Siwa Oasis
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Siwa Oasis

 

Siwa Oasis is an oasis in Egypt, between the Qattara Depression and the Egyptian Sand Sea in the Libyan Desert, nearly 50 km east of the Libyan border, and 560 km from Cairo. Siwa Oasis is one of Egypt's most isolated settlements, with 23,000 people, mostly Berber speakers, who speak a distinct language of the Berber family known as Siwi. Its fame lies primarily in its ancient role as the home to an oracle of Amon, the ruins of which are a popular tourist attraction which gave the oasis its ancient name Ammonium.

Its modern name Siwa. Agriculture is the main activity of modern Siwa, particularly the cultivation of dates and olives. Handicrafts like basketry are also of regional importance. The isolation of the oasis caused the development of a unique culture which was shown in its pottery, costume, styles of embroidery and, most notably, in the silver jewellery worn by women to weddings and important occasions. These pieces were decorated with symbols which related to Siwa’s history and beliefs and attitudes. Tourism has in recent decades become a vital source of income. Much attention has been given to creating hotels that use local materials and play on local styles. Siwa is one of the world’s last remaining pristine oases, home to spectacular natural landscapes, ancient historical ruins and unique cultural traditions. It's a wonderful place to relax, swim and eat some olives. The old town of Siwa dates back to the 13th century and its mud and brick architecture looks gnarled and quite unique.

Siwa Oasis Highlights

AGHURMI VILLAGE

Oracle Temple
In the mostly abandoned village of Aghurmi in the Siwa Oasis is a most famous temple of Amun, now more known as the Temple of the Oracle because of Alexander's visit when he conquered Egypt. It is actually one of two temples dedicated to Amun at Siwa, the other being Umm Ubayda. It sits atop a flat rock, and is a spectacular sight. Built during the 26th Dynasty (though the Oracle's origin is reputed to be much, much older), this temple and its Oracle flourished well into the Greek and Roman periods. There are a number of myths about the founding of this temple. One of them tells of two black priestesses from the Temple of Amun at  Thebes (modern Luxor) who were banished to the desert. In this tell, one of them founded the Temple of Dodona in Greece, where she became the voice of the Oracle. The second, after a time in Libya, came to Siwa where she became the Oracle's sibyl.

Amun Temple (Om Obeda)   
The Temple of Om Obeda was also dedicated to the cult of Amun, and was part of a complex that included the Oracle Temple 250 meters away. Local archaeologists recently uncovered a limestone-paved road connecting the two temples, and the remains of another Greek temple between them. Om Obeda was built during the reign of Nectanebo II (359-341 BCE, 30th Dynasty) and stylistically resembles temples found in the Nile Valley from the same period. Little of the original temple remains today, and most of what we know of the temple’s appearance comes from drawings by early European travelers. Over the years the temple has suffered the abuse of an earthquake in 1811 and various plunderers, including an overzealous police chief who in the 1890s used gunpowder to ransack the remains for building his town hall. All that stands now is an elegantly illustrated wall depicting the governor of Siwa, Wen Amun, kneeling in worship to the god Amun.

Cleopatra Bath
From the Temple of Amun follow the path on to reach Ain Juba. Variously known as “Cleopatra Spring,” “Ain Juba” or “Ain al Hammam,” in ancient times it was known as “The Spring of the Sun.” Herodotus described its bubbling waters in his Histories as boiling hot in the chilly evenings and cool during the heat of the day, and it was considered a wonder by ancients visiting Ammon. In reality, the spring’s waters are a constant 29 C; it’s the changing air temperature and bubbling water that give the impression of boiling water

Tamusi Bath
Being fully visible to anyone passing along the trail, Ain Juba has always been shunned by local women in favour of the more secluded Tamusi Bath where Siwan brides once ritually bathed and removed their  (a silver collar signifying puberty) on the eve of their wedding day. Today, the spring-fed pool is barely less public than the Cleopatra Bath due to the presence of Ali’s Garden, which serves tea and sheesha.



JEBEL DAKHROUR

Gebel Dakhrour lies 4 km east of town. The water table is deep down, so the surrounding area is dry and believed to be quite healthy. This is where people suffering from rheumatism come for curative sand baths, and it’s also where Siwans used to camp out in the summer for a week of eating garlic. Siwa Water, purveyors of bottled spring water, have a bottling factory at Dakrur which employs many young Siwan men. Dakrur is also the home of the Siyaha Festival, held every October during the full moon. Two tombs have been found at Dakrur that date back to Ptolemaic times, one of which bears a Greek inscription.

