Siwa: Egyptian treasure waiting to be discovered

Sunday 05/06/2016
Awsat salt lake in Siwa Oasis.

Siwa - Siwa has been off the beaten track of most visitors to Egypt for a long time. How­ever, those who know the oasis well say those people are missing out.
Tucked away in Egypt’s western­most corner at the edge of the Great Sand Sea, Siwa’s secluded location allowed it to maintain natural sur­roundings distinct from the rest of Egypt.
“If any tourist destination fits ‘di­verse’ as a description in this coun­try, Siwa oasis will be this destina­tion,” said Moussa Abdel Nabi, who has been offering visitors oasis guid­ed tours for years. “Those who come here always find themselves asking the question: ‘Why didn’t we visit this place a long time ago?\'”
Siwa’s main attraction is the oa­sis, fed by hundreds of freshwater springs and streams. Hundreds of thousands of palm trees — produc­ing Egypt’s finest dates — give the oasis heavenly shade. Siwa is also home to tens of thousands of olive trees.
Siwa was first settled by roaming North African tribes. Greek settlers arrived in the seventh century BC. The Temple of the Oracle of Amun, built in the sixth century BC, prob­ably on the site of an earlier temple, was dedicated to Amun (occasional­ly referred to as Zeus or Jupiter Am­mon) and was a powerful symbol of the town’s wealth. One of the most revered oracles in the ancient Medi­terranean, its power was such that some rulers sought its advice while others sent armies to destroy it.
However, the temple is only one of many attractions in Siwa. Others include Shali Fortress, Cleopatra’s Pool, Fatnis Island, the Mountain of the Dead, the Museum of Siwan Tra­ditions and Lake Zeitun.
Cleopatra’s Pool is Siwa’s most famous spring. Crystal-clear water gurgles up into a large stone pool, which is a popular bathing spot for locals as well as tourists.
The Mountain of the Dead is a small hill at the northern end of Siwa. It is honeycombed with rock tombs marked with wall paintings. Most of the tombs date from Egypt’s 26th dynasty, Ptolemaic and Roman times. The tombs were used by the inhabitants of the oasis for shel­ter when Italians occupying Libya bombed the oasis during World War II.
Saeed Mohamed, another guide trying to make a living despite a drop in tourism due to terrorist inci­dents, said: “This oasis is very lucky thanks to the diverse types of tour­ism it can offer its visitors. The fact is that tourists can find everything here, from wellness to medical tour­ism, safari tourism, ecotourism, ad­venture travel and cultural tourism.”
Siwa also boasts some of the fin­est hotels in Egypt containing mod­ern luxury features with room prices averaging between $50 and $100 a night and offering guests relaxing pools with palms nestled around them. Siwan cuisine, often includ­ing leedam, lefroosh, makhmakh, reearin and other local delicacies, is often served.
Those new to Siwa will discover that leedam is a delightful mix of vegetables cooked in a tomato base with onion and coriander. Chicken or lamb broth is usually added for flavour. Lefroosh is sheep stom­ach cut and tied into little packets, which are boiled to make a broth. Leaves known as rigl are chopped and cooked in a broth along with tomatoes, lentils and hot pepper to make makhmakh. Reerin is a lentil-based dip cooked with molokhiya and hot green pepper.
Tours in the oasis tend to be rela­tively inexpensive.
“This is what makes Siwa an ideal place for most people, both the poor and the rich,” Mohamed said. “It is fascinating as a tourist destination and it is also easy on the pockets.”
Mahmoud Abu Zeid, who said he has been to almost every part of Egypt, agrees. He said he became attracted to the oasis after his first visit more than a decade ago.
“I am talking here about a place that has managed to preserve much of its original beauty, even as eve­rything around it keeps changing,” Abu Zeid said. “I advise everybody to visit Siwa in order to see this fas­cinating part of Egypt.”