Siwa salt treasure

Mahmoud Bakr , Friday 10 May 2024

Mahmoud Bakr captures the multifaceted blessings bestowed upon Siwa Oasis by its salt lakes.

salt lakes
salt lakes

 

Siwa’s salt lakes compose a breathtaking masterpiece, blending the harmony of their formation with the vivid palette of their hues. The turquoise waters of the lakes intermingle with the crystal white salt, creating a mesmerising spectacle that is nothing short of a natural marvel. These ethereal landscapes serve as a divine treasure trove, ripe for exploration, investment, and the stimulation of tourism.

Siwa Oasis boasts an impressive array of 15 salt lakes. Among these, five stand as majestic giants while the remainder exude their own unique charm as smaller counterparts. Accessing this wondrous sanctuary is a journey in itself, as winding roads weave through lush palm groves, transporting travellers to a realm that feels untouched by time. 

It’s akin to stepping into a primordial world or finding oneself amidst a verdant forest where every scene is inherently picturesque. The rugged paths, mostly composed of earthen trails, heighten the sense of adventure, immersing visitors in an experience far removed from the hustle and bustle of urban life, offering respite from its clamour and congestion.

Ibrahim Baghi, director of the Siwa Reserve, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Siwa’s salt lakes, located 30 km east of the oasis, are “premier destinations for skin ailment recovery and spiritual rejuvenation. The salt in the lakes also expels negative energy from the body.”

One colleague who joined the visit descended into a salt lake, driven by the promise of its reputed healing properties. 

“I’ve heard that immersing oneself in the lake can work wonders for healing various ailments, including skin conditions and sinus issues,” a visitor to one of the lakes said. “The moment I dipped into the lake’s waters, I experienced an overwhelming sense of tranquility and relaxation.” He went on to describe the landscape surrounding the salt lakes, which is replete with a multitude of basin formations sculpted by nature, adorned with crystalline salt mountains.

“There’s an undeniable allure to the raw beauty of the salt lakes. The sight of the salt mountains towering over the turquoise waters is truly mesmerising, drawing you in for a swim where buoyancy seems to defy depth. It’s almost surreal — like floating effortlessly atop a bed of white ice that never breaks,” said another visitor.

Recounting the sensation of warm ice beneath her feet, its rough texture mingling with the healing scent of iodine that permeates the air, she mused: “In the midst of this natural wonder, the dazzling turquoise hue of the lake beckons you to surrender yourself to its embrace.” 

This visitor was an environmental expert. She explained to the Weekly that the salt lakes contain “40 elements essential for the body’s well-being. The salt lakes were formed throughout hundreds of years by the gradual accumulation of rainwater and groundwater in desert depressions.”

She added that the concentration of salt in the lake intensifies over time as water flows in, evaporates, and leaves behind dissolved salts. “This natural cycle of evaporation and concentration renders salt lakes an ideal environment for salt production.”

This visitor was a member of an official delegation touring Siwa as part of a broader nationwide tour for journalists to raise people’s awareness about the importance of nature reserves. The visit was part of a protocol signed between the Ministry of Environment, under the auspices of Minister Yasmine Fouad, and the Environment and Development Writers Society.

The delegation included Mohamed Mustafa, director of the Planning and Training Department at the Ministry of Environment, and Essam Al-Saadawi, an environmental researcher at the ministry.

On the salt lakes as a valuable resource, director Baghi said “the vast quantities of salt crystals are used in various industries, from glassmaking and asphalt production to the manufacturing of construction materials and lighting fixtures, a pivotal commodity for trade in Siwa.”

Abdel-Rahman, a local attendant catering to visitors in the lakes area, referred to the growing popularity of the salt lakes as a destination for rejuvenation and recreational swimming among local and international tourists. 

“In recent years, these lakes have garnered attention from renowned figures worldwide, particularly during the winter season. During the summer, however, tourists visit Siwa to be buried in its sands, known for their healing properties,” he told the Weekly.

“The journey from downtown Siwa to the lakes typically spans between 90 and 120 minutes via tricycle, with a fare of LE150 for a one-way trip. The lakes, which open from 8.30am to 5.30pm, are more crowded Thursday through Sunday,” he noted.

The largest salt workshop in Siwa was established in the 1990s by Eissa Abdallah Moussa, 60. “My foray into salt craft was sparked by a chance encounter during my late 20s, when I was working as a carpenter. I was preparing a meal with friends and we didn’t have salt. I fetched a handful of salt from Lake Dahibah, leaving another handful exposed to the sun overnight. The following day, I was surprised to find the salt had solidified, assuming the shape of the mould in which it lay. “Intrigued by this result, I experimented further, discovering that prolonged exposure to sunlight rendered the salt transparent.”

Thus began Moussa’s journey of harnessing the sun’s heat to craft intricate forms from salt. Initially, it was a mere pastime, with him fashioning these creations, such as lighting fixtures, as tokens for his friends.

“The turning point came in 2009 when a Polish tourist, a doctor, stumbled upon my creations and liked them. He taught me about the properties of raw salt and its myriad benefits, such as purifying the air, soothing the nerves, and aiding in the treatment of ailments such as rheumatism. He gave me research papers on the therapeutic properties of salt and iodine, from which I learned about their holistic benefits, from respiratory relief to fostering a sense of calm and relaxation,” Moussa continued.

“I began thinking bigger, making rooms and beds entirely from salt,” he added.

Moussa’s salt sculptures, once confined to his workshop shelves, have blossomed into sought-after artisanal treasures capturing the attention of foreign and local tourists. They became a hallmark of Siwa’s artisanal scene and many Siwa residents learned the craft from Moussa and are now making a livelihood crafting and selling salt sculptures. 

The pioneering artist Moussa is also proud to have transferred the love of this craft to his sons and daughters. Today, salt crafting has emerged as a thriving industry in the oasis, alongside traditional activities such as date and olive cultivation.

Explaining the process of extracting crystal salt blocks, Moussa said that “workers collect salt from the lake before subjecting it to the sun for two weeks to solidify. Subsequently, the salt undergoes a purification process known as ‘sanding’ where impurities are removed.”

He recounted: “In September 2011, I was excavating salt using heavy machinery, which led people to think I was searching for artefacts. My efforts paid off, however, when a merchant asked me to sell him a million tons of salt.”

Moussa elaborated on the subsequent stages of salt processing, detailing how the moulded salt blocks are cut into pieces of varying sizes tailored to their intended use. Workers then empty the moulds and carve them into lampshades and ornamental shapes. “Each piece demands one to two hours of craftsmanship to achieve its final form,” he said.

“My products have found acclaim beyond Siwa’s borders, with many products exported to North Africa. From salt caves and rooms to walls and beds, some of these date back to 2012,” he said.

“A salt bed measuring 140cm by 20cm is sold for LE2,000. I have also sold over 100 salt caves utilised as treatment centres,” Moussa pointed out.

Following an encounter with an energy specialist who explained to Moussa the benefits of wood energy for bones, he began crafting wooden products intricately inlaid with salt to offer an all-natural holistic approach to well-being.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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