The fall is a nice time to be working in Egypt because there are lots of long weekends. For one of the long weekends I spent a few days on the Red Sea, doing a lot of snorkeling and reading and relaxing. This last long weekend that just came up, however, I decided that I wanted to do something a bit more exciting that I haven’t done before. So I went to Siwa.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Siwa, it has been famous throughout the history of this region mostly because of the oracle there. Apparently people who wanted to be Pharaohs would come seeking this oracle to see if they were divine and if they were destined to rule Egypt. The Siwan Oracle sort of had the final say on the divinity of the Pharaohs. This wasn’t across the board of course, and to be honest I don’t know what time period it was exactly. What I do know is that Alexander the Great had heard about this Oracle and had heard that the way to become Pharaoh of Egypt, and considered divine, was to be proclaimed so by the Oracle. So Alexander used his considerable army and wits and motivation to march through the desert to Siwa.
Siwa is not an easy place to reach, even today. It is about 5 hours by bus along a small but paved road south from the Mediterranean town of Marsa Matrouh, which is located about 4 hours west of Alexandria. A trip which takes 5 hours by bus along a paved road through the desert today obviously took much longer and was much more grueling 2000 + years ago. There are stories of many different people that tried to find this oracle only to perish in the desert. But, like most things that Alexander set his mind to, he not only succeeded in finding the oracle, but was also proclaimed by the oracle to be the ruler of Egypt. Legend has it that he was so taken by this little community around this oasis in the middle of the Western Desert that he asked to have his body buried there. There is still some debate about whether or not his body was actually buried there or in Alexandria.
Siwa then, once again, gained international significance during WWII, although I’m not entirely sure why. There are quite a few landmines still present in the desert surrounding Siwa and it was bombed quite heavily.
The main attractions in Siwa are (besides this oracle) of course the different springs which cause bodies of water to appear suddenly in the middle of the desert, creating the oasis. There is something very amazing about seeing a body of water surrounded by foliage in the middle of miles and miles of nothing but sand dunes. There is also a fortress there, where most of the Siwans lived for millennia until a freak storm that brought three straight days of rain caused the building material to erode last century. Most of the buildings in Siwa were made of a combination of salt from the salt flats and mud that they dry in the sun. This material lasts forever in a desert context, but does not hold up so well against water.
What really makes Siwa such a delightful place to visit though are the Siwans that you find in the town and wandering amongst the olive trees and date palms. Knowing that Siwa is a tourist attraction, I had sort of prepared myself to be bombarded by hagglers like what happens everywhere else in Egypt. What I actually experienced was completely different. While walking around the town, the people for the most part completely ignored that I was there. I think it may well be the first time that I have been in Egypt and wandering around a very public area without feeling like either a celebrity or a zoo animal, depending on my mood. I would even walk into a couple of shops which were obviously set up for tourists and the shop owner seemed nonchalant about whether I was actually going to buy something or not. They were all very helpful and welcoming if I asked them for it, but if I was just browsing they were quite content to sip their tea (made with lemongrass and served in shot glasses for some reason) and talk to their friend who had stopped by for a visit and again ignore me completely.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t have a couple of experiences about someone trying to rip me off, but at least I wasn’t harassed in the process. They have got to be some of the most nonchalantly and unassumingly friendly and helpful people that I have ever met. Although that statement should be taken with a grain of salt, because I also have felt more frustrated by Egyptians on the street than I have by people in most other countries I have been to. It’s just way too much attention all the time, and I’ve never had a desire to be a celebrity.
Anyway, I have a story to illustrate what I mean by that statement about the Siwans. One of the things to do in Siwa is to rent a bike for a day and go around visiting all the sites in the immediate vicinity. So I was doing biking around Siwa, and had come to the part in the trip where the next spot to see is this famous oracle. The next thing I knew I was at spot 8 on my guidebook map which was Cleopatra’s bath (one of the springs) and the oracle was supposedly at spot 7. So I hopped back on my bike and rode back along the road, but all of a sudden I was in front of spot 6. I couldn’t figure out how I kept missing this oracle, so turned around again and rode slowly back. I was even passed by a couple of Siwans in a jeep (they don’t really use camels anymore, the jeep and truck have taken over) and asked them about it and they assured me it was just around the next corner.
