Siwa, the most inaccessible and isolated until recent times, yet one of the most mysterious and magnetic oases in Egypt, has a long history shaped by all major civilizations. The region is rich with sights and freshwater springs; it attracts tourists from all over the world with its unique culture and customs. However, it owes its fame to the Oracle of Amun, which gave the oasis its ancient name Ammonium or Jupiter Ammon. Its modern name Siwa was first mentioned in the XV century. Some scholars links it to a Berber tribal name “Swh”, while the others assert the name was derived from Tashelhiyt Berber word “asiwan”, a type of bird of prey.
 
History
 
It’s believed that the first settlement appeared here in the 10th millennium BC. However, the earliest evidence of connection with Ancient Egypt is the 26th Dynasty (c. 685-525 BC), when a necropolis was established. Greek historian Herodotus recorded that during the Ptolemaid period its ancient Egyptian name was “Field of Trees”.
Around the VII century BC settlers from ancient Greek city Cyrene made contact with the oasis. The Temple of the Oracle of Amun (Greek – Zeus Ammon) became widely known in the VI century BC, and in 525 BC Persian King Cambyses II sent the army of 50,000 men to punish the priests of the temple as they predicted a painful end to his life and achievements in Egypt. However, Cambyses' warriors didn’t reach the temple – the entire force disappeared in the desert. As Herodotus says, the army was wiped out by ferocious sandstorm. For many years generations of archeologists hunted in vain for the lost army of Cambyses, and in 2014 Olaf Kaper of the University of Leiden (Netherlands) found an inscription by Egyptian Pharaoh Petubastis III (c. 522-520 BC), claiming that he defeated the Persian army, and the sandstorm scenario was a cover-up by Cambyses' successor Darius I.
 
After conquering Egypt in 332 BC Alexander the Great headed to the Siwa Oasis to visit the Oracle of Amun and on his way stopped in a small village on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where a year later he would start building the city of Alexandria. The Emperor passed a little fishing town of Amunia (modern Marsa Matrouh) and proceeded to desert, though soon he and his convoy lost their way. Suddenly, two birds appeared in front of them, and Alexander ordered his men to follow the birds, saying "these are the messengers from Amun". Indeed, birds brought them to the Oracle, and the high priest of the temple allowed Alexander entering the inner room of the temple and consulting Amun. As Alexander's court historians allege, Oracle confirmed him as both – a divine personage and the legitimate Pharaoh of Egypt.
 
Christian elements can be found in Siwa from the IV century. In the VI and VII centuries the oasis was subject to heavy military conflicts. From AD 640-642 Muslim armies conquered Egypt and spread Islam throughout the country. They reached Siwa in AD 708, though Siwans resisted them and probably did not convert until the XII century. According to Siwa Manuscript written in 1792 by English traveler William George Browne, other sources date the definite replacement of Christianity by Islam at the XIV century. Browne was the first European to visit the Temple of the Oracle in Siwa since Roman era, and his manuscript contains very precise facts and explanations.


‚ÄčIn 1819 the oasis was officially added to Egypt by an Ottoman Albanian commander Mehmet Ali Pasha (1769-1849), known as Muhammad Ali of Egypt. For instituting dramatic reforms in military, economic and cultural spheres, he is regarded as the founder of modern Egypt. The dynasty, established by him, would rule Egypt and Sudan until the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 led by Muhammad Naguib. Until 1928 Arab rule of oasis was weak and several rebellions took place. However, King Fu'ad’s visit to Siwa seized firmer control over the region.

Some battles occurred in the oasis during World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945). The British Army's Long Range Desert Group was based here. In 1942 Siwa was occupied by the Italian 136th Infantry Division Giovani Fascisti, and Egyptian puppet government-in-exile was set up.

In 2002 the Egyptian Government declared 7,800 km² in and around the oasis a protected area.  The new status prohibits all activities that damage or deplete the natural environment.
 
An extremely old hominid footprint was discovered in 2007 at the Siwa Oasis. The possible age of it is 2-3 million years; this makes it the oldest fossilized hominid footprint ever found.

 
Geography
 
Around 82 km in length and 28 km in width, irregularly shaped Siwa Oasis is located west of the Qattara Depression between latitudes 29°12'N and longitudes 25°29'E, about 525 km from Cairo and 300 km south (inland) from the Mediterranean Sea. Immediately to its south lies the Great Sand Sea. The oasis itself nests in a deep depression that reaches 15 meters below sea level. It covers approximately 1,088 km², of which 70 km² is open water and 100 km² is marshland.
Extensive marshes fringe about a dozen lake formations in the depression. The present lakes are the remnants of once larger water bodies that existed during the Pleistocene Ice Age. Fossil shorelines of the Pleistocene lakes can be found at altitudes of 8 to 12 meters below sea level.
 
