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Siwa: An odyssey of culture and sand

Wilfred Jennings-Bramly, who journeyed to Siwa in 1896, wrote that the oasis “cannot be said to have fallen from its high estate…only it has stood still while the world went on,” which might be the most honest description of the quiet, sleepy place that lies in the heart of the great Egyptian Sand Sea.

This oasis can easily be considered a center of Egypt’s backwaters, as it still holds the features of a small and anachronistic village. With its traditions and costumes still intact, visitors feel a little as if they are taking a trip back in history to an era they would never have dreamed of witnessing first hand.

While Jennings-Bramly and his entourage traveled to the oasis by horseback on a journey that might have for weeks–starting from Farfra, an oasis closer to Cairo–my friends and I took the West Delta bus that passes through the desert via a relatively newly-opened road (operating only since the 1980s) and allows for easier transportation to the famous spot.

We suffered on the ride, however, as the cold desert atmosphere made our nightly travel a odyssey we could not anticipate. We asked for the air-conditioning to be turned off during our trip, but the bus driver refused on the grounds that “I’ll fall asleep if the heat is turned on.”

But our adventures in Siwa did not end at staying alive in a fridge-like bus. Around the calm oasis, we rented bikes for just LE15 a day, and took them for a couple of hours of rides until we reached the lake of Siwa, located on the east side of the oasis, before heading to visit the oracle temple of Amun.

Although the oasis is known to have been settled since the 10th millennium BC, the earliest evidence of significant culture goes back to the visit of Alexander the Great, who reached the oasis prior to his campaign of conquest in Persia. The leader, according to the lore, followed birds across the desert until he reached the temple of Amun, where he was confirmed to be a divine personage and the legitimate Pharaoh of Egypt.

The temple, however, was destroyed at an undetermined point in time, as the locals wanted to use its stones to rebuild their village. Some of the temple’s walls are still standing among old Siwan houses made of salt and mud, which were ruined–and melted–when a rainy storm hit the oasis.

The bike ride took us finally to Cleopatra’s Bath, one of many fresh water springs around the oasis. We enjoyed some swimming in the round-shaped spring and waited for hours for our food in one of the restaurants. The service was bad, but the spot wonderful with palm trees and beautiful weather.

After couple of days of relaxing in our hotel, the Desert Rose, located on the outskirts of the oasis, we decided to take an adventure into the desert, which, by far, was the highlight of our trip.

We left the hotel at around five in the morning, which was an exception–as we had usually tried for hours in vain to book cars to bring us from the hotel to downtown Siwa–and headed to the heart of the desert in 4X4s, claiming one of the sand dunes to capture the best view of the rising sun. It was a picture-perfect morning and we enjoyed gazing at the endless plain of sloping dunes around us.

Our next stop was Bir Wahid, a hot spring located in the heart of a small oasis inhabited by small grayish foxes, where you can dip in the hot spring, allowing the water to sanitize your skin. Another spring to visit is the fish-inhabited lake of cold water al-Ain al-Barda (the Cold Spring, literally), where it's possible to swim in the extremely chilling water.

Also open to discovery are the marine fossils embedded in the sand and rock–leftovers from the Tethys Sea which some 40-50 million years ago reached far south of the existing Mediterranean.

Finally, an exhilarating slide on a sandboard will leave you breathless while looking up to the high sandy slope you just dropped down from. If you forget your sandboard, fear not, as you can ask the driver to take you on a car-sliding trip, where the cars jump, almost vertically, off the sand dunes.

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