The Great Sand Sea of Siwa, to an Ancient Oasis
By Sky Sutton
The Great Sand Sea is a vast area of dunes about the size of England between western Egypt and eastern Libya. Siwa is inside the eastern part of this Sea. It’s a mesmerizing place. Many visitors travel out onto these hypnotic dunes for sand-sledding, fossil hunting, dune drives or to soak in the isolated spring far out in the wilds.
The Ancients of the Oasis
The Temple of the Oracle is a modest but powerful site. As my feet crunch down on the gravel all I can think is: “Alexander-the-freakin’-Great walked here!”
It’s a clever building designed with a hidden room to assist the oracle with communications between mortals and The Divine. The temple was commissioned by Pharaoh Amasis sometime between 570-526 BC. No doubt it was built on an older temple. Some say Alexander the Great added a few touches to the structure after his visit with the Oracle in 331 BC.
The only other visitors are two very interesting men: Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Dumairy, archeologist and Director of Antiquities in Siwa, and a charming newspaper editor whose name got smudged in my notes.
Americans in Egypt
We talk about Americans visiting Egypt. The newspaperman is happy to see us. We’re a sign that tourism is improving. Egypt thrives when her tourism thrives. Nicole and I assure him that we will sing Egypt’s praises when we get home.
“He wrote the book you just bought,” Volare tells me, nodding toward the archeologist. My eyes go wide. Dr. al-Dumairy is kind enough to sign the history book I bought outside of the temple. He writes his name in English, Siwi and Arabic.
Very near the Temple of the Oracle is Umm Ubayda, The Temple of Ammun. This place has a history that brings all the big names to the table: Amun, Amun-Ra, Jupiter and Zeus. Little remains of this house of worship save for “cellar holes” in the ground and a few hefty chunks of stone.
One small portion of the carved wall still stands; one soldier still fighting to reminds modern minds of what once stood here.
There are many theories of how the Temple of Ammun and the Temple of the Oracle were connected. There may be a third temple between them. There may be a wide walkway connecting them.
There may be tunnels connecting them. There’s still a great deal to be learned in this compound of holy places.
Less than a mile north of town is Jabal Mawta, the Mountain of the Dead. This distinctly shaped mountain has been a burial ground for centuries and more than once a place of refuge for the living during rainstorms or wars.
There are many other, less-known archeological sites to visit in and around Siwa. New discoveries are still being made.
The waters of Siwa are legendary for their healing qualities. I see this with my own eyes. My traveling partner, Nicole, suffers from painful psoriasis. The springs and lakes offer her miraculous relief.
Her favorite spring is called Breezy. It’s near Lake Siwa, down the end of a dirt road. If you can find it don’t let the modest surroundings fool you: this water is special. Nicole, usually not a religious person, calls it “holy water”.
“After sitting in there for thirty minutes I’m a believer,” she tells me, ”I’m convinced the algae has something to do with the magic.”
There are a couple of hundred springs scattered across the oasis. Locals and tourists alike take advantage of the waters. The most well-known spring is Cleopatra’s Bath (though no one can prove she ever visited.) This popular spring is crystal clear and deep.
Hot and Cold Springs
Some of the springs are hot and some cold. They each have different minerals they’re known for. They’re at hotels, down back roads, on farms, at cafes and other locations.
Our usual late-night spot while we’re in Siwa is the Almaza spring (20 LE/ 1.15 USD cover charge) on the west side of the oasis near Jabal Dakrur. The Almaza is a beautiful half-moon shaped hot spring beside a cushion-lined café and cozy fire pits. It’s the perfect place to relax in warm waters sipping tea under the stars.
For me, healing comes in the form of being free of pain. For years a mysterious ailment has tortured my joints and muscles.
Not once do my pains manifest while I’m in the oasis. I don’t soak in as much water as Nicole so the relief has another source. There’s something in Siwa that has the power to soothe and restore. I’ve felt it. It’s real.
If you can take the heat you can be buried in sand up to your chin with a little tent over your head to protect you from the sun. Many people find this effective for what ails them.
Packing for Siwa
Be mindful when packing your swimsuit for pools, springs or lakes. There may be chances to wear a basic one-piece or even a playful two-piece but be ready to wear something far more modest. Lightweight pants or long shorts and a shoulder/bust covering top are the best bet for some swimming areas.
