ultramarinus – beyond the sea

Posts tagged “Siwa

BRIDE OF THE MEDITERRANEAN, Alexandria, Egypt

2006.06.04.

After an isolated retreat at Siwa Oasis, I once again headed back onto the road. This time, the destination was my home in Toronto. The journey from the Egypt’s Western Desert to Canada took me first to Alexandria and Cairo by land, and then Athens and Zurich by air before touching down on the North American soil. I took an 8-hour night bus leaving Siwa at 22:00, and arriving Alexandria in early morning the next day. I sat beside a friendly old lady who kept on offering me peanuts. After some snacks and chat, I felt asleep with my headphone music. When I get up, Alexandria was just minutes away.

Founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great, Alexandria is the largest city by the Mediterranean and the second largest city in Egypt. In the Classical era, the city was well known for the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and its Great Library, the largest library in the Classical World with 400,000 scrolls. The city itself was once the largest city in the western world before overtaken by Rome. Alexandria remained as the capital of Egypt for a thousand years from Ptolemaic Egypt, throughout much of the Roman and Byzantine era until the Muslim conquest in 641 AD, when the political centre of Egypt was shifted to Cairo. By that time, the magnificent city that once rivaled Rome and Constantinople was already largely plundered and destroyed. In the modern age, Alexandria regained a part of its former glory as an important port of international trading, connecting Egypt and its products (such as Egyptian cotton) to the outside world.

Before leaving Alexandria for Cairo by train, I had a bit of free time to wander around the port city.
I slowly found my way through a number of residential neighborhood towards the sea.
Between 1882 to 1956, Egypt was under the British colonial rule. Buildings from the colonial era became a major part of the architectural heritage as Alexandria entered the modern age.
Beautiful ornament on an old building in downtown Alexandria
Behind the 1.2km sea mole known as Heptastadion, the Great Harbour of Alexandria or Al Mina’ ash Sharqiyah (Eastern Harbour) is a safe haven for fishing boats.
The Minaa El Sharkia Beach near Citadel of Qaibay is also a popular spot for locals seeking for a moment of relaxation.
Boys swam in the water at the Minaa El Sharkia Beach.
I walked along the Minaa El Sharkia Beach towards Manar El Islam Mosque and the Citadel of Qaitbay.
The Citadel of Qaitbay is a 15th century fortress built by Sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qa’it Bay. The Qaitbay Citadel is an important defensive stronghold at the Mediterranean coast. Formerly known as Pharos Island, the citadel is situated at the former site of the legendary Lighthouse of Alexandria.
Known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Lighthouse was damaged by a series of earthquakes from the 8th century to the 14th century. The massive earthquake in 1303 caused a decisive blow to the structure. The remnant was then built over by Qaitbay Citadel in 1480.
The legendary lighthouse was long gone, but the 3rd century BC Heptastadion continued to harbour the people of Alexandria.
Grey Mullet, Red Mullet, Sea Bass, Red Smelt, Bluefish and Sole are some of the fish found in the Mediterranean near Alexandria.
The downtown of Alexandria and the waterfront Corniche unfold along the waterfront of Eastern Harbour.
After spending some time by the waterfront, I slowly walked through Downtown Alexandria to the railway station.
Alexandria is full of buildings of distinct character.
Finally I arrived at Sidi Gaber Railway Station, the oldest railway station in Egypt, for my train back to Cairo.

SIWAN CHILDREN, Siwa Oasis, Egypt

2006.06.04.

During my short stay at the oasis, the people left me with the most lasting impression were the Siwan children. No matter how hot during the day, I could still find these kids outside their homes having fun. I often stopped my bicycle and asked these kids for directions. Some would point me towards the right direction, while others might introduce me to their friends from next door or show me their self-made toys. Sometimes I would ask if I could take a photo of them, and just holding my camera towards them would make them laugh for a long long time. It was June 2006, when Siwa was still a relatively unknown travel destination except for backpackers, and the world was far less connected before the emergence of iPhone and Instagram. The kids belonged to a much simpler world back then. It is interesting to look back at their photos. For me, they represent some of the warmest memories of my Egyptian experience.

