After the incredible orientation, we had high expectations for the trip to the Siwa Oasis. We were not disappointed in the least.
Siwa is a small oasis town located about 350 miles west of Cairo known for its rich history, tasty dates and delicious olive oil. Unfortunately those 350 miles translate into a ten-hour bus ride through the western Egyptian desert, a vast expanse of sand and rock devoid of any real variation except for the odd house or truck stop. We arrived sore and exhausted, but managed to hold on just long enough for a quick dip in the hotel’s pool before passing out in our room.
The next day began with a visit to a castle located on one of the few small rock hills that surround Siwa, giving it a commanding view of the city. Unfortunately, the complex is largely destroyed, leaving the hill looking more like a moonscape than a fortress. We were told that the building was constructed out of a combination of mud, solid salt and palm wood. This might have seemed like a good idea in the beginning (no rain in the desert right?) but the large rainstorms that come every thirty years or so clearly demonstrated the flaw in the architect’s logic.
The highlight of the morning however, was the Temple of the Oracle. Located on top of another hill, this temple is famous as the spot where Alexander the Great was told that he was truly the son of Zeus-Ammon and therefore the legitimate Pharaoh of Egypt. It appeared that there was a main room in the temple where the seekers asked their questions of the Oracle and then received answers from the high priest hidden in a side room. Perhaps the high priest received some type of signs, which he interpreted to provide the sought after answers or this was just an elaborate charade to bring ancient tourists to Siwa, still successful 1700 years.
After a leisurely lunch, we arrived at the house of a Siwan family, which a previous Fulbrighter had married into after meeting one of the sons during her research. We split up and the women went to learn traditional sewing and the men basket weaving. Although we did not come close to making our own baskets, we did learn how to weave the palm fronts together and also had a chance to sample raw palm heart, which tastes what you might expect wood to taste like if you could eat it.
We cut the visit short in order to take a trip out to watch the sunset over one of the salt lakes that borders Siwa. Our mode of transportation was a “Siwa taxi”, known in other cities as a donkey cart, with different phrases written on the sides such as “4×4”, “Most Eco-friendly Taxi” or “Toyota”. Our donkey, Ali Baba, was nice, but at times seemed as though he had a death wish as he would run straight toward the drop-off at the edge of the road, only to be narrowly stopped by the driver and pulled back on course. The ride turned out to be more interesting than the clouded sunset but we were entertained by another harrowing trip back to town in our unusual caravan.
That night we were treated to a discussion on the culture and history of Siwa, presented by one of the local English teachers. The most prominent thing that we learned from Siwa was how conservative it is: once married, women wear the full body facial covering, and being caught talking with a man outside of the family without it is tantamount to adultery and grounds for divorce.
He also spoke about the tribal system. Siwa has a number of main tribes, each headed by a sheikh who settles the larger disputes as well as providing guidance for the tribe. This even includes designating who should be voted for in local elections. Everyone has a tribe in Siwa and without one, not only would you be bereft of a community and economic safety net, you would not be able to work in local politics or have access to a number of other city services that are also run through the tribes.
In the end, the presenter said that Siwa’s culture, with its unique language, history and customs were different enough from the rest of Egypt that he considers other Egyptians more like cousins, but hastened to add that they are brothers in Islam.