Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Travel: Discover Siwa Oasis

The Press and Journal (Emily Beament)

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 lesser 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 which 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.

Constant excavations have stripped away layers of the mountain, and the remains of bones are scattered around the entrances to what is left of the tombs themselves.

Less ancient, but equally ruined, 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 – 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 with 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.

See the above page for the full story.

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