Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Life on an Oasis

After eight perilous days trekking through the desert, all food and water had just about run out. Parched and blistered by the scorching sun, the small expedition of several men pull out a tattered papyrus map, and confirm their position with the help of the constellations. Far out on the horizon, a faint glimmer appears. Was it just a mirage? A trick of the mind? Slowly, as the sun rises over the eastern sands, the silhouette of palm trees begin to show. They did it! They made it across the desert, and found the Oasis of Siwa. It was 331 BC and with them, the young conqueror of Egypt, Alexander the Great had set out to Siwa to consult with the Oracle of Amun, who would later declare him the son of Zeus - solidifying him as the rightful ruler of Egypt.

2341 years later, in the year 2010, on Sunday April 4th to be exact, I am deposited at a dusty little mud-brick bus stop just off the town square. Groggy and tired from an all night bus ride from Alexandria, I orientate myself and confirm my position with an iPod touch loaded with a map of Siwa, and the latest PDF version of the Lonely Planet guide. Trekking the last few hundred meters into the center of town, I find a room at the recommended Palm Trees Hotel. I did it! I made it across the desert, and found the Oasis of Siwa.

Located far out on the western Egyptian desert by the Libyan border, Siwa had been isolated for thousands of years, developing their own unique Siwi language and culture that still exists today. The first paved road into the town was only completed in the 1980s. Many of the families that live here continue to practice sustenance farming, growing their own fruit and vegetables on family owned plots of land. It is not uncommon to be invited into homes for a cup of tea, laced with a sprig of fresh mint from the gardens. A predominantly Muslim town, this outward pouring of hospitality is brought about by the teachings of the Qur'an, where guests are to be treated as a messenger from God himself. 

Siwa is the kind of town that runs on its own pace and on its own time. Most shops stay shuttered till well past 10am, and during the Friday afternoon prayers, don't expect any businesses to be open! The main industry here are date and olive plantations, and now increasingly, tourism. While much of the local population still travel by donkey cart, they are now forced to share the road with a growing amount of jeeps and buses catered for the tourists.

Drawing tourists to Siwa are its pristine fresh water springs that bubble out of the desert sands. Over 300 springs feed the many pools to bathe in, irrigate the land, and fill the massive (salty) lake Siwa just outside of the town center. My days in Siwa were spent eating some of the freshest and sweetest fruits and dates, swimming in Cleopatra's Spring and Fatnas Spring, both easily accessible by a short bike ride from my hotel, and visiting the many ruins and tombs around town, including the famed Temple of the Oracle. The Oracle of Amun, here in Siwa, was once regarded as the most powerful Oracle in all the ancient lands, prophesying the rise and fall of many great world events and Pharaoh dynasties over the centuries. Alexander the Great was believed to have made several trips here to Siwa during his reign to consult with the Oracle.

 Temple of the Oracle

After about four days of doing basically nothing, I was about ready to leave town and see the rest of Egypt. On my first attempt at buying a bus ticket out, I was turned away and told to come back later in the afternoon. I never made it back to the bus station that day, so I stayed another night.  The next day, I was on my way to try the bus station again when Omar, a friendly Egyptian from Cairo stopped me on the street and asked if I wanted to go on a desert safari, splitting the cost with him and his girlfriend, Frea from Holland, and two Canadians, Yolanda and Dairn, whom he met earlier in the day. With nothing to lose, I agree to this serendipitous invitation, and stay a few more days. Siwa is turning out to be Hotel California: We are all just prisoners here, of our own devise!

Sitting on the edge of a huge sand dune, our daredevil driver Tash Tash turns around, gives an evil laugh, and guns the engine, dropping the Toyota SUV over the edge. Like riding in a roller coaster, blood rushes to your head, and your stomach sinks. Cheers and laughter abound (with some squeals of fear), we race down a near vertical drop at top speed! The dunes here are part of the Great Sand Sea, a vast expanse of sand dunes that stretches 800 kilometers south-west into Libya. Aside from this thrill ride, the desert safari brought us to various hot and cold springs, and a prehistoric seabed littered with shells and fossils embedded in a bedrock of limestone and salt. These minerals in the sand turn many of the lakes in the area salty, and at Lake Shiatta, where we stopped for lunch and a swim, it is so salty you could float on your belly with your hands and feet in the air!

Unfortunately, Siwa is not going to stay this way for long. The increase in tourism has brought about irreversible change, from pollution to cultural dilution. The native Siwi language never had use for the world “stealing”, until it was added recently, and the traditional way of building using blocks of limestone and salt sealed with mud, keeping the interiors cool in the desert heat, is giving way to modern techniques using brick and cement, which are unsuitable for that climate. However, the last straw for Siwa, and its many historic monuments might in fact be climate change. Increased rainfall in the last 20 years has eroded and dissolved more of the mud-brick fort and Temple of the Oracle complex than any war or natural disaster ever did over the last 3 millenniums! 


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