwa. This ancient temple was once a hub of religious activity, where the god Amun, later identified with Zeus Ammon or Jupiter Amun, was worshipped.
The temple was visited by Alexander the Great, who sought the oracle’s prophecy, thereby further cementing its historical significance. Today, the ruins of the temple stand as a testament to Siwa’s rich past, attracting archaeologists and tourists alike.
Gebel Al Mawta: The Mountain of the Dead
The Gebel Al Mawta, or the Mountain of the Dead, is another noteworthy ancient site in Siwa. This low-lying mountain is home to numerous rock-cut tombs dating back to the 26th Dynasty. The tombs, adorned with inscriptions and paintings, offer an insight into the funerary practices and beliefs of the ancient Egyptians.
The Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry conducted extensive research on these tombs, uncovering valuable information about Siwa’s past.
The Ruins of Shali: Echoes of an Old Siwa
The ruins of Shali, the old town of Siwa, offer a glimpse into the traditional architecture and lifestyle of the oasis. Constructed from karsheef, a mixture of salt and mud, the town was a fortress that protected the inhabitants from desert storms and invaders.
However, a heavy rainstorm in 1926 led to its abandonment. Today, the ruins stand as a silent reminder of Siwa’s resilience in the face of the harsh desert environment.
Cleopatra’s Pool and Other Natural Wonders
Among Siwa’s many natural wonders, Cleopatra’s Pool stands out. This natural hot spring, also known as Cleopatra’s Bath, is believed to have been visited by the legendary queen herself. The pool is fed by a natural hot spring and is perfect for a rejuvenating dip.
Other natural attractions include the salt lakes, which glisten under the sun, and the palm groves that provide a cool respite from the desert heat.
The Salt Lakes and Pools: A Saline Wonderland
Siwa’s salt lakes and pools are another testament to its natural beauty. The salt lakes, formed by the accumulation of evaporated water, are a striking feature of the landscape. The salt pools, filled with mineral-rich water, are popular among visitors for their therapeutic properties.
The Palm Groves: A Green Respite
The palm groves of Siwa, with their lush greenery, provide a stark contrast to the surrounding desert. The groves, home to date and olive trees, play a crucial role in the local economy. The dates, in particular, are a staple of Siwa’s cuisine.
The Culture and Cuisine of Siwa
Siwa’s culture is a unique blend of Berber and Egyptian influences, with the locals speaking their own language, Siwi. The oasis is known for its traditional crafts, particularly its intricately woven baskets and pottery. Siwa’s cuisine, too, offers a unique culinary experience, with dishes such as ‘taguella’, a type of bread baked in the sand, and ‘agwa’, a date-based dessert.
Siwa During the World Wars
Siwa’s strategic location in the Western Desert made it a significant site during the North Africa campaign of the Second World War. The oasis was a key supply route for the British Eighth Army during their campaign against the Axis forces. The remnants of the war can still be seen in the form of rusting tanks and military vehicles scattered across the desert.
The Future of Siwa: Balancing Modernization and Preservation
The modern era has brought significant changes to Siwa. The tarmac road connecting Siwa to Marsa Matruh has made the oasis more accessible, leading to an increase in tourism. The Egyptian government, recognizing Siwa’s potential as a tourist destination, has invested in its development.
However, this rapid modernization poses a threat to Siwa’s unique culture and natural beauty. It is crucial that development efforts are balanced with conservation measures. The preservation of Siwa’s cultural heritage and natural environment is not just important for its inhabitants, but also for the entire human history, as it offers a glimpse into a way of life that has endured for millennia.
The Siwa Oasis, with its stunning landscapes, ancient ruins, and unique culture, is a testament to the indomitable spirit of life in the desert.
It is a place where the past and the present coexist, offering a glimpse into a world that is starkly different from the urban landscapes of modern Egypt.
Whether you are drawn to Siwa by its history, its natural beauty, or the allure of its culture, a visit to this remote oasis is sure to be an unforgettable experience.
FAQ about Siwa Oasis
Is it possible to swim in the Siwa Oasis?
Yes, swimming in Siwa Oasis is indeed possible, especially in its high-salt-concentration lakes. Even if you’re not a strong swimmer, you can still enjoy a relaxing dip in these lakes, as the high salt content allows you to float effortlessly.
What attracts people to the Siwa Oasis?
Siwa Oasis is renowned for its historical significance, particularly its ancient Oracle of Amun, whose ruins have become a major tourist attraction. Additionally, its unique blend of Berber and Egyptian culture and its stunning natural beauty, including the Shali Mountain village, Lake Aftnas, and numerous palm trees, also draw visitors.
How deep is the Siwa Oasis salt lake?
The salt lake in Siwa Oasis has an approximate depth of 4 meters.
Can you float in the Siwa Oasis?
Absolutely! The salt lakes of Siwa Oasis are renowned for their high salt concentration. This allows visitors to float on the water’s surface, making it an enjoyable experience even for non-swimmers.
Is a visit to the Siwa Oasis worthwhile?
Yes, Siwa Oasis is definitely worth visiting. Its rich history, unique culture, and stunning natural beauty, from its salt lakes to its vast desert landscape, make it a captivating destination.
What is the history of Siwa Oasis?
Siwa Oasis was annexed by Muhammad Ali of Egypt in 1820. Later, it served as a base for the Sanusiyya during their battle against the British from 1915 to 1917.
Do people inhabit the Siwa Oasis?
Yes, Siwa Oasis is home to about 23,000 people, primarily Berbers. They mainly engage in chemical-free agriculture, facilitated by 230 natural sources.
What makes Siwa Oasis unique?
Siwa Oasis’s uniqueness stems from its historical significance as the home of an oracle of Amun, its vibrant mix of Berber and Egyptian culture, and its breathtaking natural beauty, including the Shali Mountain village, Lake Aftnas, and the surrounding desert landscape.
What is the depth of the water in the Siwa Oasis?
The water in Siwa Oasis has a depth of approximately 4 meters.
Is it safe to swim in Siwa Oasis?
Yes, swimming in Siwa Oasis is considered safe. The high salt concentration of the lakes allows visitors to float, eliminating the fear of drowning.
What is the water temperature in Siwa Oasis?
The water temperature in Siwa Oasis varies throughout the year. However, the water in the salt lakes and hot springs is generally warm, making it perfect for a relaxing swim or soak.
What is the primary use of the Siwa Oasis?
Historically, Siwa Oasis served as a stopover point for pilgrims traveling from Cairo to Mecca. Today, its inhabitants primarily engage in agriculture, growing dates and olives which they trade for other essentials.
When is the best time to visit Siwa Oasis?
Siwa Oasis can be visited at any time of the year. However, the best time to visit would depend on your personal preferences. If you enjoy warm weather and outdoor activities, the summer months would be ideal. If you prefer cooler temperatures, the winter months would be a better choice.
Is it worth visiting Siwa Oasis?
Absolutely! Siwa Oasis is a hidden gem in Egypt’s Western Desert. With fewer tourists than other parts of Egypt, it offers a laid-back atmosphere and a wealth of off-the-beaten-track attractions, making it a worthwhile destination.
How long should one stay in Siwa?
The recommended duration for a visit to Siwa is 2 nights and three days. However, if you wish to explore Siwa in depth, including its culture, history, and the surrounding desert, a longer stay would be beneficial.
Is it safe to visit Siwa Oasis?
Yes, Siwa Oasis is considered safe for tourists. While there are some security concerns near the border, Siwa town is located 50 kilometers away, making it a safe destination for visitors.