There was once a straight road from Cairo to the Siwa Oasis, but the desert had other ideas. Wind and sand wiped away any hopes of such convenient travel and that road is closed off today.
The only way to Siwa now is up to the port of Marsa Matruh, and then down again through the desert to the Siwa Oasis. This route forms a huge inconvenient upside-down U on the map through a small patch of Egypt. It’s a 10-hour trip, half of it through a bumpy desert road, when the distance from Cairo to Siwa is only about 348 miles.
It’s so foggy and rough on this road that I ask to sit in the front of the bus to avoid motion sickness. The bus passes wild camels and colorful diesel trucks, and gas stations in the middle of vast expanses of sand.
This sand goes on for hours and seems endless. But when we finally reach Siwa, the scenery changes abruptly.
The Siwa Oasis is unbelievably green and palm trees crowd even the most narrow side street. I’m later told there are some 300,000 trees total, compared to Siwa’s 33,000 residents. That’s nine palm trees for every resident. So no local ever really buys dates in Siwa. I even spot a small kiosk with a cluster of dates hanging in the entrance for anybody to snack on.
And while cartoons teach us that an oasis is a small pond with some scattered greenery, the Siwa Oasis is enormous (about 50 miles wide) and contains several different villages.
Though it’s taken nearly 10 hours to get here, I realize Siwa’s remoteness is what makes it so special. Because of its isolation, the oasis has developed a unique desert culture and a distinct dialect called Siwi that’s completely foreign to Egyptian visitors. The locals in Siwa are Amazighs, an ethnic group spread out across North and West Africa.
There are no tall apartment blocks or fences, like I’m used to seeing in Cairo. In Siwa most homes are made of white bricks and fences between neighbours are made with dried palm leaves. It’s a relaxed and easy atmosphere that feels different from anywhere I’ve been in Egypt in my 7-plus years here as an expat.
Siwa is 30 miles from the Libyan border. And when I spend the night at a desert camp under the stars, I hear locals singing Libyan and Amazigh songs over the bonfire. I sip on strong tea infused with fresh lemongrass. When I wake up the next morning, there are wildcat footprints around my tent.
When I shop in Siwa’s tiny “downtown,” I find scarves with elaborate embroidery in geometric shapes and circles. Even the cuisine in Siwa, loaded with dates (of course) and olive oil, is entirely different from the Egyptian standards I’m used to.
Temple of Amun
I start with some sightseeing at the Mountain of the Dead, an archaeological site dating back to the Roman presence in Siwa. It features tombs from the 26th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, including the stunning Si-Amun tomb with a brightly-colored sky goddess Nut on the ceiling supporting a star-filled sky in her arms. The tombs weren’t discovered until World War II, when locals took refuge at the mountain during bombings and discovered these ancient treasures by chance.
The Temple of the Oracle of Amun will be familiar to fans of Assassin’s Creed, which uses the site as a setting for part of the video game. But the temple is also famous for Alexander the Great’s visit here in 331 BC. The famous conqueror reportedly came to Siwa to consult the oracle about his legitimacy as king of Egypt. Nobody knows what was said exactly, but the oracle’s reply was apparently positive.
Aside from its rich history, Siwa is also an incredible destination for sports, whether that’s sandboarding down some powder-soft dunes or floating in a salt lake.
The natural landscapes are gorgeous – and sometimes otherworldly.
I spend the rest of my time in Siwa exploring them.
Our desert guide, Youssef Dahman, takes us on safari to the sand dunes. He maneuvers his enormous, well-insured off-roader up an enormous sand dune and then expertly plunges down in a hair-raising dive that’s just the right mix of sheer adrenaline and horror.
Youssef parks at a freshwater lake surrounded by desert and I have a quick swim before heading up the dunes again for some sandboarding. The experience is such pure fun that a friend blasts some music and everyone starts dancing spontaneously. Someone comments that her face hurts from laughing.
Later the safari pulls up alongside a spectacular salt lake, with perfect blue water surrounded by bright white salt, and we sigh a collective “wow.”
After a few days of such bliss, it’s time to head back to Cairo. As the outskirts and satellite cities are approached, the bright lights and billboards are particularly jarring. It feels like I’m returning from another world – from both a literal and metaphorical oasis.
Written by: Dee Nowak
Dee is a Polish-American travel writer and photographer living as an expat in Cairo, Egypt. She loves slow travel and exploring off the beaten path. She’s also a minimalist who writes about how to slow down while living in a big city. Follow her at: vanillapapers.net