Saturday, December 20, 2008

Siwa Oasis Part 1

For the long Thanksgiving weekend, my fellow interns and I decided to get away from the hustle and bustle of Cairo. Having already celebrated Turkey Day, we boarded an 11-hour overnight public bus to the Siwa Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert.

Siwa is home to about 25,000 people, and is incredibly isolated from everything else in Egypt. I was skeptical about the bus ride – my last overnight journeys of equal length (flights from NYC to Buenos Aires and Cairo, and the bus ride to Copiapo, Chile) resulted in my zombification for the next 24 hours – but on this one I think I slept for nearly seven hours. The only break in my sleep was a 3 AM bathroom break by the side of the road in the middle of the desert, and the whole time I was praying the bus would not leave me stranded.

The oasis was still stretching and yawning as we pulled into the bus station around 7 AM, where bleary-eyed local men were lined up to send off the men going on the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca). We dropped our stuff off at the basic-but-comfortable hotel and set off sightseeing. The first stop was the Mountain of the Dead, which looks cool from the satellite view in Google maps. I made a map of my trip, which you can see below.

View Larger Map

The hill is covered in now-excavated rock tombs, which were also used by the Siwans as shelter when the Italians bombed the oasis during World War II.


The top of the “mountain” provided a great panoramic view of the oasis. You can see from here where the palm trees suddenly end and it becomes barren desert for hundreds of miles.

The funniest thing about this excursion was the class of 15-year-old Egyptian girls from Marsa Matruh (northwestern Egypt) on a field trip. They don’t see many foreigners, so they were very excited to run into us. At first they were keeping their distance, giggling and pointing at us, but within 15 minutes they were coming up and unabashedly snapping pictures of us with their camera phones. Eventually the ones who spoke decent English came over to chitchat.

The rock tombs and part of the group from Marsa Matruh

It was funny mainly because Egyptian girls and women are highly unlikely to interact with foreigners, but every once in a while a situation like this comes along, a kind of confidence in numbers kicks in and they break societal norms. We were just surprised their male teachers/chaperons weren’t doing more to restrain them.

The next stop on our sightseeing adventure was the Temple of the Oracle. We decided to take the most direct route there, straight through the palm grove. Our fearless navigator had a small GPS unit so we knew the general direction in which we needed to go. Nevertheless, it was a bit like that one episode of “Lost” that I watched at Beeler, except without all the houses, guns, picture frames, and mysteries underground smoke monsters (why do they have houses and picture frames on a deserted island?).

After bumbling around for 15 minutes, we ran across an old Siwan man picking dates, who was more than happy to help us find our way out on the other side. This passage through the grove, while successful, gave us a false confidence in our navigational skills. This fact would prove disastrous later on. That, ladies and gentleman, is called foreshadowing!

The orange stems of the dates from the date palms - Siwa is famous for having arguably the best dates in the world!

Alexander the Great crossed the desert in 331 BC to get to this temple to ask the Oracle if he was the son of Zeus.

The next stop was the lone remaining wall of the Temple of Umm Ubayd.
The Siwan governor at the end of the 19th century apparently didn’t care much about the history of the place – he bombed the temple because he needed building materials!

This group of Siwan children was happy to see us as well

By this time, it was the middle of the day, and we were quite hot from wandering around Siwa, so it was a relief to reach Cleopatra’s Spring.
Around since Pharaonic times, the spring was expanded in 1920 when the higher walls were built. We went for a swim and ate delicious calzone-type sandwiches at the little mellow restaurant next to it.

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Bohus said...

looks awesome!! great photos...i also plan to visit Siwa soon..btw do you know the departure times of the buses from Cairo that you took? i've heard that no direct connections to Siwa exist, but apparently they do...

Jeff said...


I believe there is an overnight bus direct to Siwa every Wednesday night from Turgoman station