Siwa Oasis, Egypt's Western Desert, Autumn 2002


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Siwa and the Temple of Amun
An old trading route to an ancient oasis.


Siwa and the Temple of Amun

A trip into the heart of Egypt's Western Desert

Tuesday 5th November
Our Toyota pushed its way through the small throng of weaving bikes, mules, traders and trucks and came at last to the 'Popular Teahouse', the social centre of the oasis of Bawiti. Here we met up with my cousin Laura, who works for an Immigrants Resettlement Charity in Cairo. We also met our agent Tamer and his wife, our guide Atif and their driver. It appeared they all wanted to come with us to Siwa, but after some straight talking the party was reduced to just Atif. He would be driver and guide, together with Raymond, Laura, and myself. This was the end of one great trip and the beginning of another.

Weighing chickens at Bawiti

We bid farewell to our companions of the last 3 weeks, András, Magdi, Andy, Bernie and Hannah and they departed in a cloud of dust on their 500 mile journey north to Cairo. Who could have asked for finer travelling companions?

We went shopping for food and vegetables and Laura excelled herself with her negotiating skills. Across the road a trader weighed out lived chickens, who sat obediently on weighing scales as barter was done. We declined the offer of a plump fowl and counted on our prepacked tins to provide for our needs.

We paid our dues to Tamer and left Bawiti at 4pm. Out of the noisy throng, past the military check point and we were back into the desert at last. We drove an hour before pulling up under a glowing sunset to make our evening camp.

Atif laying camp fire

I erected Laura's tent on a level pitch of soft sand and then we cooked a grand stew of vegetables and corned beef. Laura had answered my half joking call by satellite telephone from the Gilf Kebir to bring 'something to drink'. She rose admirably to the occasion and came laden with Vodka, Bacardi, wine and beer - and we shared a desert feast around the fire and swapped desert tales until far into the night.

Wednesday 6th November
Today was the first day of Ramadan and Atif was up early. He breakfasted before dawn and would then not eat or drink again until dusk. A tough routine in the hot desert environment but one which Moslems don't question and carry out with commendable grace. We shared a desert breakfast at sunrise, Rye Vita and jam, pate for Raymond and lots of strong coffee.

We left at a leisurely 09.00 remembering to repack the remaining wood for the evening fire. We continued on a worsening road and sustained a puncture. We carried two spares and quickly changed the wheel and drove on. Raymond and I took regular GPS fixes to plot our course. Our TCP map proved quite inaccurate but gave the general heading. We were following the old Dharb el Siwa, a trading route from ancient times. We were looking for Lake Numeweisa as shown on our map, but it never appeared. This was probably just as well as the word means 'mosquito' in Arabic.

We bumped and thundered over broken tarmac and eventually left the trail and drove through the sand. At lunchtime we picnicked in the shade of the car; it was very hot and the breeze of driving again was welcome.

At 4.00pm we reached our predetermined GPS fix and turned off across the desert. Atif was anxious but we assured him we knew where we were going. Navigation was entrusted to Raymond who spent much time reading contour lines and related information on the map, and sure enough we suddenly arrived at the splendid lost gorge of Areg. It was not visible from the surrounding desert and dropped sharply down into a spectacular landform of eroded escarpments, blown sand and rock islands. There were many fossils here and I picked up a perfect sea urchin several million years old. We went exploring and took many photographs.

At dusk Atif made a fire, Raymond sliced vegetables with his penknife and Laura made a fresh lime cordial for the evening drink. I organised the bar and rationed out Laura's alcoholic contribution to everyone's obvious satisfaction. Atif preferred to drink water which presented no problem to the bar staff. Laura and I cooked up a memorable tuna stew and we had a splendid meal around the fire.

All around, the silence of the desert prevailed, and the sparkling white rocks reflected the light of a billion stars. We may have been the first visitors here in history, and we cherished the magnificent solitude of this picturesque canyon.

