Relaxing on a sumptuous couch overlooking Cleopatra’s pool in the Siwa Oasis, sipping tea and eating fresh dates, I wondered what refreshments Cleopatra may have taken. Perhaps she drank wine, in which she had dissolved a pearl. Figs, with or without an asp.
Palms were reflected in the pool, people were strolling around the lake, a family went past in their donkey drawn cart and my tea glass was constantly refilled. People were milling around mud walled, flat roofed thatched buildings – restaurants – Tanta Waa, a juice bar and restaurant, and Cleopatra’s restaurant.
Cleopatra apparently never bathed here. There is no evidence to suggest that she was ever in Siwa.
Time to get off the sumptuous couch. The vehicles have arrived to take us out into the desert. They are less than pristine. There are no passenger seat belts. My seat back was permanently reclined. The vehicle also contained a seat, the back of which fell onto the lap of the passenger behind. This malfunction didn’t make itself evident until the vehicle was on a steep trajectory up a sand dune.
None of that mattered though. What mattered was the beauty of the desert, the sight of a hot spring in a little oasis, a cold lake containing small fish and surrounded by date palms, a bed of fossilised shells, the adrenaline rush of dune bashing and the silence and peace whilst watching the sunset and the almost imperceptible movement of the sand as the wind rippled the dune surface.
We approach our first mountain of sand. It does not seem possible that a vehicle could drive up it. Our vehicle comes to a standstill. Suddenly the driver slams into first gear, and the vehicle lurches forward. We are off up the sand mountain, radio blaring out into the empty desert. Knuckles white from gripping the window frame in a futile attempt to remain upright, I am sure that we will come to grief, the incline is so steep. The final part of the climb has us slipping and sliding and moving very slowly. Just as it felt as though we would be going down the sand dune backwards, we crawled over the crest of the dune and came to a halt.
Golden brown dunes rippling towards the horizon, devoid of vegetation and habitation, rolled on as far as the eye could see.
Looking down over the other side of our sand dune , I felt a twinge of fear. Were we really going down there? There must be an easier way. Less steep surely.
No time allowed for the fear to get out of hand, we are off down the sand dune. Eyes tight shut, trying not to slam against the seat in front, I can hear a scream, then another. Was it me? Was it someone else? Opening one eye, then the other I began to enjoy the sensation of driving fast in a vehicle which felt almost perpendicular. My fear was overcome. Bring on the next sand dune.
The shells fossilised in the floor of the desert looked familiar. There were several varieties of fan shaped shells, the larger of which looked like scallop shells. There were shells which could have been oysters, pipies and cockles. There were smooth shells which had the distinct shape of a star. It is so far from the sea that it is impossible to imagine this area was once the bed of the ocean.
Sitting on a sand dune in complete silence, looking towards Libya, we watch the sky change colour from blue to yellow and then orange before the it slipped over the horizon. A few more moments of silence before the drive back to Siwa in gathering darkness.
Alexander the Great visited the Siwa Oasis in 332 BC to consult the Oracle of Amun. Hannibal also visited, as did Strabo who apparently found the Oracle in decline. Consulting an Oracle had never been a high priority of mine, but on the climb up to the Temple, I idly speculated whether an Oracle would have any advice for me. Which deity would be speaking through the Oracle? Would there be prophesies. Although every inch of the remains of the Temple were explored, there was no sign of the Oracle.
Riding a bicycle around Siwa presented some challenges. There were no adult bikes small enough for me. Solution, a child’s bike. Difficult, but possible. Mindful that women in Siwa do not leave the house unless their bodies are totally covered, we wore long trousers and jackets.
Riding a child’s bicycle with much smaller wheels meant that I pedalled twice as far as anyone else. My reason for lagging behind everyone else anyway. Cycling on mud roads on the right hand side, overtaking donkey carts, dodging trucks, 4WD and motor cycles required a high level of concentration initially.
We rode past the ruins of the ancient mud brick town of Shali. A butchers shop, which displayed cuts of fresh meat hanging in the open air had us wondering what kind of animals the meat came from. We had only seen camels, but some of the cuts were too small for a leg of camel. Fruit and vegetable stalls, with an abundance of food for sale spread along the street. Numerous shops sold dates of all kinds, loose dates, boxed dates, some plain and others stuffed with nuts which made for a difficult choice. We cycled by a bookshop with no books, stopped at rug shops with rugs and shops selling scarves and handicrafts such as baskets, pottery, shawls clothes and bags. We sailed past some very run down hotels with names like the Desert Rose and the Heritage, and a lawyers office with a sign indicating that the lawyer provided legal advice and real estate investments. Having exhausted the commercial possibilities, we found ourselves cycling through date palms and olive groves.
As the greenery gave way to desert, I could hear a hissing noise which grew louder and louder. I became aware of several young boys on bicycles surrounding me. At least it wasn’t a nest of snakes hissing. What had I done to incite little boys to hiss.
I had taken my jacket off when I got hot, and my arms, from the elbow down, were visible. I remedied the defect. The hissing boys peeled off.
The hissing episode prompted me to think more about the women of Siwa. I realised I had seen very few women and young girls. One woman I saw was operating a handcraft shop. She was wearing a black niqab. The only other woman I saw in public was wearing a long skirt, jacket and headscarf. I understand that only a few women wear a headscarf, and they would be married to a non Siwan. I acquired a very informative book in Siwa written by Fathi Malim, titled “Siwa Women Unveiled” published in 2007 so that I could gain a greater understanding of their culture and lives. No doubt things have changed for the women of Siwa since then, but from my observations, not outwardly.
No one knows where Alexander the Great is buried. It has been said that Alexander desired to be buried in Siwa. Maybe his tomb is in Siwa. If so, could it possibly be at Jebel al-Mawta, the Mountain of the Dead. Well, no it seems not. The claims that his tomb has been discovered in Siwa are said to be”mostly sensational declarations by non-serious archaeologists” (Alexander the Great, 2000 years of Treasures” – Australian Museum 2012).
The mountain of the dead looks like a giant honeycomb. It is riddled with tombs. Only a few are decorated, including the tomb of Si Amun, the style of which is Greek and Egyptian. Si Amun is portrayed with pale skin, but with Greek style dark wavy hair. Scenes portraying the family show his wife and one son with darker skin and the other son with fair skin, wearing Greek clothing. The scenes in the tomb are Egyptian, and include the sky goddess Nut who appears on the ceiling near the entrance and the Weighing of the Heart ceremony.
Leaving Siwa for the drive through the desert to Marsa Matruh, I had time to reflect on the visit and what had made it so special. I learned a lot. I had a lot of fun and I wanted to learn more, both historical and contemporary. I hoped all the young girls of Siwa were given the opportunity to access basic education in the future, and where possible higher education. I hoped that those who were able to pursue a higher education were able to return to Siwa to provide the next generation, both boys and girls, with hope for access to the best education possible.
The Siwa Oasis lies in Egypt’s Western Desert, 50km from the Libyan border and approximately 550km west of Cairo.