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Published on January 8, 2009

City of Salt

Siwa, actually, was my mother's idea. About 10 years ago I had taken my parents on a trip to the oases of Bahariya and Farafra, the memory of which still draws smiles of sheer delight on their faces whenever recalled. Unforgettable. My stories about the Siwans I encountered during "Characters of Egypt" (see "Invisible people", Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue 922), their language, food and dances had whetted their appetites. Yet, destiny works in strange ways, and so it was that I found myself heading to Siwa, without my parents, but in the company of people I had mostly never met.

We left at midnight, hoping to sleep the way through and arrive fresh by morning as though just out of bed for a bright day in this very alluring spot that has been called some very strange names like "city of the dead", "the forgotten oasis" and "the lost oasis", to mention but a few. Indeed we arrived by morning, but were about as fresh as a banana left on a window sill for a good couple of weeks. Ten hours of being confined to a vehicle is a long time, especially when temperatures drop enough to make you wonder if there are still five fingers attached to your hand.

TWO WHEELS, OR FOUR LEGS: The choice is yours. If you don't have a private mode of transportation in the oasis you can rent a bicycle, like half of the tourists, or a donkey- driven taxi cart, like the other half.

My father, however, had once told me that it is only by treading the ground of a new place that a rapport can be established with it. "Your feet need to meet its soil, otherwise you will forever remain a stranger, however often you visit". I have wanted to know Siwa for many years, and had no intention of retaining any walls between us. We walked.

Very quickly, my ears began to pick up a strange signal: what was being spoken by the Siwans was not Arabic in any dialect, slang or accent. This oasis, about 80km long and 20km wide, located nearly 50km east of the Libyan border between the Qattara Depression and the Egyptian Sand Sea, is in fact home to some 23,000 Amazigh Berbers, who form a separate ethnic group with a distinct language identified as taSiwit, a relative of what is heard in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Berber communities in parts of Niger and Mali. Interestingly, Amazigh means "free people", and the Siwans have remained just that.

Siwa, which in Berber signifies "prey bird", is known to have been settled since at least the 10th millennium BC, its Ancient Egyptian name, Sekht-am, meaning "Palm Land". According to Penguin's Who's Who in the Ancient World, "the Egyptian god Amon [identified with Zeus by Pindar] appears in Greek form after his cult at the Siwa oasis became known to the Greeks in the 7th century BC. The oracle of Zeus Amon [at the oasis] was repeatedly consulted, notably by Alexander the Great whom the priests greeted as the son of Zeus." Hence, the oasis also became known as Ammonium.

ALIVE AND BRICKING: The revelations of the oracle fell into disrepute under the Roman occupation of Egypt, however, and the Romans eventually used the oasis as a place of banishment. This development seems perfectly logical, since Siwa's remoteness -- precisely the factor that helped its people maintain their identity -- is also the reason why visitors feel they have stepped out of a time capsule into a different era, which translates into complete abandon and relaxation. My first impulse upon arrival was to switch off my cell phone and disconnect from the world as I know it, to enter a world that was greeting me with the calm smiles on the Siwans' proud faces.

It is similarly logical, therefore, to read about the numerous revolts staged by the Siwans against Mohamed Ali's rule when he finally managed to add the independent oasis in 1819. The ancient fortress of Siwa, which enclosed the homes of its inhabitants, was constructed of natural rock composed of salt, mud-brick and palm logs, and designed specifically to deter wanderers (attackers or otherwise) from entering this introvert place, accessible through only one gate. Known as the Shali Ghali ( shali meaning city in Berber, and ghali meaning remote), the fort town has now become a textbook example of the picturesque. Its walls have been melted by rain, most (but not all) its houses abandoned, leaving tiny passageways, small windows and narrow doors to stand among the eroded bricks of crumbling walls, in a breathtaking image capturing the essence of time, its gnawing ravages and a people driven by intimate self-preservation. Old Shali, as it is now called, remains the most prominent feature of the city, towering five storeys above the modern houses constructed around it as if it were a shrine, making of it the magnetic epicentre of the oasis' unrivalled charm and unique personality.

SALMA, NEAMA AND WARDA: On the ruins of Old Shali, the overriding emotion is one of nostalgia for a time so perfectly captured that it becomes part of your own past as your feet rest upon, hands touch, eyes see, and tongue tastes the historic bricks. I tasted the wall of Old Shali, and recognised the instantly familiar acridity of salt. Homes have once dissolved before their inhabitants' sight, and yet here are the Siwans, strong, cheerful and proud as ever; still covering their rooftops with drying dates, still pressing their olives for oil, still weaving their baskets of palm fronds, their women still embroidering bridal gowns with the liveliest colours of the earth. I wanted one.