I saw this kid at the back of the donkey cart more than once at the town centre.
I spent a bit of time with these kids on my way to the Temple of Oracle.
They were chasing each other in front of their homes.
They were friendly and delightful.
Some stood by their door and couldn’t stop laughing when they saw me.
This boy was on his way to the town centre for grocery.
These kids ran behind my bike for a short distance just to say hello.
These three children spotted me on my bike from their front porch.
I waved to them and they giggled back.
It is hard to imagine how their adulthood have turned out now.
I also met these kids who made their own toys with a rope, a few plastic bottles and sand.
The kid with the Real Madrid jersey showed me how his toy work: tying the sand filled bottles to their hands and running around with the rolling bottles.

CYCLING IN THE SUMMER HEAT, Siwa Oasis, Egypt

2006.06.04.

Cycling is a popular way to take in attractions that lie further afield from the oasis. Renting a bicycle was quite easy in the town centre. Under the scotching summer heat of around 45 degrees Celsius, riding the bike in Siwa means one has to get a drink every half an hour. That was exactly what I did. Without smartphone or a proper map, cycling by myself also forced me to interact with the locals to ask for directions. With a bike, I was able to venture out a little further away from the town centre to visit the Temple of the Oracle, the Holy Temple of Amun that Alexander the Great visited over two thousand years ago; Fatnas Island, a laid back and lush green area right by Lake Siwa and Gebel al Mawta, the Mountain of the Dead carved with many rock tombs.

Cycling around Siwa brought me to the neighborhood near the Temple of the Oracle.
Under the mid morning heat, I could hardly see anybody outside their homes.
It wasn’t easy to find somebody to ask for directions in the mostly abandoned Aghurmi village near the Temple of Oracle.
The most famous temple of Amun, also known as the Temple of the Oracle. Full of legends and history, the temple was well known in the Classical world after the visit of Alexander the Great, who came all the way into the desert from Alexandria after his conquest of Egypt.
Other than Alexander, the temple was also visited by other legendary visitors such as Perseus, Hercules, etc.
According to legends, two black priests from the Temple of Amun in Thebes went into exile in the desert, and one of them settled in Siwa and became the Oracle’s sibyl. Some say the Temple of Oracle dates back as early as 1385 BC in honor of Ham, the son of Noah. Another legend has it that the temple was erected by the Greek god Dionysus. The exact origin of the temple remains a myth.
200m from the Temple of Oracle stood the ruins of Temple of Umm Ubayd (Temple of Amun). Thanks to Mahmoud Azmy, an Ottomon police chief who decided to blow up the temple in the late 19th century, not much is left at the temple site except some inscriptions and bas relief on a stone wall.
After the temples, I continued to cycle around Siwa.
It was awfully hot during midday. Every time I passed by a store I would get a bottle of soft drink.
On my way to Fatnas Island, I passed by some waterways feeding into Lake Siwa.
Fatnas Island is a famous palm grove by Lake Siwa. Sometimes the lake looked pretty dry with salty mudflats.
Instead of an island, Fatnas is in fact a peninsula in the salt lake.
Known as “Fantasy Island”, Fatnas Island is a good spot to watch sunset with a cup of tea.
Siwa is famous for its date palms.
For 3000 years, the farmers of Siwa Oasis have been harvesting the chewy Siwa Oasis dates.
Excessive drainage have turned the lake into salty mudflats.
Known as the Mountain of the Dead, the Gebel al Mawta was an ancient graveyard 1km north of the oasis town.
Hundreds of burial holes were carved in the soft sandstone.
After two thousand years, not much is left in the tombs, except the undulating cratered landscape of the rock hill.

NIGHTSCAPE, Siwa Oasis, Egypt

2006.06.03.

