Exploring Egypt: The fascinating face of Siwa Oasis

Doaa El-Bey, Thursday 27 Oct 2016

I was very lucky that my six-day trip to Siwa Oasis coincided with the union celebration in Dakrour Mountain

Siwa Oasis
The view from Adrere Amalala eco lodge. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)

I would never have believed that after travelling more than 300 kilometres through the desert—from Marsa Matrouh, where we spent one night on our journey from Cairo—I would find such a rich culture in Siwa.

Some 270,000 people—belonging to eleven tribes, ruled by 12 Sheikhs—live in Siwa. Siwans have lived in this remote and isolated area for hundreds of years, which is why they tend to have their own traditions.

They speak Berber or Amazigh—an unwritten language shared by other tribes in North Africa, to which Siwans bring a unique accent. Arabic, however, is spoken and used in public education.

Siwa Oasis
Siwan girls having fun on Union celebration day. (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)

Siwans wear different clothes; ladies don exquisitely embroidered dresses, especially in weddings. The younger the lady, the more decoration she adopts in her dress.

The oasis is rich in craft traditions like pottery, baskets and jewelry. They use five main colours in their crafts: red, green, orange, yellow and black, which symbolise the fruit of the date tree at different stages of maturity.

Siwans depend on dates and olives for their livelihood. Huge patches of palm and olive trees are everywhere in Siwa. They use both in various ways, from decorating their houses with palm to making furniture with the trunks of olive trees and making date jam and paste, pickled olives and, strangely enough, olive jam, which tastes surprisingly pleasant.

Special Siwa dishes include tagella enteeny and enkota, both made with dates and olive oil, of course.

Education is very important for Siwans, including girls who are allowed to attend university if they want. Illiteracy among youth ages 15 to 35 does not exceed 5%.

"Siwa is a Utopia –nearly, which has a very special way of life. We don’t have a court. The tribal rules govern us. Social support in weddings and funerals is another rule that governs us. Perhaps the union feast is the best example for that," relayed Omran Jeery, our trip guide.

Siwa Oasis
Siwans cooking fatta for union celebrations in Siwa Oasis (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)

Union celebration, or “the feast of peace”

“The Dakrour Mountain union celebration commemorated the unity of east and west Siwa after decades of feudal fighting over land and water. Nowadays, they gather every year in the mountain to share a meal of fatta, sing, dance and pray," said Ahmed, a minibus driver.

Dakrour Mountain witnesses the unity celebration or the 'feast of peace' on three full-moon nights either in October or November. This year’s celebration was held in October.

The day before the feast, tens of men go to Dakrour Mountain to prepare for the feast. All houses deliver their share of traditional dry bread -megardal- to the mountain. On the first day, everyone prepares their three day accommodation of palm tree huts; many animals are slaughtered including two or three camels. The meat is cut and cooked with rice and pieces of bread and served on large traditional platters.

Men and unmarried women are allowed to attend the festival. Girls must go home before dawn and men can sleepover in the Dakrour area. Married women are not allowed to participate but they gather in their houses and share a meal as well.

"It is also a chance for young women and men to see each other and choose their future spouses," said Jeery.

Besides, he added, Sufi religious rituals and prayers continue day and night throughout the three days.

Siwa Oasis
The Fortress of Shali-Siwa Oasis (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)

The Fortress of Shali

The 12th-centry Fortress of Shali is built from karshif, the local soil which is made up of salt, fine sand and clay and is made hard by water and the sun.

Shali is the name the inhabitants of Siwa gave to their town.

In historical times, Siwans used to hide from their enemies inside the fortress's tunnels, and would use the well inside the fortress to drink from. The well is still there today, but it is nearly dry.

While the sun made the karshif stronger, rain has a negative effect on it. The heavy rain caused a partial destruction of the fortress in 1928 and forced its inhabitants to abandon it.

Al-Masjid Al-Ateek, or the fortress mosque, was built 500 years ago and is still used for prayers nowadays. Special places for ablution were built inside the fortress.

The Siwan Museum, or El-Beit El-Siwi

The Siwan Museum is located in a traditionally built two storey Siwan home. The first floor hosts exhibits, while the second contains rooms that paint a picture of the traditional Siwan lifestyle, displaying dresses, pottery, jewelry, cooking utensils and baskets. Unfortunately, the museum is in rather poor condition and in need of renovation.

Siwa Oasis
Siwa Oasis (Doaa Elbey)Adrere Amellal

Adrere Amellal

Adrere Amellal is a desert eco-lodge nestled into a mountainside, overlooking a crystal clear lake. It is a place for romantic and nature loving visitors.

Its unique primitiveness imparted a magic atmosphere I have not found in any other hotel in the world.

Adrere Amellal is fully furnished with natural material: the doors from the trunks of olive and palm trees, the furniture from salt and the candles from natural wax. Every room is unique and an example of how natural things can provide a special and rather cozy atmosphere. The lodge is not connected to electricity and is lit only by candles.

I imagine it would have been even more magnificent at night, with the candlelight, serenity of the desert, the reflection of the stars on the lake and the fascination of the mountain.

It’s little wonder that Prince Charles chose the lodge when he visited Egypt a few years ago, staying in the highest room—indeed a room with a view.

This hotel is perfect but very pricey. A room here would cost at least 450 USD a night.

Siwa Oasis
Taking a dip in Cleopatra Spring is one of the things one can do in Siwa Oasis (Photo: Doaa El-Bey)

Getting there

Taking a break in Marsa Matrouh on our way to and from Siwa provided us with a welcome rest to break up the 800 km journey from Cairo, and a chance to enjoy the serene sea and buy the special white seeds (Leb Abyad) of Marsa Matrouh. Nevertheless, the journey is long, and we had to stop twice on our way to Marsa Matrouh and once on our way to Siwa.

Although they charge one pound for using the toilets in some of the rest houses along the way, the state of the toilets in most of them was appalling!

Tip: While being mindful of your health, try to avoid drinking too much on the journey.

Things you can do only in Siwa

There are a few things that you can only do in Siwa, like spending an exciting day on a desert safari or taking a dip in the cold and hot water springs, both found in the middle of the desert and surrounded by palm trees. Safari ends in style, watching the sun set in the desert while drinking strong Siwan tea with lemon grass or cinnamon.

You can feel the weightlessness and freedom of swimming in salt lakes, from which salt is also extracted, or bring home crystals of salt, said to absorb negative energy when kept in the home.

A dip in one of the 200 or more natural sulphur springs including Fatnas or Cleopatra Springs is traditional. Take note, however, that Cleopatra never actually visited the spring. Rumor has it that a café owner near the spring gifted the name to attract more visitors. It is said that brides should come to the spring to wash their faces, for good fortune in marriage. At the end of the day you can watch the sun set over one of the crystal clear lakes and feed the fish. Believe it or not, fish like dates as well!

Last but not least, you must pay a visit to the market for handmade souvenirs, dates and other Siwan products.

Don’t forget to try the olive jam…

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