Make sure to put your suit on under your clothes before you head out: not all springs have a changing room.
As with all Muslim lands, modesty is best. Avoid wearing anything above the knee, off the shoulder or bosom revealing. Cover your hair if you like but in Siwa, no one bats an eye if you don’t.
Other items for a Siwa-bound suitcase:
- Any medication you may need (in original container).
- Good hair conditioner. The salt and minerals in the water can really dry hair out.
- Lightweight towel
- Bug repellent
- After-bite care
- Folding fan to fend off the occasional squadron of flies
- Feminine care products
- Toilet paper
- Electric outlet converter
Shopping in Siwa
About four shops down from Abdu’s restaurant there’s a sweet souvenir shop owned by Salleh. This man knows his rocks.
“I’ll show you something special,” he tells me, “These are treasures.” He pulls a blue velvet bag from the shelf. Out of the bag come small, lovely items: fossils, stones, old things found in the sands. A small champagne colored rock catches my eye.
“Silica,” says Salleh as I hold the rock up to the light to see the inclusions. He pronounces it “silka”. I know it as desert glass and I’ve been hoping I’d find some here. The price is good. I pay and put the treasure in my pocket.
The shopping in Siwa is simple. No haggling is necessary. The prices are reasonable and the shopkeepers agreeable. It’s a much more relaxing activity than in other parts of Egypt. Leave room in your suitcase for goodies.
I brought home a colorful, shaggy rug (50 LE/2.75USD), amazing almond-stuffed dates (10LE/.56USD), locally made soaps, phenomenal olive oil, blocks of Siwa salt (5 LE/ .28 USD), small bottles of perfume (10 LE/.56 USD), and a hooded robe (550 LE/ 31 USD).
I made a pocket-sized cheat-sheet for currency conversion and carry a small calculator to show numbers to shopkeepers. Egyptian merchants might not understand the word “thirteen” but they know how much “13” is.
There’s a place called Rayan Shop next to Ana Maria restaurant near the mosque. They have wonderful baskets and other colorful Siwan items. The whole shop is full of bright, beautiful creations.
The shops outside the front door of the Albabenshal have a delightful array of treats and keffiyehs for the happy shopper. Enjoy!
The smugglers have a good game going with fake Cleopatra cigarettes. Goodness knows what they put in them but it’s not tobacco. I suspect some kind of flavored sawdust.
It’s easy to recognize which pack is which. The real ones are in Arabic. The fake ones are in English.
We greatly prefer our American brands. When forced to the corner store to supplement our dwindling supplies, Nicole, ever the thrifty Yankee, opts for (authentic) Cleopatra (25 LE/1.40 USD). I indulge myself with Dunhill (50 LE/2.75USD).
It breaks our hearts to leave Siwa. We stay for as long as we can.
Our driver, procured for us by our friend Volare, is charming and punctual. His car is clean and well maintained. The trip costs $160 USD. It’s worth every penny. Back in Cairo, we get lost for a little while. Get used to getting lost. It happens a lot in and around Cairo. Eventually, victory is ours: we find our hotel. We wave goodbye to our driver and drag our suitcases to our room.
Someplace in Heliopolis, sitting at the bar in a rooftop restaurant, we lift our drinks. A whiskey on the rocks clinks against a bottle of beer. We reached and explored the ancient oasis of Siwa. We saw and were seen. Mission accomplished. Brava!
I recommend Siwa to anyone with a healthy sense of adventure. Siwa welcomes and accommodates all types of travelers. Wander town. Meet folks. Dip in the waters. Explore dunes. Feel the healing. Touch history. See Siwa.
Websites for Siwa
For general information: www.siwaoasis.com
The Date Festival: siwafestival.com (this page is in Arabic.) There’s also a Facebook page for the festival.
Taziry Ecovillages: https://taziry.com/
Sky Sutton is an American historian living in western Massachusetts. She is the author of the cult classic book “Daddy Moonshine-The Story of Marvin ‘Popcorn’ Sutton.” Sutton is a spitfire who loves to see the world, collect small spoons and try new desserts.