Thursday 7th November
We packed up our tiny campsite and departed, retracing our wheel tracks to the main piste. We passed the outpost village of Zertrum and encountered, suddenly, the silver shimmer of a great lake, bound on all sides by shifting dunes. An extraordinary sight in this sand blown wilderness. This is the magic of Siwa which, at sixty feet below sea level, hosts numerous springs and lakes rising up from the sub Saharan aquifers. Some of this subterranean water is over 20,000 years old and was collected during the slow meltdown of the last ice age.

We reached Siwa at 11.30 in a rising sand storm and checked into the little tourist office. We walked the market square, examined a few artefacts and negotiated for some vegetables. Raymond bought a cheap alloy teaspoon, to relieve the domestic pressure on his Swiss Army penknife. We had lunch in the one restaurant that was open, feeling slightly self conscious on this first day of the Ramadan fast.

In the afternoon we set off for the hot spring North of the town to camp for the night. The wind rose, the sand blew and the tracks over the dunes quickly became obliterated. Atif charged the dunes one by one, but the last one beat us and we slithered down in an ignoble retreat - backwards. By now the wind was howling around us and the sand was everywhere. We lowered tyre pressures and tried several times at different angles. Then we agreed, to Atif's disappointment, to abandon it.

Laura and I walked on, blinded by flying sand and swept off our feet by the wind. Soon we were forced to return to the shelter of the Toyota and we drove back, with some difficulty, into Siwa. We checked in at the Hotel Cleopatra and spent the first night in a bed, for Raymond and I, for over three weeks. Outside the sand storm rattled the shutters and we were glad of the comfort of bricks and mortar that night.

Friday 8th November
The sand storm abated overnight, stopping as quickly as it had started, and we had breakfast on the terrace; hot Egyptian beans and coffee. Then we took the car and drove off to the Temple of Amun. This curious oracle was built in the 7th Century BC. Alexander the Great travelled here is 331BC - a challenging journey in those days. It is built of imported stone blocks and pillars, no small feat with just camels and so much waterless sand to cross. There were ancient hieroglyphics engraved in the centre and an air of sovereignty in the great stones.A little further was another edifice built of massive stone pillars, now ruined.

Then we went to 'Cleopatra's Pool', a clear round hot spring some 10ft deep, bubbling up from a volcanic fissure. I stripped off and jumped in. Laura followed, with a big splash. She was fully clothed, in respect for local custom, and we both had a wonderful swim.

Siwa dates back to the 11th Century and remained isolated from the outside world for 1000 years. It was completely self-sufficient with its ready supply of water and abundant date palms. Early travellers were put to death and it wasn't until the advent of the motor car in the1930's that visitors first began to travel here. It only became part of Egypt it the 19th Century.

In the 1940 - 1943 war Siwa was used by both Axis and Allied forces as an important supply point in the tactical manoeuvres being waged around El Alamein on the coast. The LRDG and the SAS travelled here regularly.

We explored the old hill-top citadel which remains largely untouched since a disastrous storm in1926. Unprecedented rains softened the ancient building blocks and the whole town became unstable. The Siwans were compelled to leave and built their new town around the base of the hill, leaving their weathered and eroded heritage as an historic memorial to the past glory of this isolated town.

The Siwans were a closed society and still speak a different dialect to the rest of Egypt.

We lunched in the town on 'Shakshuka', a local dish of baked carrots, onion, peppers and potato topped with minced meat, and all served in individual earthenware bowls.

Later we bought two fine silver bangles, a trade for which Siwa was once famous. The asking price was negotiated down skilfully by Laura from $200 to $110. Laura then bought me a small pendant made from a cowrie shell, imported from a far away ocean in olden times.

Siwa is a wonderfully relaxed little town, untouched by tourism and largely untenanted by cars. We walked through the narrow streets under the palm trees, accompanied by donkey carts running silently on rubber wheels, with their cargoes of shrouded mothers and inquisitive children, and vegetables, dates and perhaps a chicken or two as well.

In the afternoon we watched a spectacular sunset casting ever changing light over the water to Fatsma Island. We dined by candle light in a restaurant under the palm trees.

Tomorrow we drive up the Siwa escarpment to the plateau, and then the long drive North to the Mediterranean coast.

ŠKit Constable Maxwell

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