There are some 1,000 springs currently in use in the oasis; though some scholars believe today their number does not exceed 200, and only 80 of them are used for drinking and irrigation. The drinking water has sweet taste and medical properties, as claimed by locals. The irrigation water comes mainly from springs, though many of them flow into the salty lakes, making the water mostly useless for watering as salt is destructive for many types of crops. Recently Egyptian government showed interest in creating fishing industry in the oasis, however, high level of salt in the lakes didn’t support any marine life. Even the lakes here are covered by mysteries and legends – it’s believed that either the saber and seal of the Prophet Mohammed, or the ring, sword and crown of King Solomon are buried on the bottom of one of the numerous lakes.
 
Siwa has also around 3,000 mountains and hills. The biggest and the best know ones are Gebel al-Mawta, Gebel Dakrour, Gebel Hamra and Gebel Baylin. A number of mountains have rock-cut tombs.

 
Climate
 
According to Köppen-Geiger classification (BWh), Siwa has a subtropical desert climate. It’s quite cold in the winter, very hot in the summer and moderate in the spring and autumn. The best time to visit Siwa is the spring or the autumn.
 
Average high in winter reaches 20°C (68°F), average low – 6°C (43°F); average high in spring is 31°C (86°F), average low – 12°C (54°F). Summer average maximum temperature goes up to 38°C (100°F), average minimum is 29°C (85°F); autumn average high is 35°C (95°F), average low – 15°C (59°F).
 
Rains are not often in the oasis. Total annual Precipitation averages 9 mm (0.4 inches).

 
Economy
Agriculture represents the basis of the Siwan economy. The cultivated area increased from 53 km² in 1990 to 88 km² in 2008, though because of geological and weather conditions the local dwellers are limited mostly to growing dates and olives, which cover about 93.4 per cent from the total cultivated area in the oasis. There are around the 25,000 olive trees 240,000 date trees in the area. Olive oil is still made by crushing the olives between grindstones, and the dates are gathered by zaggala (stick bearers), who must remain celibate until the age of forty. Other fruits found in abundance are excellent red grapes, figs, apricots, sweet lemons, bitter oranges, limes and pomegranate. For vegetables, here one can find okra, eggplant, pumpkin, tomato, cress, onion, broad beans, garlic, mint, radish and pepper.
 
In recent times tourism has become a vital source of income. Although an analysis of available tourist data was not undertaken, some general information can be drawn from Baha el Din report (2000), which sets the number of visitors for the year 1999 at over 10,000, with over 6000 foreign tourists and some 4000 Egyptians and expatriates.

The main industry in Siwa is the drying food industry. There are three old and five new factories using relatively developed techniques for drying fruits. Water bottling is another recent industry in the area with four major mineral water bottling factories: Safi, Aqua Siwa, El Hayah, El Sadat Factory. Traditional handcrafts is the main source for preserving the cultural heritage of the oasis. Also Siwan people are engaged into salt industry  Siwa Salt Mining Co produces marine salt, food salt, road salt, industrial and raw salt .

 
Population
 
The Siwan people have their own culture and customs. The language spoken in region belongs to Berber family of languages and is known as Siwi. By the XI century, according to an Andalusian Muslim geographer and historian Al-Bakri (c. 1014-1094), the oasis was populated only with Berbers, though a century later Muhammad Al-Idrisi (1099–1165), a Muslim geographer and Egyptologist, stated that it is “mainly” inhabited by Berbers with an Arab minority. However, the population of the oasis by 1203 didn’t exceed seven families totaling 40 people. Today its population reaches 23,000, their majority lives in the town of Siwa at the eastern end of the Siwa Lake.
 
As a result of isolation, the Berbers follow strictly their customs. Many Siwan women still wear their traditional costumes and silver jewelry. Bridal silver and the ensemble of silver ornaments and beads are worn by Siwan women in abundance to weddings and other important ceremonies. As for the young girls, they are dresses in completely covering clothing; their communication with outside world is limited, though often they are married by the age of 14. Marriages with non-Siwans are quite rare; nevertheless Bedouin brides command a higher brideprice than locals. The men in Siwa wear the white Galabeya, even the governmental employees have to follow this dress code.

 
Festivals
 
Like other Muslim Egyptians, Siwans celebrate Eid al-Fitr (Feast of Breaking the Fast marking the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting) and Eid al-Adha (religious holiday that honors the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his promised son, Ishmael). However, on Eid al-Adha Siwans cook the sheep skin and innards as a festival delicacy and eat agroz – palm hearts.
 

Gebel Dakrour is the scene of the annual Siyaha Festival, honoring town's traditional patron saint Sidi Sulayman. For three days around the October full moon Siwans gather to celebrate the date harvest, renewing friendship and settling all the quarrels that might have broken out over the last year. After the noon prayer each day of the festival Siwan men eat together and sing chants thanking God; the women stay behind in the village, and celebrate with dancing, singing and drums. The food for the festival is bought collectively, with funds gathered by the mosques.
 