FATNIS ISLAND AND BIRKET SIWA

For a nice relaxed afternoon, it is hard to find a nicer destination than Fatnis Island. Just take a bike or a donkey cart for a slow ride through the oasis - about 7 km- on winding roads through shady groves and sunny fields, until you reach the oasis island. If you feel hot and sweaty, there is a freshwater spring to cool yourself in at comfortable 28 degrees C. If you prefer to sit and stare into the eye of the spring, you will see a constant stream of silvery bubbles, circling upward through the turquoise water. Do not worry about the brown stuff sometimes on the surface, it is just 100 % natural algae, and not harmful at all. There are two cozy outdoor cafés for refreshments with nice palm wood furniture. You can choose to stay and sit until the sun sets behind sand dunes, or lay down and dream in a hammock between palm trees. Swaying slowly in the soft wind, you will soon forget all about the worries of the world.
Birket Siwa is the visually most attractive of the two salt lakes of Siwa. It starts where the palm groves end, and it is framed by table-top mountains. The largest is the Adrar al-Milal, or White Mountain. Today the lake is receding and it is becoming more and more saline. Much of it has now a surface of thick crust. Birket Siwa is best visited as a part of a trip to Fatnis Island. There are passageways running from the island and out into the lake. This does not give the impression that you cross the lake, there are less and less clear borders between lake and land.

SIDI JAFFAR

The largest massif overlooking the lake is called Sidi Jaffar by Egyptians but was previously designated by British cartographers as Jebel Beida (White Mountain) and is still known to Siwans in their own language as Adrère Amellal. Whatever its name, this area deserves a visit just to see the amazing architecture of its two eco-lodges.

Adrère Amellal and Taziry Eco-Lodges
Beside the western shore of Birket Siwa is the extraordinary Adrère Amellal eco-lodge (access only with written permission from the Shali Lodge in Siwa Town): a vast, fantasy qasr-style hotel built entirely of kharsif, palm logs and salt slabs (used instead of glass). The brainchild of Cairene entrepreneur and environmental engineer Mounir Nematalla, the eco-lodge is designed to save energy and water and recycle waste products on its organic farm. Being the kind of hotel whose guests arrive by helicopter (or private jet into Siwa’s military airport), it can be entirely empty for weeks and then suddenly filled with VIPs, gofers and bodyguards. When not booked out, they don’t mind the odd visitor looking around, providing you get written permission first.
The smaller but otherwise similar Taziry Ecolodge, nearer the Maraki road, doesn’t require prior authorisation for a visit.

BIR WAHED

Perhaps the best excursion Siwa has to offer is Bir Wahed (Well One), amid the outer dunes of the Great Sand Sea, which provides an affordable experience of this magnificent landscape, otherwise only available on deep-desert safaris.
Two salt-water ponds and a freshwater lake (where people usually swim on the way back) are followed by a magical hot pool the size of a large jacuzzi, irrigating a lush palm garden. The well was dug in the 1960s to find oil, but produced sulphurous water (37°C) instead. To soak up to your chest, puffing a sheesha, while the sun sets over the dunes all around, is a fantastic experience. Women may wear bathing costumes without offending any locals.
From here you can pursue a nature trail through limestone outcrops strewn with marine fossils, and enjoy sand-surfing or rolling down the sides of huge knife-edged dunes (sand-boards can be rented in town if the safari operator doesn’t provide them).

MARAKI

Maraki is the collective name for several villages at the western end of the Siwa depression, separated from the main oasis by a rocky desert riddled with over two hundred tombs and caves. Although the area was intensively cultivated from Roman times until the fifteenth century, most of the existing buildings are modern breeze-block structures, as the old mud-brick ones were destroyed by a deluge in 1982, which forced residents to shelter in caves at nearby Balad el-Rum.

Balad el-Rum: the “Tomb of Alexander the Great”
About 20 km west of Siwa lies Maraki, a cluster of small houses surrounded by lush palm and olive gardens. Slicing through Maraki is a limestone ridge riddled with rock tombs – most of them long since emptied – that continues all the way to Libya. There are also a number of archaeological sites currently under excavation, including Bilad al Rum, a necropolis dating between the Ptolomeic and late Roman periods. There also stands a portion of a mudbrick wall, which may or may not be the remnant of an effort to introduce Christianity to the area.
In 1991, Balad el-Rum (Town of the Romans) made international headlines when Liana and Manos Souvaltzi announced their discovery of the “Tomb of Alexander the Great” beneath a ruined Doric temple. Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities initially endorsed the Souvaltzis’ claim, but backed off after the Greeks failed to refute criticism that they’d misread vital inscriptions, revoked their licence and moved all the stones to a depository.

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