Siwa and the Temple of Amun
A trip into the heart of Egypt's Western
Tuesday 5th November
Our Toyota pushed its way through the small throng of weaving
bikes, mules, traders and trucks and came at last to the 'Popular
Teahouse', the social centre of the oasis of Bawiti. Here we
met up with my cousin Laura, who works for an Immigrants Resettlement
Charity in Cairo. We also met our agent Tamer and his wife,
our guide Atif and their driver. It appeared they all wanted
to come with us to Siwa, but after some straight talking the
party was reduced to just Atif. He would be driver and guide,
together with Raymond, Laura, and myself. This was the end of
one great trip and the beginning of another.
We bid farewell to our companions of the last 3 weeks, András,
Magdi, Andy, Bernie and Hannah and they departed in a cloud
of dust on their 500 mile journey north to Cairo. Who could
have asked for finer travelling companions?
We went shopping for food and vegetables and Laura excelled
herself with her negotiating skills. Across the road a trader
weighed out lived chickens, who sat obediently on weighing scales
as barter was done. We declined the offer of a plump fowl and
counted on our prepacked tins to provide for our needs.
We paid our dues to Tamer and left Bawiti at 4pm. Out of the
noisy throng, past the military check point and we were back
into the desert at last. We drove an hour before pulling up
under a glowing sunset to make our evening camp.
I erected Laura's tent on a level pitch of soft sand and then
we cooked a grand stew of vegetables and corned beef. Laura
had answered my half joking call by satellite telephone from
the Gilf Kebir to bring 'something to drink'. She rose admirably
to the occasion and came laden with Vodka, Bacardi, wine and
beer - and we shared a desert feast around the fire and swapped
desert tales until far into the night.
Wednesday 6th November
Today was the first day of Ramadan and Atif was up early. He
breakfasted before dawn and would then not eat or drink again
until dusk. A tough routine in the hot desert environment but
one which Moslems don't question and carry out with commendable
grace. We shared a desert breakfast at sunrise, Rye Vita and
jam, pate for Raymond and lots of strong coffee.
We left at a leisurely 09.00 remembering to repack the remaining
wood for the evening fire. We continued on a worsening road
and sustained a puncture. We carried two spares and quickly
changed the wheel and drove on. Raymond and I took regular GPS
fixes to plot our course. Our TCP map proved quite inaccurate
but gave the general heading. We were following the old Dharb
el Siwa, a trading route from ancient times. We were looking
for Lake Numeweisa as shown on our map, but it never appeared.
This was probably just as well as the word means 'mosquito'
We bumped and thundered over broken tarmac and eventually left
the trail and drove through the sand. At lunchtime we picnicked
in the shade of the car; it was very hot and the breeze of driving
again was welcome.
At 4.00pm we reached our predetermined GPS fix and turned off
across the desert. Atif was anxious but we assured him we knew
where we were going. Navigation was entrusted to Raymond who
spent much time reading contour lines and related information
on the map, and sure enough we suddenly arrived at the splendid
lost gorge of Areg. It was not visible from the surrounding
desert and dropped sharply down into a spectacular landform
of eroded escarpments, blown sand and rock islands. There were
many fossils here and I picked up a perfect sea urchin several
million years old. We went exploring and took many photographs.
At dusk Atif made a fire, Raymond sliced vegetables with his
penknife and Laura made a fresh lime cordial for the evening
drink. I organised the bar and rationed out Laura's alcoholic
contribution to everyone's obvious satisfaction. Atif preferred
to drink water which presented no problem to the bar staff.
Laura and I cooked up a memorable tuna stew and we had a splendid
meal around the fire.
All around, the silence of the desert prevailed, and the sparkling
white rocks reflected the light of a billion stars. We may have
been the first visitors here in history, and we cherished the
magnificent solitude of this picturesque canyon.
Thursday 7th November
We packed up our tiny campsite and departed, retracing our wheel
tracks to the main piste. We passed the outpost village of Zertrum
and encountered, suddenly, the silver shimmer of a great lake,
bound on all sides by shifting dunes. An extraordinary sight
in this sand blown wilderness. This is the magic of Siwa which,
at sixty feet below sea level, hosts numerous springs and lakes
rising up from the sub Saharan aquifers. Some of this subterranean
water is over 20,000 years old and was collected during the
slow meltdown of the last ice age.