Spending the night in the oasis town of Siwa was not as dramatic as sleeping under the Milky Way in the Great Sand Sea. Nonetheless, it was an exceptionally peaceful experience to stay the night in Siwa. In the evening, there wasn’t many people on the streets. Alcohol was almost non-existence. While most locals stay in their homes, some tourists would spend their evening smoking shisha or devouring a cup of coffee or tea at a tea house After a delicious couscous dinner, I wandered around the oasis town with my tripod and film camera to document the tranquil nightscape of the oasis. The Shali Fortress was always the focal point no matter where I went in the town centre. Under strong floodlights, the majestic ruins stood proudly above the the new town centre. Each of the eroding structure once contained generations of desert culture and forgotten memories of the ancient Berbers.

With powerful flood lights, the Shali Fortress dominates the nightscape of Siwa Oasis.
Below the Shali Fortress, residents of Siwa Oasis lead their peaceful lives.
Staying in town centre offered me numerous choices for restaurants and internet cafes.
After dinner time, Siwa
Restaurants and guesthouses dotted along the base of the Shali Fortress.
The Great Mosque is probably the most prominent building of the oasis town.
Despite a number of restaurants, tea houses and cafes opened till late at night, there wasn’t many people at the town centre at night.
After devastating rain in 1926, the Shali was abandoned and remained as the iconic backdrop of the oasis town ever since.

GREAT SAND SEA, Siwa Oasis, Egypt

2006.06.02.

With an area of approximately 72,000 square metres stretching across western Egypt and eastern Libya, the sand dunes of the Great Sand Sea offer visitors an opportunity to experience a sandy Sahara. Sand seas only cover a minor part of the world’s largest hot desert. The majority of the Sahara is in fact rocky and barren. The remote Siwa Oasis is a popular base to explore the Egyptian side of the Great Sand Sea. Getting out to the vast sea of sand requires a 4×4 vehicle. Most tourists would join a local tour for either an overnight stay in the desert or a half day visit that ends with watching the sunset from the dunes. I opted for an overnight tour. After all, it was such a romantic concept to sleep under the Milky Way in the open Sahara. I shared the 4×4 desert tour with a young American couple. Our 4×4 spent sped out the oasis and spent much of the afternoon doing “roller-coaster” runs up and down the sand dunes. To enjoy the full excitement, the driver told us to sit on top of the 4×4.

After some chill out time on the dunes, we were dropped off at a campsite right by a small artificial pool. After a simple meal, we got to choose to either stay inside a simple stone shelter for the night, or spread out our provided rug and sheets nearby to claim an open spot on the sand. I slept a bit and woke up at around 2am. As soon as I opened my eyes, the imposing Milky Way was right over my head. Until my other stargazing experiences in the Atacama during my 2013 South American journey, the starry sky that night over the Great Sand Sea was probably the most beautiful that I have ever seen.

Doing a desert tour in the Sahara was like a dream came true for me.
Low light in the afternoon over the Great Sand Sea offered me a delightful moment for photography.
The afternoon desert scenery was as romantic as anyone could have hoped for.
After several rounds of roller-coaster runs on the dunes, our 4×4 had a flat tire.
The driver immediately stopped the vehicle and changed the tire on the spot.
Probably caused by the wind, the wavy pattern of the sand worked perfectly with the low afternoon light.
The wavy pattern appeared more obvious at certain spots in the desert.
At one point, we walked to the top of a sand dune and did some sand tobogganing.
Ridge of a sand dune in late afternoon.
Ridge of a sand dune in late afternoon.
Sunset over the desert
Beautiful sand pattern
Our campsite was close to some large sand dunes.
Probably because of the water, more vegetation could be found near our campsite.
Not until early morning that I could notice the patches of salt on the ground near our campsite.
Our campsite was centered at a small pool.
Overview of our campsite.

CLEOPATRA’S SPRING, Siwa Oasis, Egypt

2006.06.02.

With a constant temperature of 29 degrees Celsius, the Ain Juba or Cleopatra’s Spring is a popular tourist attraction near Siwa Oasis. While some say Cleopatra swam in the pool during her visit to the oasis, many other historians dispute about this legend and insist that the spring has nothing to do with the famous Queen of Egypt. The spring is nonetheless ancient and well known in times of antiquity. Referred as the Fountain of the Sun by Herodotus, legend has it that Alexander the Great followed a group of birds in the desert and reached the famous spring during his conquest of Persia. From history to the present, the spring remains as a reliable treat of a cool refreshing dip for tired travellers.

