Discover an Egyptian oasis
There’s more to Egypt than the pyramids, as we discover an egyptian oasis. crack
There’s more to Egypt than the Pyramids of Giza - the only surviving wonder of the ancient world - and a trip deep into the western desert reveals one of its less well-known treasures. A three-hour drive south from the coastal town of Marsa Matruh, and 350 miles south-west of bustling Cairo, Siwa Oasis is a dust coloured settlement surrounded by date palms and olive groves that appears to have changed little in centuries.
But the ‘oasis of a million palm trees’ is more than a patch of green in the middle of an expanse of sandy desert. It boasts several ancient ruins, including the Temple of the Oracle consulted by Alexander the Great and its own ‘mountain of the dead’ with tombs dating back to Roman and ancient Egyptian times.
Climbing that mountain, Gebel al-Mawta, gives a great view of the surrounding town, and there’s a chance to see inside and gain a glimpse of wall paintings which have been preserved for centuries.
Less ancient is the strange old town of Shali in the centre of Siwa, a multi-layered pile of what look like melted buildings.
And they are: three days of heavy rain in 1926 melted the salt blocks that form much of the building material and forced the townspeople to rebuild in the surrounding area.
The palm trees which give the city its name and character are so important to the area that they cannot be chopped down to make way for new development - and so houses are built around them.
As a result, our hotel had several trees protruding through the dining room and up
into the terrace where they cast a welcome shadow from the sun and provided a handy source of freshly-picked dates.
Meals could be enjoyed Western-style at a table and chairs, or Bedouin-style on cushions around low tables, and the food was typically north African with hummus, feta, olives and baba ganoush just some of the options.
The bedrooms were all rustic charm, constructed and furnished using the palm and olive trees which have been the traditional building materials here for centuries.
Unlike the Western bustle of Cairo, Siwa is a traditional place – all the women are totally covered in public and there isn’t a drop of alcohol to buy. However, they don’t mind if you bring your own.
You need at least a couple of days to really do the sites justice in the town. It is easily navigable by bicycle, although the roads are rather sandy and some of the potholes are huge - as I found out to my cost.
We also headed out of town to see some of the places originally settled by the Bedouin community before they moved into Siwa itself, as well as the salt lakes and springs which rise like mirages out of the desert.
One of the highlights of the trip was the desert safari, where we headed at speed out onto the sand dunes in a 4X4 vehicle humming the Indiana Jones theme tune to ourselves - we couldn’t remember how Lawrence of Arabia went. We then hurtled up and down the dunes in a series of stomach-churning drops, in a cross between a rollercoaster ride and surfing in a truck.
There was a stop at an oasis lake entirely surrounded by dunes for a swim, before heading to a part of the desert which is ancient even by Egypt’s standards.
Here the sand gives way to white and brittle ground - littered with the fossils of seashells dating back millions of years to when the Sahara was at the bottom of the sea.
After that, there was a stop at another oasis, this one complete with a hot spring, for dinner under the stars before heading back into town.
While there is more to Egypt than the Pyramids, no trip to the country would be complete without a visit to those extraordinary structures.
So we headed to Giza, where the crowds of tourists, the camel-ride salesmen, the boys selling dancing toy camels and the security searches are all as much a part of the experience as the Pyramids themselves.
Our guide, a qualified Egyptologist, dismissed a number of the theories about the Pyramids - including the belief they were built by slaves - but did tell us that their dimensions were perfect for withstanding earthquakes.
At some 4,000 years old, they have certainly stood the test of time, although the tombs within them were raided long ago.
Going bent double down dark, humid tunnels to reach the central burial chamber, which now contains nothing more than an empty stone tomb was not exactly a pleasant experience - but is definitely something to be able to say you’ve done.
Egypt is also famous for its belly dancing and its whirling dervishes, and we got a chance to see both on a Nile cruise, which also showed off the city by night with its collection of top hotels and smart homes which hug the river.
It was a world away from the donkey carts and sunsets over the desert of Siwa, and hard to believe the two places were part of the same country - and the one trip.