Egypt taught me a lot about the realities of travelling. I was swindled in the shadow of the great pyramids (http://www.einsteinsbarbershop.com/?p=72), endured the corruption of officials in Luxor (bullied by a guard at Karnak), dropped my bundle in frustration at taxi scams on the streets of Alexandria, and even rebuffed a few unwelcome physical advances on behalf of my companions in the alleyways of the souks across the country. All of these experiences were valuable lessons in how to travel, but the most enduring lesson that I brought away from my time up and down the Nile (apart from the realisation that even the most unpleasant experience becomes an adventure with the benefit of hindsight) was that there is always a place that you don’t know about – regardless of how much research you do.
Every minute of my sojourn to Egypt lived up to my lofty childhood expectations, and the part of me that lamented having not lived the life of an adventuring archaeologist was sated (for a time), however the most memorable part of my tour was not a celebrated site like Khufu’s Pyramid, Karnak or the Mediterranean port of Alexandria (although the island temple of Philae, which was relocated block by block to save it from the waters of Aswan Dam, certainly rates a mention). The piece of Egypt that will stay with me most was a tiny village near the Libyan boarder that few know about, and most will never have the chance to visit.
Siwa lies some 12 hours south-west by coach from Alexandria through the Sahara Desert. Although it seems to be omitted from the itineraries of many (it should be noted that it was an Intrepid Tour that brought me there so, there are those who are in the know), the importance of this isolated town to ancient history is significant. Cleopatra and her entourage are said to have made the expedition there to visit an oracle (The Oracle of Amon) that was said to be found among the date palm groves of nearby Siwa Oasis. Alexander the great also marched his army to Siwa for the Oracle’s advice on his campaigns. So while Siwa might not be a must do destination for today’s travellers, it has endured through the destruction of many of its historically significant visitors.
The town is clustered around the ruins of a hill fort that dates back as far as the 10th century B.C. Visible from throughout the streets of the town, the ruins lend Siwa an atmosphere of ancient calm, and walking the quiet streets at night, you notice a stillness tantamount to walking through some of the ancient tombs for which Egypt is famous. The Intrepid tour that brought me to Siwa (on New Year’s Eve) barely mentioned the town in its itinerary (or I failed to notice it when I read about it, which is entirely possible), focussing instead on the nearby oasis which proved to be equally amazing. We rode pushbikes along the sandy trail that lead to the oracle temple. Enroute, we came across a circular pool, expertly constructed, and crystal clear in the baking desert sun. Apparently, Cleopatra’s spring has been so named since she bathed in it during her visit (which may or may not have actually happened according to some sources) – although her mode of entry was likely more demure than the running leap we took!
As we rode, date palms replaced the sand and we found ourselves at the Oracle Temple ruins which overlooked a seemingly endless grove of palm trees swaying in the desert breeze. The sight was every bit as spectacular as one might imagine, and it was easy to picture an Alexandrian army or a pharonic detail camping in the glade below the temple. Our search of the fort revealed no seer, so – still in the dark as to our odds of conquest – we returned to the town to celebrate the New Year.
The local people are not, for the most part, Egyptian in descent as one might expect, but are largely descended from the Berber peoples of the Western Sahara. While wandering the calm market, which contrasted starkly with the high pressure crush of most Egyptian souks, I was invited into the home of one shop owner – not as an incentive to buy (as had happened in Luxor), but to share tea and tales of my home. During our chat, he talked of Siwa’s past and of the difference between Egypt and his home on the Libyan boarder. The next time I experienced a similar level of hospitality was in the Jordanian desert in a Bedouin tent. I’d come to Siwa by chance, but left with the knowledge that grand monuments – however important, old or imposing – could not compare to an unlooked for taste of the country you are really visiting. Siwa was an oasis of calm in Egypt which was at the same time, uniquely Egyptian, but somehow completely different and all the while, the absolute essence of the Arab world as I’ve experienced it.