Siwa Oasis - Travel Diary (Egypt)Siwa is the very place where Alexander was embraced by the priests Ammon as a son of god. In 1995 archeologist Liana Souvaltzis made headlines worldwide by claiming she had found Alexander's tomb at Siwa. For more travel information check: Alexander's Travel Guide. Photo: Remains of the Ammon Temple (Marcus Pailing). This article was added to pothos.org April 2003.
Coming to the crest of the hill and getting a first view of the sprawling oasis of Siwa must be one of the greatest moments I have experienced. Even though we had been travelling in a comfortable, air-conditioned coach, covering in about four hours from Mersa Matrouh, what took Alexander and the Macedonians over eight difficult days, the desert had been so featureless that the sudden appearance of the forest of date palms and olive trees, and the two huge lakes of the oasis, was both a revelation and a relief.
On the outskirts of the modern town, above which tower the pinnacles of the ruined medieval town of Shali, is Gebel Al-Mawta, the Mountain of the Dead. In Ptolemaic and Roman times the hill was turned into a necropolis, the locals digging a multitude of tombs out of the rock. The entire area looks like a craggy dovecote, the bright sand of the hill dotted with dark holes where the tomb stones were removed by locals seeking shelter from Italian bombing during World War II. Most of the tombs are now empty, the bones of their occupants chucked down the steep northern side of the hill – you can see pieces of femur sticking out from the sand, and round pieces of skulls looking at first like round stones, until a closer look reveals their true nature. One tomb still contains the remains of its crudely mummified inhabitants, left where they were by the excavators because they were too badly damaged to move. And some tomb paintings survive, and the ‘caretaker’ will let you in to the family tomb of Si-Amun, a Greek who had his final resting place decorated to make him look like an Egyptian, depicting pharaonic rites – the man was probably not taking any chances with the afterlife.
In the afternoon of our first day in Siwa, after checking into the Cleopatra Hotel (I doubt the queen would have lowered herself to staying there, though), we went for an excellent, al fresco lunch in a local restaurant. The food is slightly different from what we had eaten in Cairo and Mersa, as the Siwans are Berber rather than Egyptian. But the basic ingredients are the same: that is, if you don’t like lamb or chicken, then bread and a small variety of vegetables are going to be your staple diet. The only downside was the flies, which appear in swarms all over the oasis. After a while – and I never thought I would say this – you begin to ignore the insects crawling over your face and arms, because it is such a wasted effort trying to flick them away.
After lunch we took a cycling tour around the oasis. This, I have to say, was an excellent way of getting around, although I did find that riding through sand is a skill that required fast learning. Most of the tracks were fine, but any and every rut gets filled very quickly and these are difficult to spot at times.
Our first stop was the Temple of the Oracle, the fulfilment of my dreams! It was here that Alexander questioned the oracle of Ammon and, perhaps, was proclaimed son of the god. Little remains apart from the basic structure of the temple, although a few traces of hieroglyphic inscriptions can still be seen on the walls of the inner sanctum. Walking over the threshold into the hypostyle, knowing that Alexander had walked the same path before me, was both exhilarating and strange; and it was easy to conjure up images of the omphalos stone that served as the idol of the god, held by the priests in its boat, moving around the chamber in response to Ammon’s directions…
But the fantastic views from the temple should not be ignored, either: on one side the expanse of Lake Zeitan, where the Siwans of Alexander’s day gathered salt to send to the priests at Memphis; and on the other the sprawling green of the oasis, beyond the edges of which the verdure gives way to the harsh gold of the surrounding desert, rising and falling in hills and dunes for miles around. A bit further along the road are the paltry remains of the Temple of Amun, built during the reign of Nectanebo II. All that remains is a very short stretch of wall, covered in inscriptions, but it is strangely fascinating, nonetheless – I could not help thinking of Ozymandias for, like the remnants of the colossal statue of Rameses II, one could only try to imagine the size and splendour that the temple once represented.
Much of what is written about Siwa focuses on the springs, the most famous of which is probably Cleopatra’s Bath. This, I have to say, was a major disappointment. Much smaller than I had been led to believe, it was dirty, run-down, and particularly uninviting. Some members of my tour group did bathe, and gave glowing reports, but I was not tempted in the slightest. A cup of tea and a relaxing sit out in the mid-afternoon sun was quite enough for this Englishman!
The following day I went up to the ruins of medieval Shali, which towers over the squat buildings of the modern town. Of course, there are no safety rails, no warning signs, or other staples of fragile ruins that would hamper an investigation of any such site in Europe; which meant that it was at the same time more exciting and more dangerous, to clamber among the walls – watching the ground beneath one’s feet constantly! The views were tremendous, probably better than those from the Temple of the Oracle, in fact.
If you go to Siwa, you must take the opportunity to go out on a desert safari. It is a bit of a tourist trap, as all the tours end up at another spring (about an hour and a half’s drive through the desert from Siwa itself), where a family of Berbers make a rather good living from providing lunch to the foreigners. The highlight is the dune driving that follows, which takes in the Fossil Ocean, a vast depression whose floor is, literally, covered in fossils of prehistoric marine creatures. Just to see such things in the middle of the desert was almost beyond imagining.
I was in Siwa for, regrettably, only a day and a half. I suspect that, in reality, there is not an awful lot more to see there, although I could have spent much more time at the sights I did see. We left after that short day and a half – embarking on an eight-hour coach journey to Alexandria… which is a different story!
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