Garlic Festival is being celebrated in October. The holiday lasts from 4 to 7 days, during which large quantities of garlic are consumed. For the period of the festival men and women separate.

There is a special festival for the little ones called Ashura; children light torches, sing and exchange sweets, while adults prepare a large meal for them.

 
Getting There
 
The drive from Cairo via the North Coast or the Bahariya road takes around 7-11 hours (the distance between Egyptian capital and Siwa is 752 km). The Cairo Ring Road and Al Alamein-Alexandria bypass have greatly shortened the time needed to reach the oasis.
 
Those traveling from Cairo to Siwa independently can use bus service, taxi or a private car (first time visitors are recommended to buy a tour package as desert driving requires special knowledge).
 
The Western Delta Bus Company offers a daily drive from Cairo to Marsa Matrouh, which is on the way to Siwa. The bus leaves Turgoman (Cairo Gateway) Bus Terminal at 6:30 am; it covers the distance of about 500 kilometers in 5 hours. The ticket price is EGP 60. From Marsa Matrouh you can catch the onward bus to Siwa. The journey takes 4 hours and costs EGP 15. The bus leaves at 1:30 pm. The bus from Siwa to Marsa Matrouh Cairo leaves at 7:00 am from the Siwa bus Station.  Change at where there are buses leaving for Cairo until 2:00 pm.
 
There is also a direct night bus from Turgoman to Siwa for EGP 60; it leaves Cairo at 6:45 pm and arrives in Siwa at 5:30 am. You can take the same bus back to Cairo at 8:00 pm from Siwa Bus Station and the rate is EGP 60. 
 
The bus ticket from Alexandria to Siwa costs EGP 40. The bus leaves from the station close to Sidi Gaber; the trip takes around 8 hours. The trip from Alexandria new bus stations Moharam Beck to Marsa Matrouh takes 4 hours and costs EGP 15; minibus covers the distance in 3.5 hours for EGP 30.

 

From

To

Leaves

Duration

km

Bus Company

Departs From

Arrives At

Price

Cairo

Siwa

6:45 pm

10 hrs

752

West Delta Bus

Turgoman

Siwa

EGP 60

Cairo

Matrouh

6:30 am

5 hrs

500

West Delta Bus

Turgoman

Matrouh

EGP 60

Alexandria

Siwa

7:00 am

8 hrs

586

West Delta Bus

Moharam Beck

Market Sq.

EGP 30

Alexandria

Siwa

11:30 am

8 hrs

586

West Delta Bus

Moharam Beck

Market Sq.

EGP 30

Alexandria

Siwa

2:30 pm

8 hrs

586

West Delta Bus

Moharam Beck

Market Sq.

EGP 30

Alexandria

Matrouh

Any time

3.5 hrs

286

Minibus

Moharam Beck

Matrouh

EGP 30

Matrouh

Siwa

1:30 pm

4 hrs

306

West Delta Bus

Matrouh

Market Sq.

EGP 15

 

From

To

Leaves

Duration

km

Bus Company

Departs From

Arrives At

Price

Siwa

Matrouh

1:00 pm

4 hrs

306

West Delta Bus

Market Sq.

Matrouh

EGP 15

Siwa

Alexandria

7:00 am

8 hrs

586

West Delta Bus

Market Sq.

Alexandria stations

EGP 30

Siwa

Alexandria

10:00 am

8 hrs

586

West Delta Bus

Market Sq.

Alexandria stations

EGP 30

Siwa

Alexandria

10:00 pm

8 hrs

586

West Delta Bus

Market Sq.

Alexandria stations

EGP 30

Siwa

Cairo

8:00 pm

10 hrs

752

West Delta Bus

Market Sq.

Cairo stations

EGP 60

Matrouh

Cairo

Every 2 hrs

5 hrs

500

West Delta Bus

Matrouh

Cairo stations

EGP 50

Must-See Sights

Shali – XIII century mud-brick fortress located in the middle of Siwa. Built from kershef (chunks of salt from the lake just outside town, mixed with rock and plastered in local clay), the labyrinth of huddled buildings originally had 4-5 levels and housed hundreds of people.
 
The streets in this small town are narrow. A high wall with only one gate used to surround Shali to protect it against any outside attacks, and for centuries few outsiders managed to get inside the fortress – and even fewer came back out to tell the tale. However, in 1926 heavy rain seriously damaged the fortification, so Shali inhabitants had to move to newer and more comfortable houses in Siwa with running water and electricity. Today only a few buildings around the edges are occupied or used for storage; a path leads over the slumping remnants, past the Old Mosque with its chimney-shaped minaret, to the top for panoramic views.
 