We reached Siwa at 11.30 in a rising sand storm and checked
into the little tourist office. We walked the market square,
examined a few artefacts and negotiated for some vegetables.
Raymond bought a cheap alloy teaspoon, to relieve the domestic
pressure on his Swiss Army penknife. We had lunch in the one
restaurant that was open, feeling slightly self conscious on
this first day of the Ramadan fast.
In the afternoon we set off for the hot spring North of the
town to camp for the night. The wind rose, the sand blew and
the tracks over the dunes quickly became obliterated. Atif charged
the dunes one by one, but the last one beat us and we slithered
down in an ignoble retreat - backwards. By now the wind was
howling around us and the sand was everywhere. We lowered tyre
pressures and tried several times at different angles. Then
we agreed, to Atif's disappointment, to abandon it.
Laura and I walked on, blinded by flying sand and swept off
our feet by the wind. Soon we were forced to return to the shelter
of the Toyota and we drove back, with some difficulty, into
Siwa. We checked in at the Hotel Cleopatra and spent the first
night in a bed, for Raymond and I, for over three weeks. Outside
the sand storm rattled the shutters and we were glad of the
comfort of bricks and mortar that night.
Friday 8th November
The sand storm abated overnight, stopping as quickly as it had
started, and we had breakfast on the terrace; hot Egyptian beans
and coffee. Then we took the car and drove off to the Temple
of Amun. This curious oracle was built in the 7th Century BC.
Alexander the Great travelled here is 331BC - a challenging
journey in those days. It is built of imported stone blocks
and pillars, no small feat with just camels and so much waterless
sand to cross. There were ancient hieroglyphics engraved in
the centre and an air of sovereignty in the great stones.A little
further was another edifice built of massive stone pillars,
Then we went to 'Cleopatra's Pool', a clear round hot spring
some 10ft deep, bubbling up from a volcanic fissure. I stripped
off and jumped in. Laura followed, with a big splash. She was
fully clothed, in respect for local custom, and we both had
a wonderful swim.
Siwa dates back to the 11th Century and remained isolated from
the outside world for 1000 years. It was completely self-sufficient
with its ready supply of water and abundant date palms. Early
travellers were put to death and it wasn't until the advent
of the motor car in the1930's that visitors first began to travel
here. It only became part of Egypt it the 19th Century.
In the 1940 - 1943 war Siwa was used by both Axis and Allied
forces as an important supply point in the tactical manoeuvres
being waged around El Alamein on the coast. The LRDG and the
SAS travelled here regularly.
We explored the old hill-top citadel which remains largely
untouched since a disastrous storm in1926. Unprecedented rains
softened the ancient building blocks and the whole town became
unstable. The Siwans were compelled to leave and built their
new town around the base of the hill, leaving their weathered
and eroded heritage as an historic memorial to the past glory
of this isolated town.
The Siwans were a closed society and still speak a different
dialect to the rest of Egypt.
We lunched in the town on 'Shakshuka', a local dish of baked
carrots, onion, peppers and potato topped with minced meat,
and all served in individual earthenware bowls.
Later we bought two fine silver bangles, a trade for which
Siwa was once famous. The asking price was negotiated down skilfully
by Laura from $200 to $110. Laura then bought me a small pendant
made from a cowrie shell, imported from a far away ocean in
Siwa is a wonderfully relaxed little town, untouched by tourism
and largely untenanted by cars. We walked through the narrow
streets under the palm trees, accompanied by donkey carts running
silently on rubber wheels, with their cargoes of shrouded mothers
and inquisitive children, and vegetables, dates and perhaps
a chicken or two as well.
In the afternoon we watched a spectacular sunset casting ever
changing light over the water to Fatsma Island. We dined by
candle light in a restaurant under the palm trees.
Tomorrow we drive up the Siwa escarpment to the plateau, and
then the long drive North to the Mediterranean coast.
ŠKit Constable Maxwell