It has been more than a month since I returned from my journey through Egypt, and during that time I’ve been off on another adventure to three of America’s national parks. But there are still stories to share from my visit to northern Africa as well, even though I have already posted extensively about the trip. If you missed those posts from a few weeks back, you’l find them here: Part 1: Quiet and Calm in Cairo, Part 2: The Great Pyramid of Giza, Part 3: The Valley of the Kings and Queens – By Donkey, and Part 4: Into The White Desert.
As always, I’d be remiss if I didn’t think my fantastic hosts at G Adventures for bringing me along on this journey. All of the things that I saw and did while I was on this trip were a part of their Absolute Egypt itinerary, a 16-day marathon that takes you to just about every corner of the country. If you’re looking to visit Egypt yourself – and truly now is the time to go – than have a look at this option, or one of the other options that G Adventures offers. They truly have some of the best tours for seeing this amazing country.
When I last left off, I had been spending some time in the breathtaking White Desert, a region that is marked with chalk rock formations that spread out as far as the eye can see. Those deposits look like snow in the hot sand, with thousands of years of wind carving away some very interesting and distinct formations. It is a very memorable setting, and a great example of how the desert can be a truly beautiful place.
After spending a few days in the hot desert, it was time to move on to our next destination, which was the small town of Siwa Oasis. As the name implies, the city sits in spot that affords it some respite from the desert, with both fresh and saltwater lakes nearby. The area is surprisingly lush with trees and green grasses growing throughout the oasis, although towering sand dunes sit just outside the Siwa city limits.
As one of Egypt’s most isolated and remote cities, Siwa sits just 50 km (30 miles) from the border with Libya. Over the centuries the small town developed its own cultures and traditions, independent of much of the rest of the country. Mostly inhabited by members of the Berber tribe, Siwa is its own unique place that holds a lot of allure for visitors who are looking to escape the hustle and bustle found in many Egypt’s larger metropolitan areas. In Siwa, it is as if life stand still with a peaceful solicitude and a slower pace to life.
The city is a historical setting that was once home to the Oracle of Amon, one of the more powerful deities in Egyptian mythology. There are also a wide variety of ruins spread out across the area, with the most prominent being the Shali Ghadi, a set of buildings made of mud and salt that were almost completely destroyed by three days of constant raining back in 1926. The oasis rarely sees rainfall of course, so its inhabitants have always built their structures out of mud. But the heavy rains caused those buildings to melt over several days of downpours, and the remains of that disaster are still part of Siwa today.
There are also a series of ancient tombs located on the outskirts of town at a place called the Mountain of the Dead. This monument is left over from the Roman era, when many such tombs were carved out of the nearby rock.
During my stay in Siwa I found it to be one of the most relaxed stops on the entire tour. The quiet town is less of a tourist stop, so visitors aren’t constantly harassed by merchants to buy their goods, and the locals seem accommodating and accepting of visitors. It is the perfect place to escape the constant buzz of energy that surrounds Cairo, Aswan, and Luxor, which have far more interesting ancient sites to explore, but are also over run with travelers during their busier times. Here, the quiet life of a remote village of Egypt can be experienced fully, and it was a really nice change of pace.
That isn’t to say that we weren’t active during our stay in Siwa. In fact, on one day we took a tour of the city by bike that was both insightful and enjoyable in many ways. It is easy to rent a bike near the town center, and they are adequate for roaming about the oasis. Just don’t expect that bike to be of top-notch quality, and be prepared for some discomfort along the way. Also, the traffic in the town can be a bit hairy as you pedal your way about. Most of the vehicles won’t be on the lookout for you, so keep your eyes peeled for oncoming traffic, pedestrians walking in strange places, and random animals darting out into the road.
My cycling trip took me to the foot of the Mountain of the Dead, where the ancient tombs were on display. I also wandered to an incredibly well preserved old mosque, and past an ancient ruin that was purportedly a temple dedicated to Alexander the Great. But the best part of riding around Siwa was simply just seeing the daily lives of those who lived there. At one point we passed through a busy market, at another we rolled through a residential area, and sometimes we just pedaled down back streets. But on that ride I saw many locals busy with the tasks of the day, and it was refreshing to see them go about their work.
A true highlight of a visit to Siwa is taking a plunge in Cleopatra’s Bath, a pool filled with natural spring water that is both cool and refreshing on hot days. Legend has it that Cleopatra visited Siwa and bathed in these waters, which in turn gave her the beauty that she is so famous for. In reality, she never even came to the place, but it makes a good story to share with the tourists I’m sure.
The pool is a great place to take a swim, and since it is frequented by many locals, it is another good place to interact with them as well. But be warned, it can also get quite crowded at times. I was there in the late morning, and it was the perfect setting, but later, as I climbed back aboard my bike to continue riding, it was starting to get quite full.
Siwa is a place where you can see just about everything the town has to offer in a day or two. But, because it is so relaxed and laid back, it is also a place that you probably won’t be in a hurry to leave either. There are some surprisingly good restaurants to eat at there, and while there isn’t any kind of jumping nightlife, there are still some fun places to pass away the evening sipping a tea while smoking shisha and watch life unfold. This is a place that is an oasis in more ways than one, and it is easy to understand the appeal of living there.
Visitors to Siwa should also be sure to take in the amazing sunsets. Late in the day, as the sun drops in the west, go to the old town and climb to the top of one of the prominent hills or open ruins. There you’ll find that the air cools dramatically as darkness begins to set in. But before that happens, the sun hangs like a giant ball of fire along the horizon, illuminating the landscape with various shades of red, orange, and pink. It is a wonderful way to close out a long day of exploring the oasis, and quite peaceful as well.
As you can probably tell, I was quite smitten by Siwa. It was a surprisingly restful place in a remote corner of the Western Desert. If you’re planning on visiting Egypt, and you want a place to go that is far off the beaten path away from the tourist stops, than Siwa just might be the place. It takes a bit of doing just to get there, and you won’t find a lot of amenities when you arrive, but it is hard not to be charmed by the relaxed and simple lifestyle that you’ll find there. Apart from the impressive ancient sites, it just might be my favorite place in the entire country.
I’ve almost wrapped up my tale of Egyptian adventure. I have one more post to share on the topic before moving on. To wrap up my journey through this ancient country I left Siwa Oasis behind and traveled to Alexandria on the Mediterranean Coast, a place that has its own history and legends. It too is unlike other cities in Egypt as well, and more than lives up to its billing.