As I made my way out of the labyrinthine winding passages, I noticed some handicraft laid before a door that opened briefly, just long enough for a young girl's head to pop out furtively, and the inviting pale glow of a warm home to entice me. I knocked on the old wood, and a beautiful girl opened, rosy cheeks beaming into a smile just for me. In this home, I found abundantly more than I had sought. With Salma, Neama and Warda, the three sisters who sold the family's products, I shared respect, kindness, generosity, love, prayers, sincerity and human worth.

A TREMBLING EMPEROR: Legend has it that Alexander reached the oasis guided by birds across the desert for, insecure about his status as divine king, he made the long journey seeking the divination of the Temple of the Oracle of Amon before he set out on his conquest in Persia. The oracle, whose answer he was exceptionally allowed by the priests to receive in person thanks to his status, is said to have confirmed his query and cleared his mind regarding another which has remained a mystery until this day.

As we passed through the 13th century gate of the acropolis leading to the ruins of the abandoned village of Aghurmi, silence quickly replaced the squeals of delight that Siwa's little surprises around every corner had produced so far. Coming face to face with this edifice was like beholding the Pyramids for the first time -- this was a moment for quiet contemplation and muted awe. A winding staircase led us up to an open courtyard where stood the well of ablutions in the foreground and the temple perched higher still, at the apex of the small hill. So many priests, so many people needing the reassurance of an answer, have purified their bodies with its waters. The crisscrossing passages and alleys may take you around Aghurmi for as long as you will allow yourself to be absorbed by their enchanting call, bidding you to discover every window and every crumbled wall -- in the end, all ways will lead you to the temple, you will stand among what is left of its columns, your eyes will quiz over its hieroglyphic inscriptions and the flashes will fill your mind. Roman sandals have stood where you are now, while one of the greatest figures of our history may have wept bitter tears in prostrated consternation. The Temple of the Oracle still holds secrets, the energy emanating from the very stone says as much; not the secrets of the answers given, though, but of the questions asked.

THE WATER HAS EYES: Ain Joba, renamed Cleopatra's bath by the Tourism Authority much to the incomprehension of the Siwans, is located about one kilometre from the Temple of the Oracle. Having just extracted ourselves from the temple's historical mysticism, where images of swirling smoke wafting out of delicately ornate incense holders, carried by bald priests clad in leopard skin had vividly come to mind, we stumbled upon this wonder of nature, as though by chance, as if we had simply landed on another planet. There it was, a jewel of a warm spring jotting out of the ground amidst brush strokes of different shades of green into a round pool 15 metres wide, trails of air bubbles exploding at its surface of crystal clear blue water. A café designed to suit the needs of even the most laid back king of chill played mellow tunes, and tourists whose facial expressions spelled grateful disbelief at their fortune for being in this slice of heaven lay over mats on the roof sipping tea with mint, overlooking those plunging in and out of the spring like children who refuse to come out of a swimming pool however many times their parents beckon.

LIFE CYCLE: One of Siwa's nicknames is rather morbid, a gross incongruity considering the abundance of life sustained by the oasis. Other than the actual human community, the countless orchards and palm groves of Siwa have been home to a very diverse plant and animal life. Bird watchers will simply have a ball, as will anyone who feels a thrill by sighting a fox, gazelle, wolf or rare lizard. Siwa is in fact teeming with life.

There are also, on the other hand, a number of monuments -- natural and man-made -- which are symbolic of death. The most obvious is Gabal Al-Mawta (Mountain of the Dead), where tombs dating from the 26th Dynasty, Ptolemaic and Roman periods are rock-cut in almost every inch of the conical mountain. Not to be missed is the Ptolemaic tomb belonging to Si-Amun (according to Egyptologist Ahmed Fakhri, the most beautiful of the Western Desert) rich in colourful depictions and a splendid representation of Nut, Egyptian goddess of the sky.

Bilad Al-Rum (City of the Romans) calls for another encounter with the dead. Perched on a hill are the remains of an unidentified temple, with three vaulted chambers identifiable by the common visitor as possible shrines. This structure is surprisingly more impressive from a distance, with the openings of the acropolis tombs hollowing the rock like small windows. A climb up affords not only a closer look into these rooms of death, but also a wide vista of the Abu Shrouf spring and the lush greenery surrounding it under a spotless blue sky. A Greek archaeologist caused quite a stir in 1995 when she announced she had discovered the tomb of Alexander the Great in Bilad Al-Rum, prompting 12 archaeologists to immediately fly in from Greece only to renounce the discovery, stating that the inscriptions in the tomb in question pertain to another high official, but not Alexander.

Deep in the desert, following a long and wild drive up and down endless dunes stretching beyond the horizon, true to their name of the Great Sand Sea, are witnesses to a cycle of life and death encapsulated in material form. Sea shells cover a large valley between the towering sands, the sound of their delicate shapes breaking under one's feet making most of us promptly respond to the urge of ending this desecration of nature by steering clear of that museum of geological evolution which lies vulnerably at the mercy of the visitors' conscience. Evidence of this entire desert having once been at the bottom of the sea gives way to another result of the passing ages in the shape of what is known as Al-Ghaba Al-Motahaggera (the Petrified Forest). On the ground of the Petrified Forest, logs and chunks of solidified wood are scattered over the sand in one concentrated zone, leaving one to wonder what exactly lay beyond this small forest when it was still green.