Aghurmi (in Siwi means “village”), a rocky, acropolis-like outcrop, was the first fortified settlement in the Siwa Oasis. It is built on the site of the ancient Temple of the Oracle of Amun, which lies ruined within its walls. The archaeologists disagree on theoriginal date of the Oracle construction but it was known throughout the ancient world from the VI century BC. It was this temple that Persian King Cambyses II wanted to destroy for badmouthing his occupation of Egypt. Perhaps, the Oracle’s anti-Persian moods encouraged Alexander the Great to visit it before marching against Persia.
 
The horseshoe-shaped plateau of Aghurmi is 30 meters above sea level, approximately 1.7 km east of the old town of Shali. What remains of this temple today is one of its ancient walls that contain beautiful drawings and carvings that tell us about the story of the temple with portraits of two gods Amun and Amun Ra. A staircase ascends to the covered entrance of the ruined fortress, which sits atop a limestone outcropping. Portions of the original structure have been restored, including the sanctum that housed the oracle. There are stunning views of the palm groves and dunes beyond from several vantage points.
 
Gebel al-Mawta (Mountain of the Dead), located at the northern end of Siwa town, catches an eye even from a distance. A conical hill set at a height of 50 meters is honeycombed with tombs, consisting of a rectangular corridor that leads to wide yard and inner chambers. Today the majority of the burials is empty – it’s believed that Siwan King Radwan threw the bodies of dead into the springs to poison Arab invaders.
 
The tombs decorated with beautiful paintings appeared around the VII century BC. The most interesting and well-preserved drawings are in the Tomb of Si Amun (the Man of Amun), which dates back to the III century BC. Its colored reliefs portray a dead man – probably a wealthy Greek landowner or merchant – making offerings and praying to Egyptian Gods.
 
There is a depiction of cobras in red and blue above the entrance of unfinished Tomb of Miso-Isis; the Tomb of Niperpathot has inscriptions and crude drawings in the same reddish ink that is used by modern Siwan pottery artists; the wall paintings of the Tomb of the Crocodile, are badly damaged, though it’s still possible to discern a yellow crocodile representing Egyptian God Sobek.

Siwans found a safe shelter inside the tombs during the World War II, when Italians bombed the oasis.

 
Cleopatra Bath known as the Spring of the Sun in ancient times is very popular with tourists. In the V century BC Herodotus wrote about its boiling water that was “miraculously”changing its temperature – it was tepid in the morning, cold in noontide heat and warm at night. In fact the temperature of the spring is steady – 29°C; it is the air temperature that changes during the day, and the suspected boiling was only gas bubbles.

Locals believe that Egyptian Queen Cleopatra VII swam in the pool on her visit to oasis, though there is no recorded evidence for that. You might like swimming in this pool too, after a long drive across the desert refreshing bath is just what you need, though women should keep in mind that Siwans are not used to seeing females in skimpy swimming suits, so bring a covering garment or jump in a pool right in a T-shirt. There’s a small café next to the pool, where you can hid from the sun and have a cold drink.

Tamusi Bath is a favorite place for Siwan women as it is more secluded than the Cleopatra Spring, which is visible to anyone passing along the trail. Siwan brides bath in this pool on the eve of their wedding day. Here you can also find a small café that serves tea and Hookah.

 
Gebel Dakrour is located near the lake Birket Zeitun; from its top you can enjoy the most fabulous view over the entire oasis. But it is most famous for the treatment developed for rheumatism and arthritis. During the summer months people all over the world climb the mountain just to take sand bath, which lasts for around 20 minutes. Once you are dug out of the sand, you will be taken to a small tent to recover of the effect of hot desert sand and offered a cup of tea. The procedure can be repeated only for three days. Many claim pain relief.
 
At Gebel Dakrour you can also find two tombs of Ptolemaic times and the bottling factory of Siwa Water. The mountain is a major source of the reddish pink used by modern Siwan pottery artists.

Az-Zeitun Village, once the richest with olive groves, was abandoned in 1940, when it was bombed by Italian air forces. The hills between Az-Zeitun and Ain Safi, the last hamlet in the oasis, are riddled with hundreds of Roman-era tombs, which currently are under the excavation.
 
Fatnas Island, framed by flat-toped mountains, is another well-known bathing spot, mesmerizing with its blue-green water, palm groves and the continuous streams of tiny bubbles rising to the surface of clean, fresh water. From the center of Siwa town you can reach the island by bike, donkey cart, tuk tuk or simply by following a causeway across salt-encrusted pans. Actually, Fatnas is no longer an island – recently the lake Birket Siwa has receded, and a barrage now divides it into a drainage reservoir and an intensely saline remnant (seven times saltier than the Dead Sea). This lake is reputed to be the most beautiful in the oasis as well as the best spot for bird-watching. There is a small restaurant nearby and a stall where you can get a cup of hot tea and Hookah.