Many tourists reach the pool as part of a local tour going out to the Great Sand Sea, it can also be reached by cycling on the road to the Temple of the Oracle. For me, I have done both, first as part of a local tour on the way to stay a night in the desert, and second time by bicycle on my way to the ruined temple. On my first time, I spent most of my time chatting with the friendly pool caretaker in the pool hut. I didn’t notice any bather during my two visits. Given the fact that swimmers were advised to bath with a t-shirt on in respect to local customs, I didn’t get into the famous water myself given I didn’t have an extra t-shirt with me on both occasions.

I joined a Jeep tour out to the Great Sand Sea. Along the way, we passed by a salt flat and Cleopatra’s Spring.
Salt flats are common in deserts around the world where water from former lakes have been evaporated, leaving behind salt and minerals on the ground.
Known as Qattara Depression, the area west of Siwa is the second lowest point in Africa. Covered with salt flats, salt marshes and sand dunes, dangerous quagmires are not uncommon in the depression. During WWII, Qattara Depression was considered impassable for military vehicles and tanks due to the danger of quagmires.
There are a number of springs in the area of Siwa Oasis, including Cleopatra’s Spring, Ain Tamusi (Spring of the Bridge), Ain Arais, Fatnas Spring, Ain Qurayshat, Bir Wahed, etc.
Trapped in subterranean chambers, there is actually plenty of spring water below the Western Desert. At a level below the sea, subterranean spring water is much easier to access in the Qattara Depression.
Well maintained by caretakers, the Cleopatra’s Spring is frequented by locals and tourists.
The main pool at Cleopatra’s Spring is circumscribed by a retaining stone wall.
Resting huts and tea houses dot around the pool.
Spring water in Siwa is highly salinized. There is a significant amount of ulvacean green algae in the spring water.

SHALI FORTRESS, Siwa Oasis, Egypt

2006.06.01.

Perched above the town centre stands the 13th century Fortress of Shali is the grand centerpiece of Siwa Oasis town. For centuries, the fortress stood to protect the local Berber community against all outsiders. In fact, few outsiders have ever set foot inside the fortress throughout history. In 1926, a three-day rain caused great damages to the kershif (local salt and mud) buildings of the Shali. The locals abandoned the centuries-old fortress and relocated themselves in new houses adjacent to the Shali. Since then, the mighty fortress was left for self decay and gradual erosion from wind and occasional rain.

In 2018, a joint effort by the EU and the Egyptian company Environmental Quality International began to restore the crumbling ruins of the Shali. The government was hoping that a restored fortress in Siwa would boost eco-tourism in the faraway oasis town. The EU funded project aims to restore traditional marketplaces, upgrades environmental services and establishes a child healthcare centre for the villagers. Not everyone agrees with the restoration. For some locals, the Shali is better to be left in its ruined state and the resources to be spent on something else.

For decades, the Shali fortress has served as an iconic backdrop for the oasis town.
The Shali is also a popular photo spot for tourists.
Wandering in the Shali in early morning was a great way to start my day.
With the arid climate of the Western Desert, it is hard to believe that the fortress was actually destroyed by rain.
The Shali offers visitors some good lookout points for some birdeye’s views of Siwa.
The extent of erosion damages was quite apparent as I looked down from the Shali.
Karshif or kershef, the traditional material made of local clay and salt, has been used to construct many buildings in Siwa, including the Shali Fortress.
Restoration work of the Shali began in November 2020. Time will tell if the project can successfully revive the fortress village and boost tourism for Siwa.The chimney-shaped minaret of the old mosque of Shali is the best kept structure in the fortress.
Completed in 1203, the Old Mosque of Shali Fortress stands today as the oldest monument in the Shali.
Upon restoration, the old mosque would open its doors for future visitors.
Donkeys are kept in walled yard near the edge of the Shali.
Only a few houses in the Shali were still inhabited during my visit in 2006.
Known as Mountain of the Dead, Gebel al-Mawta is a small hill dotted with rock tombs at the northern end of Siwa Oasis.