"I'M JUST SO COOL": Sandboarding. Yup, as in a board and you on it and the sand under you and a sloping dune before you and that voice echoing in your head saying, "should I be doing this? Mommy I'm scared!" and a louder voice still, shouting, "Yes you can because you're just so darn cool." You believe the voice. A little hop to the right, a little hop to the left, edging your way closer to the slope of the dune once your feet have been firmly fastened to your board, a small push, and off you go, skidding on the surface of the ironed sand, gathering momentum. You slide -- exhilarated! -- down you whiz, still not fully grasping that you're actually doing this. You will either reach the bottom in grace and get the round of cheers, or fall flat on some part of your body mid-way and get the round of laughter and applause. An absolute must-try, and easily arranged as several shops in town cater to the rising demand on the experience. My son is now convinced that no self-respecting Egyptian who can afford it should be without his own board since we have so many dunes in our deserts to ride.

BURIED, THEN SKINNED AND DEVOURED: By sunset, our camp for the night was set up in the desert and we began to add layers of clothing in preparation for the chill of the evening descending upon us like a reality from which there can be no escape. Someone said something I couldn't quite figure out and began heading out of the immediate vicinity of our camp. I found the entire assembly following in silent determination, like sleep-walkers in a cartoon -- and so, of course, I chose not to miss out on the attraction. What I found was more exciting than a David Copperfield trick: it was the preparation of our sand-buried chicken. In a deep hole dug out in the sand, a full-sized metal barrel had been placed. From inside the barrel, the red glow of flaming coal reached our feet, prompting me to think that I should watch all my actions if I don't want to end up in a similar place. The heat of it was so real, the colour of its temperature almost visible to the naked eye. The coal is topped with a grill, on which are then arranged the pieces of thoroughly organic marinated chicken -- slaughtered the same day, and left for hours to absorb the juice of lemons, salt, pepper and spices. The barrel is then sealed, first with a lid, then with the heaps of sand dug out from the hole, over which is then lit a second fire to provide heat from above the ground in support of the furnace inside.

I don't think a description of this chicken meal is necessary. Suffice it to mention that 10 grown-ups squabbled over extra servings and snatched even the chicken skin from each other's plates. Next time, the palate will have to explore corchorus ( molukhiya) for which the Siwans are equally famed.

YOU ARE CANARY YELLOW: Picture a sky that you can see beginning at the horizon, the stars so close that you feel you could pluck them out with the stretch of a hand; the night's clarity reflects your own.

The craziness of the day had pumped adrenaline in our blood: curves, slopes and roller coaster rides in a 4x4 descending dunes inclined to over 75 degrees in the Great Sand Sea had extracted many screams followed by nervous giggles, and the rush that comes with pushing your limit further. Then a camp fire is lit, a succulent dinner is served, a glass of tea with mint brewed over the embers warms your chilled hands as you lay belly down on a mat, the heat of the fire stroking your cheeks like a child's soft caress. You are relaxed, in a twilight zone between the day's adventures and the peacefulness of the moment, your soul floating somewhere up there among the twinkling constellations. It's definitely time for grilled marshmallows and meaningful silliness. As our hands reached over the red hot coals, stretching skewers on which the white rubbery lumps were impaled for roasting, each of us was to associate the other with the colour that best suits his or her personality in a tried and tested camp fire game.

I turned out to be orange, the colour of the thread flowing between the fingers of the shrouded women of Siwa.

RETURN TO NUMBER ONE: A trip -- or rather journey -- to Shali and its breathtaking desert is an experience that adds up to a far greater whole than the sum of its parts. There is history slapping your modernly-comfortable mind at every turn; there are fox tracks around your sleeping bag in the morning; there are dead salt lakes sustaining life all around them; there are dunes that make you scream at the top of your lungs as your stomach jumps on ever- rising crests of sand; there are people who make you forget that you are in Egypt just by greeting each other good morning; there is olive jam and couscous; there are women who walk the streets all wrapped in blue embroidered veils; and others who skid down dunes on sandboards; there are dead bodies buried everywhere; there are sea shells in the middle of the desert; there is mint tea; there are stars elbowing one another for a spot in the night sky; there is the Temple of the Oracle.

A perfect finale, for a perfect experience, is Bir Wahed on the outskirts of the desert heading back in to town. Tub-hot water in a circular pool, surrounded by scattered palm trees, a breeze rustling through their branches and a silence interrupted only by the occasional call of birds. Without much ado, without so much as a warning, Bir Wahed seemed to be awaiting our return from the desert as it revealed itself at the foot of a dune like the divine miracle it is.

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