I finally decided that it must be down this small dirt road leading off of the main road (the thought that I was perhaps not divine and hence not supposed to find the oracle never crossed my mind). Well the small dirt road led to a trail which lead to an olive tree garden, which I would say could be likened to the desert version of a jungle. At this point I thought that I had come around and was near the main road again, and so decided to push on through the garden. The garden was complete with irrigation ditches and low hanging branches which made biking through it an interesting adventure, especially for a giant.
Anyway, I finally did come out near the road again, but in the meantime I had managed to break my bike. My turning of the handlebars no longer had any affect on the direction of the wheel, which made it very difficult to steer the bike. On the main road a friendly man who looked very much like a Sheikh drove by on a motorcycle and waved to me as I was pushing my bike down the road. I waved back and smiled. Perhaps my smile looked forced, or he could sense an inner agony in my face, I’m not sure, but he turned around and came back. The first thing he said to me wasn’t, “what’s your name?” or “where are you from?” or “welcome in Egypt” or any of the other stuff that’s normally hollered at me as I walk down a street in Egypt, it was, “do you need help?” So I replied in Arabic, and his response wasn’t, “wow, your Arabic is perfect” or, “very good” or anything, he just started speaking to me in Arabic like it was the most natural thing in the world.
He took a look at my bike, and apologized because he didn’t really know how to fix it, but then hailed someone else down who was passing and told him the problem. The other guy came over, and took a look at my bike and said, ‘oh yeah, that really is broken’ and offered to drive me and the bike to Cleopatra’s bath on his motorcycle. Upon seeing that I was taken care of, the original helper hopped back on his motorcycle and took off, not even asking if he could have my phone number. The other man then drove me to the spring, dropped me off, asked if I needed anything else and then also went on his way. Neither of them was even slightly concerned with the fact that I was a foreigner, nor with the fact that I could speak Arabic.
So I was now at this spring with a broken bike, but there was a small café area there too, so I decided to sit down and have a drink and maybe try and catch a ride into town with one of the tourist groups that came through. I spotted a place to park my bike and on the way saw that I would have to pass a young boy of about 8 years. In Egypt, boys about this age are quite often the most obnoxious when it comes to seeing foreigners, so I thought this would be the real test. As I was walking my bike passed him he looked up at me and smiled, and then asked me (in Arabic) what happened to my bike. So I told him that I had broken it, and he took one look at it and said, ‘no, no, that’s not broken.’ He then raced over to the side of the road, picked up a large rock, came back over and bashed my bike a few times with it. He then told me to try it out now and see how it felt, so I did and it seemed to be as good as new. I thanked him, and he just said ‘you’re welcome’ and took off to go jump in the spring and I never saw him again. I was now really beginning to be confused about what the deal was with these Siwans.
Anyway, I had quite a few other experiences like these and am quite convinced now that the Siwan people are just wonderful. Though the poor women have to be covered up more than anywhere else I have been, after they get married. They also speak a language which I never got tired of listening to. There seems to be some connection to Arabic, but I’m not sure if they just started using some Arabic words or if there is actually a linguistic connection between the two languages. The main thing that I enjoyed so much about it was the different pitches they used when talking. The word ‘lilting’ kept coming to mind when I would listen to them speak to each other. They would go from deep to high and back down and up, and I couldn’t figure out if it had to do with certain words, or if it had to do with stress or what.
The one other thing that I did while there, I promise I will finish on this note, was to go on a desert safari. This was also a great experience, and there is something delightful about racing up and down sand dunes with nothing but more sand in all directions while the moon rises on one side and the sun sets on the other. We went to different oases scattered here and there randomly throughout the desert, and I was also able to try my hand (or legs) at sand-boarding, which was great. I think I could get quite good at it if I had more practice. We then all camped out in the desert overnight, but the moon was full, regrettably, so I wasn’t able to see all the stars that I was hoping to see.
There are other stories that I could probably tell, but perhaps that will have to wait until I see you in person. My plans for the near future are to hopefully get a chance to take a trip to Ethiopia around Christmas time, after this trauma healing conference, when I get a bit of a break in the workload. I will update you all on how that trip goes, insha’allah, when I get back from it.