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october 25, 2004 -> siwa: undeserved oasis, egypt 

Oases are islands of life in the desert.  Implausibly lush against the austerity of the surrounding Sahara, the oases are succored by underground springs.  The most enduring of these springs were the waypoints of millennia-old caravan routes across the desert.  Weary after long days of scorching sun and monotonous landscapes, the desert traders would stop here to rest and reprovision before heading on to the next oasis, perhaps several hundred kilometers distant.  One can only imagine their joy at the first sight of the swaying date palms. 

Today, you can reach the Siwa Oasis – in western Egypt, near the Libyan border – in just over 12 hours from Cairo.  A new highway links Siwa to the coastal resort town of Mursa Mutruh, itself easily accessible from Cairo or Alexandria.  Along its route, the highway passes endless plains of gravel before sloping gently down into the Qattara Depression.  On average, Siwa sits at 18 meters below sea level; closer to the natural water table that underlies a surprisingly large portion of the Sahara. 

I am not a big believer in the notion that “it is not the destination, but the journey.”  Still, I wish that I had endured a bit of pain and suffering so that I could fully appreciate the resplendent fecundity of the Siwa Oasis.  Frankly, I did not deserve it.  And neither do most of the tourists that now regularly descend on Siwa with the completion of the sealed highway.  Overweight, loud, and disrespectful of the very conservative local culture, many could use a few days of desert privation to lose some pounds and learn some humility.  Mass tourism has only just begun, but it has already overwhelmed Siwa's limited infrastructure. 

Siwa was for centuries as isolated as a South Pacific atoll.  Egypt's Western Desert is one of the driest parts of the already desiccated Sahara.  If legends are to be believed, entire armies perished trying to cross the Western Desert to attack Siwa.  Things have gotten considerably easier.  We made it with less than a liter and a half of water, and no food.  (During Ramadan, tourists often involuntarily participate in the fast, as few shops and restaurants are open during the day.) 

The weird ruins of Shali occupy a rocky hill at the center of Siwa.  The best way to describe it is to tell of its demise.  Built of salt-rich slabs, Shali's buildings dissolved during a freak rainstorm.  Most of the roofs are gone, leaving a bizarre maze of melted walls and leaning towers.  There are no fences around Shali.  Locals and tourists are in a race to see who can do the most damage to the remaining structures – climbing the crumbling walls for better views and discarding food waste and cigarette butts on site.  If left unprotected, Shali's prognosis is bleak.  Our friends visited Siwa a few weeks later, during the holiday period at the end of Ramadan, and said that dozens of buses and hundreds of tourists had invaded. 

It would be a stretch to call Siwa beautiful.  The modern town is dusty, dirty, fly-blown and cursed with fetid draughts of sewage, trash and raw meat.    A short climb up to Shali, or any of the other nearby prominences, however, provides fresh air and stunning views.  To the north, a low rampart of sandstone plateaus; to the west and east, shimmering lakes; to the south, the dunes.  A lush green arbor of date palms and olive trees spreads below, fed by thousands of natural springs.  Siwa's dates are the best in Egypt: large, golden, and sweet as honey.    In London, a package of eight might cost two pounds (US$4), but in Siwa, you can eat as many as you like for free.  Dates carpet the ground, floors and roof, thudding to the earth like hailstones. 

Tourists come chiefly to see Shali, but there are a number of interesting sites that can be visited on a donkey cart day-trip from Siwa.  Our driver was Mahmoud, a dark-skinned youth who sulked until we lied and told him that we were journalists.  For the rest of the day he begged to be photographed, confident that his image in a travel magazine would lead to increased business.  First stop was the Mountain of the Dead, a knob of sandstone riddled with tomb entrances.  Some of the tombs were from the Ptolemaic period, and contained impressive paintings of typical Egyptian funerary scenes.  In one of the tombs, we were shocked to find two exceptionally creepy mummies – a young boy, and the torso and head of a very young girl.  Nori wanted to take a picture, but was too spooked. 

After rumbling along a path bashed through the date palms, we arrived at the ruins of the Temple of the Oracle.  Alexander the Great visited here in 331 BCE to consult the Oracle, who confirmed his vainglorious notion that he was a god. (He died a few years later, casting his immortality in doubt.)  The final stop was Cleopatra's Pool, a natural spring enclosed by circular stone walls.  (Despite the name, it is doubtful that the female pharaoh who shared both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony's bed ever visited here.)  The water was exceptionally clear, but its surface was matted with clumps of algae.  I had no intention of swimming until Mahmoud leapt in; I soon followed.  The water was cool, refreshing, and no doubt full of dangerous microorganisms and toxic chemicals.  

Siwa is also a great base for exploring the Western Desert.  Beautiful sand dunes begin just south of the town, and remote springs are accessible by 4WD.  Until recently, tourists could join excursions from Siwa that oasis-hopped all the way to Luxor.  We had hoped to do the same.  Unfortunately, a permit is now required for tourists to use the road between Siwa and the next oasis at Bahariyya.  It takes a week to obtain the permit, which can only be issued in Cairo.  Local tour operators grumbled about the loss of business, but the bureaucrats in Cairo were deaf to their complaints.  It is ironic that a road from Bahariyya to Siwa existed in Roman times, but now modern tourists cannot make the same trip. 

Most tourists watch the sunset from the top of Shali.  Against my better judgment (please see my latest Rambling, “The Sunrise Scam”), we followed a tour group up.  The sunset was nice enough, but I was disappointed to see a tourist trio silhouetted on an even higher pinnacle just beyond Shali.  On our final night, we hired a local boy to take us up there.  I do not remember if the sunset was good, but I definitely enjoyed looking down on the big group of tourists watching the sunrise from Shali – I was as smug as the sunrise watchers I reviled in my Rambling!