The great sand sea that stretches southward from the Siwa Oasis is like a woman. Her contours are soft and rounded with velvety folds. Her complexion changes with the light. But she’s a harsh woman, with dunes over 300 feet high, hard to travel across. The sand gives way under your feet. She is subject to temper, sandstorms that can swallow an army and temperatures over 100 degrees. She is beautiful but can be deadly.
Joe and I set out on the great sand sea in a Toyota Land Cruiser with a driver who says his GPS is in his head. We cruised the dunes to Bir Wahed, one of those cartoon oases with a pool of water and a palm tree stuck in the folds of a sand dune. Actually Bir Wahed is a series of pools about 8 miles into the dunes from Siwa town. One pool, a hot sulfur spring, constantly bubbles from the ground and feeds date palms and banana trees. Another, a couple hundred yards over a dune, is a cold spring where we took a plunge after sweating it out on the hot sand. A fossil field, near Bir Wahed, displays seashells; 200 miles south of the Mediterranean. And sitting on top of a sand dune is the only place where I have yet encountered a quiet sunset in Egypt, no call to prayer.
I now better understand the schedule of Islamic prayer. This time of year the longest time between prayers is not overnight, but between dawn and midday, the best time to travel the desert, light but not so much heat. Dawn (when the horizon first becomes visible) not sunrise is first call, “prayer is better than sleep.” Dawn at this time of year is at about 4:15. Mid-day is at 1 PM, (daylight savings time) more than 8 hours later. The last call to prayer is at 10 in the evening, when you can no longer see the horizon; between it and the morning call is a little more than 6 hours. The schedule allows time to travel, time to rest in the mid day, time for chores, perhaps a little more travel, and then sleep.
The Siwa Oasis is a little better than an 8-hour drive from Cairo. Joe and I planned to leave Thursday afternoon at 2 but things happened and we got away from the office at 4. Joe says “good enough.”
Siwa Oasis is 200 miles inland from the sea and is between 40 and 50 feet below it. The drive to the oasis is through flat, big sky country, a gravel and sand desert without power poles, windbreaks, or even highway overpasses to create a break on the horizon. Camels count for landscape. I marvel at the caravan captains who navigated this featureless desert to find Siwa. I don’t know which is more difficult, this flat gravel desert or the dunes to the south and east. Both had caravan routes through them. In ancient times people came because a famous oracle said the sooth here. One king sent his army to destroy the oracle because it predicted his army’s defeat. His entire army, 50,000 troops and camp followers, was swallowed by a sandstorm. Local legend says Alexander the Great is buried here.
Siwa has both hot and cold springs with two salt lakes at the lowest points. But Siwa is beginning to drown. The Egyptians have sunk wells into the aquifers for irrigation. But being below sea level there is no sea for the water to run to, only the salt lakes, slowly eating at the edges of the oasis. Before irrigation evaporation removed as much water as the springs added to the lakes. Now the water is winning.
It is beautiful, with date palm groves and olive orchards, lakes and red stone monoliths. The ancient town of Shali was built with mud-salt bricks. It stood for three centuries, rising up to six stories, until a freak week of heavy rain in the 1920s melted the city. What remains is a distorted and, at times, grotesque shell that looks like it belongs in Barcelona, designed by Gaudi and painted by Dali. It is especially eerie floodlit at night. But even outside the Shali ruins, Siwa Town is constantly decomposing and recomposing as mud brick crumbles, melts and is replaced. To preserve outside appearances while living in a modern home that does not melt, householders build new breezeblock buildings inside older mud brick walls.
Siwa Town, with its hot springs, heat and fleets of donkey carts marked “taxi” (all white donkeys) has the faint odor of sulfur, sweat and sh*t. Its main square looks like Mexico in the Middle East with mud buildings, colorful fresh produce, pickup trucks and donkey carts. What does not fit is the dress. Women are out in force, mostly fully veiled. You can see some women’s eyes; others have black gauze covering the whole face. But the dress is not austere. Colorful silk embroidery on patterned cotton is the local craft, on display in both shops and on women. Men mostly wear the abaya, a long white garment. The kid serving us in the café on the town square (I am sipping a coke, Joe is smoking a shisha) wears a stained abaya, sandals and a baseball cap turned backward. There is no beer or wine here, although it is available, at a price, at the luxury resorts on “Fantasy Island” in one of the salt lakes.
We are staying at the Shali Lodge. The lodge is mud brick with a palm log roof. Palm trees grow through the buildings and a grove of date palm and olive trees stand behind, irrigated by sulfuric water. There’s a rooftop restaurant that’s too hot for lunch but perfect after sundown. I have a small suite with a sitting room and large bedroom. The hotel has wooden shutters at different levels (the openings well screened) that can ingeniously provide air flow that keeps the room cool during day and warm once the desert sun goes down. The Shali lodge is owned by the same guy who owns an eco resort out on the lake. But while the eco-lodge charges $290 a night the Shali Lodge charges me $35 for my suite.
The tour books talk about mosquitoes. While the Shali is well screened, I asked the desk clerk about getting some bug gunk. The clerk assured me not to worry. “There is no Malaria here. So tonight, when the mosquitoes bite you, you will be safe.” Comforting, but as it turned out mosquitoes did not bother me at all.
There had been a plan by the Saudi King to use the water here to establish rice paddies. But scientists warned that much standing fresh water might breed malarial mosquitoes so Siwa’s citizens turned down the Kings economic development offer and opted for tourism and produce.
In the past Siwa (allegedly) had the tradition of “male marriage” that existed until the 1940’s. That put it into guidebooks aimed at the gay market. This led to a type of tourism that baffled the locals. Lonely Planet told me that “male marriage” in Siwa was a thing of the past and that Islamic mores prevail today. That may be the case but Siwa’s reputation remains, at least with some Egyptians. When I told Egyptian friends that Joe and I were going to Siwa I got uneasy laughs.
Siwa was an all senses experience. Part of the experience is the approach to Siwa, either through hundreds of miles of table flat gravel desert, where heat waves rise from the surface and the mirage of water looms just on the horizon; or through hundreds of miles of flowing sand dunes. The mirage of water becomes real water as the road dips, just slightly, into the depression and the lakes, with their palm and olive fringe, make their appearance. Even when you know it’s coming, the surprise is still engaging.
The road to Siwa is lonely except for an occasional oil field. There are no phone lines visible from the highway, only occasional microwave towers. So I had an odd sensation when I walked into the mud brick bank, put my ATM card into a machine, and it not only gave me 1,000 Egyptian pounds, but it told me how much money I had left in my Sitka bank account.
Tomorrow this blog takes you to see the biggest collection of doo wop architecture in the world. Doo wop architecture? Right.