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.
In the midst of the Great Sand Sea in the Western Desert 560km west of Cairo, Siwa Oasis is one of the most remote destinations and a town deepest in the mighty Sahara that tourists may reach in Egypt. Only 50km away from the Libyan border, Siwa lies in a natural depression about 19m below sea level. Occupied mostly by a group of Berber people who have developed their own culture and distinct dialect Siwi, Siwa Oasis is one of Egypt’s most isolated settlements. Until a tarmac road was built in 1984 to Marsa Matruh at the Mediterranean Coast, Siwa was only accessible by camels. Despite its remoteness, Siwa has long been a famous place in times of antiquity when a Greek oracle temple dedicated to the Egyptian sun god Amun was established in about 700 BC. In 331 BC, a celebrated conqueror from Macedon set sail from his newly founded Egyptian city by the Mediterranean Coast to Mersa Matruh, and then marched inland into the desert to reach the remote oracle. His visit has forever put Siwa on the map of history. This military genius is commonly known as Alexander the Great.
Home to spectacular landscapes, ancient ruins and distinct oasis culture, Siwa has been considered as an alternative destination in Egypt away from the popular Nile region and Red Sea resorts. For me, the simple idea of venturing out to the far end of the Western Desert in Egypt was tempting enough. Before the emergence of smartphones, Instagram and even Facebook, Siwa was not a well known tourist destination back in 2006. I learnt about Siwa Oasis from Lonely Planet guidebook. Given the anticipated impact of speedy globalization, I feared that the remote Oasis would turn into a resort town in a few years’ time. Thus I decided to pick Siwa as the last stop of my 2006 Middle East trip.
Once-in-a-century pandemic has brought international travel to a complete halt. With the pandemic still raging in many parts of the world, it is unrealistic to plan for new travel anytime soon. As a result, we will take this opportunity to share some of our past travel experiences that predate this blog. The pandemic compels us to cherish our travel memories more than ever, and acknowledge that we should never take things for granted especially in turbulent times. The first travel memory we are going to write about is a 40-day journey through the Middle East from Turkey to Egypt via Syria and Jordan. In the recent decade, the Middle East has gone through drastic changes after the Arab Spring movement in early 2010’s and the rise of Isis, particularly for Syria where the ongoing civil war has displaced over 10 million and killed about half a million of Syrians in the past 9 years. Places visited and people encountered may no longer exist, but they live long in our memories.
In spring 2006, I and five other friends embarked on the 40-day journey from Toronto, Canada. We first flew to Athens via Zurich, and then landed in Istanbul on 29th of April. We spent 11 days in Turkey, visiting the splendid architecture of Istanbul and Edirne, archaeological sites of Bergama and Ephesus, and natural wonders of Pamukkale and Cappadocia, before crossing the border at Antakya into Syria. We spent a week traveling from Aleppo to Damascus, visiting Crusader castles and archaeological sites near Hama, Palmyra, Bosra and Maalula along the way. From Damascus, we hired a taxi to Amman in Jordan, where we stayed for 8 days. While Petra was our main focus in Jordan, we did manage to visit classical ruins and medieval castles, the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum Desert, and Aqaba diving resort. Then on 25th of May, we hopped on a ferry to cross the Gulf of Aqaba for Sinai Peninsula. In Egypt, we spent the remaining week to visit the diving town of Dahab, hike the sacred Mount Sinai, admire the pyramids in Saqqara, Dahshur and Giza, and the mosques and Coptic churches in Cairo, and finally ventured out into the far western end near the Libyan border for Siwa Oasis and the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert.
Back then, I didn’t have a DSLR or smart phone, but traveled with a Nikon FM2 and 50+ rolls of films, including some Fuji Velvia (slide positives) and Ilford Delta (B&W negatives). Number of shots were limited and low light photography was restricted by the film ISO and the availability of a flat surface to place the camera. Yet, the photos’ film grains and occasional blurry effects due to hand movements somehow provoke a unique mood and vaguely remind me each distinct moment when I released the shutter. Each shot has no second take or immediate image editing. Compared to the multi gigabytes stored in memory cards, the slides and negatives of the Middle East trip are much more tangible as if one-of-a-kind souvenir from the trip. Scanning the films afterwards made me to spend a whole lot more time on each photo, and sometimes led me to rediscover bits and pieces of forgotten travel memories.
The 40-day Middle East trip in 2006 remains as one of my most memorable travel experiences to date.
The first time seeing the great architecture of ancient Constantinople was like a dream come true to me.
It was hard to perceive that all the ancient architecture in Turkey were maintained by generations after generations of craftsmen throughout the centuries.
The old Ottoman houses of Istanbul provoke a sense of melancholy that can only be found in the works of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.
With the otherworldly landscape, hiking in Cappadocia was fun and felt like walking on another planet.
In the past decade, reading the news about how Syrians have suffered and learning about so many cultural heritage, including the Aleppo Citadel, have been destroyed or badly damaged was really upsetting.
Archaeological sites in Syria like Palmyra and Apamea (pictures above) has become venues for frequent looting and destruction under the Isis.
10 million people have been displaced by the Syrian Civil War. Cities like Hama, the city famous for its ancient norias, has been standing in the forefront between the rebels and the government force.
I have encountered so many innocent Syrian children, including these school kids in Damascus, back in 2006. No one would have foreseen the brutal civil war coming in a few years’ time.
Compared to the Syrians who are still going through the civil war, the Jordanian children that I’ve met in Amman during the trip have been much more fortunate.
Every time meandering through the Siq, the narrow gorge that leads into the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, and approaching the Treasury was like going into an Indiana Jones movie.
Riding a camel in Wadi Rum Desert offered every visitors a chance to feel like being Lawrence of Arabia.
I would never forget hiking the pilgrim route up Mount Sinai at 2am in complete darkness, standing at the summit in bone-chilling wind, and watching one of the most anticipated sunrises in my life.
Getting lost in the chaotic Islamic Cairo would be so much fun if not the scorching heat.
Venturing out to the remote Siwa Oasis on my own was one of the most adventurous event in my travels.
Heading out from Siwa into the Great Sand Sea gave me the perfect Sahara moments: doing rollercoaster Jeep rides up and down the dunes, watching sunset over the undulating desert horizon, and sleeping under the Milky Way in the open desert.