Crystal blue water that stands out in a desert of reds and tans is sure to bring joy to the heart of any weary traveller. Imagine living in ancient times, traveling for days in the scorching heat, and finally coming across an oasis of calm, inviting water. Thus is Siwa, a large oasis about 10km long and between 6-8 km wide far our in Egypt’s Western Desert, or what most of the world knows as the northeastern edge of the great Sahara Desert of northern Africa.
The oasis of Siwa is located about 560 km west of Cairo and is the most famous oasis in Egypt. This desert beauty boasts 200 springs and is one of Egypt’s most isolated ancient settlements, with a tiny population of 33,000 people.
The ancient name for Siwa was Sekht-am, which means Palm Land or Field of Trees, so you can only imagine how this oasis stood out in a sea of sand. The earliest evidence of people living near Siwa dates as far back as the 10th millennium BC. Those who reside there now live in mud-brick houses that are at the foot of a former stronghold that helped guard the western edge of the ancient empire.
The history behind the settlements of Siwa is quite fascinating because the site’s roots are steeped in mystical oracles and famous historical figures such as Alexander the Great. According to legend, Alexander came to Siwa while following birds in the desert during his conquest of the Persians, who at the time had already conquered and toppled the last native Egyptian dynasties. He then visited the oracle’s Temple of Amon where he consulted with the mystical being and was deified as the son of Amon.
In more recent times, Siwa also sat in the path of invading forces across North Africa during World War I and World War II and was the site of several waves of battle during these global conflicts. At one point, some German soldiers were known to have scandalised the local population by skinny dipping in the oasis’s cool waters, although public nudity in the remote conservative Islamic settlement was taboo and strictly forbidden.
The area around Siwa is incredibly fertile, and while many of the people there a make a living from selling dates, olive oil, and handmade crafts, tourism is now a huge part of the local economy of Siwa, with sites such as the Shali Fortress, the freshwater lake at Bir Wahed, Abu Shrouf spring, the tombs of the Mountain of the Dead, the natural salt lake, and the Temple of the Oracle being among the most popular sites to visit in the area.
A visit to Siwa needs at least three full days if not four, given the sheer remoteness of the place. Getting there and back usually takes a full day of travel each way, either by car, bus, or a combination of train or plane and then car or bus to finish off the journey. You cannot fly directly into Siwa, but you can fly to “nearby” Marsa Matruh and then only have to drive the remaining 300 kilometers (190 miles) southwest deep into the Sahara to reach the oasis.
A trip by road all the way from Cairo will take about 10-12 hours to cover the full 738 kilometers (450 miles), although about a quarter of this journey is along Egypt’s beautiful northern Mediterranean coast between El Almein and Marsa Matruh. There are also trains that run between Cairo or Alexandria and Marsa Matruh, although the schedules can be a bit on and off depending on the season.
Despite its remoteness, Siwa is indeed a special place, as affirmed by ancient and modern travelers alike. There is no beating its remoteness and serenity, and the fact that it’s so hard to get to – although not at all impossible – means that it sees far fewer tourists than the rest of the sites in Egypt along the Nile Valley. For anyone who has a 3-4 extra days in Egypt to dedicate to a trip out here, Siwa is truly a magical and memorable addition to any visit to Egypt.