“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley
I love anything that smashes to bits a crusty, no-longer useful notion. The presumptions we make about other cultures, other countries are top of the crusty notion list. Which is why I so loved my recent trip to Egypt.
I will be writing a series of articles about this magical country and why I believe everyone should add it to (maybe move it to the top of?) their bucket list.
Even those lucky and ballsy enough to visit Egypt often miss one of the most unique destinations.
Luxor, Valley of the Kings? Check. Check.
But unless you’re Alexander the Great, it’s doubtful you’ve made it Egypt’s Siwa Oasis. The chief reason being that it’s hard to get to. You have to really want to go. In fact, when the 55,000-man Persian Army tried to visit in 550 BC, they were swallowed by the immense desert, never to be seen again.
Now at least, there’s a road. Even still, from Cairo, it’s a good six-hour drive and that’s if you didn’t have to stop every couple hours to produce your passport.
Even I, intrepid traveler that I am, started wondering after the fifth stop by armed guards: Why was it again I wanted to visit this remote outpost?
But within 15 minutes of arriving in this fertile Berber enclave on the edge of the Eastern Sahara’s Great Sand Sea, every concern, every bumpy mile evaporated into great gratitude.
According to legend, Alexander the Great made it to Siwa in 332 BC by talking with snakes and following crows across the desert. He traversed the 150,000 square mile ocean of sand to consult with the Oracle of Amon, the great Sun God who is honored with a 3000-year old temple that stands yet today. Unlike Mr. Great, who was told by the ancient Oracle that he was the Divine Big Cheese and the rightful head of the gods and Egyptian pharaohs, I was told I should keep writing books.
I can’t complain. Standing on the edge of the limestone temple that sits like a floating white island above green palms, I was struck wordless as I looked out over the palm tops of date and olive trees and the Montana-sized white sand ocean that separates Egypt from Libya.
Even though it’s now possible to safari out into the Great Sand Sea, finding words to describe the experience is virtually impossible and, for my money, the genesis of the phrase, “You really have to be there.” The dictionary has yet to add words that can adequately describe the pure hugeness, the expanse, the colors, the sounds, the thrill of roller-coastering up and down the dunes as fast as your jeep will drive. Even photos, with their 1000-word value, can’t convey the experience, the immersion of silence found in this ocean of soft white sand.
After finally managing to close our gaping mouths and rise from our knees where we knelt in awe, we spent our day in the Great Sand Sea lounging in hot springs (there are hundreds, many with medicinal properties) sand boarding down 70-foot dunes and sipping lemongrass tea as the sun spread its magnificent setting colors across the landscape.
Even though Siwa is located on the old date caravan route (sort of a no-brainer when you have 300,000 date palms), it wasn’t much explored by the west until World War II, when clandestine German and British desert patrols including Count Laszlo Almasy (you might know him as the English Patient) came to spy.
Because it’s so remote, Siwa is quite distinct from other parts of Egypt and has retained a mostly Berber culture for some 13 centuries. Girls tend to marry by age 14, so the winding dirt streets with more donkey carts than cars are mostly filled with young children, veiled women and hospitable men selling local produce, finely-embroidered woven crafts, Berber jewelry and salt lamps and candle holders.
Slouching mud and salt brick buildings provide storefronts (we were even able to buy a pair of fake Armani sunglasses), quaint restaurants and charming hotels and B&B’s.
After visiting the Temple of the Oracle, we headed out to Cleopatra’s Bath, Siwa’s most famous spring that, despite the rumor, never actually hosted the famous Egyptian Queen. The springside Tanta Waa (it basically means OMG in the local Siwian language) juice bar is owned by a delightful English-speaking Egyptian who attended the same prep school as Omar Sharif. He was playing Wanda Jackson hits and I sat there drinking a mango smoothie listening to her rockabilly version of Kansas City, I thought to myself, it certainly is a very small world.
I’ll be forever grateful to Jane Bolinowsky and Sarwat Hegazy at Egypt Unveiled for introducing me to this amazing place.
To find out more, check out their website: www.egyptunveiled.com.