Home Travelogue BEAUTIFUL SIWA

BEAUTIFUL SIWA

The distance from the tollgates on the Giza Desert Highway to Siwa Oasis is 749 km, usually traversed in approximately eight hours. It is worth noting that the black road (asphalt) that lies between Marsa Matrouh and Siwa Oasis is more than 300 km in length, heading south.
   
The construction of that road was completed in 1980, only 24 years ago. Before then, Siwa was practically isolated, and reaching it was both difficult and tiring.


Society in Siwa is renowned for its serenity and purity, and for its emphasis on religious and social norms. Some 30 years ago, the late desert expert Raouf Ahmed Ali had been charged by the Ministry of Petroleum to inform the people of one of the remote oases that an asphalt road would be constructed to link them to the cities of Egypt. Their Elder referred to it as "the black road." Raouf answered "Yes, its colour will be black." The Elder replied, "I did not mean its colour, but rather the analogy of the word black, for we are a conservative, religious society, endowed with our own peaceful traditions. Disease, in our area, is scarce, crime is alien to us, and our young respect their elders to this day. This road is black because it shall allow in attitudes that are contrary to our values and traditions."
   
The Elder was proven right. However, I may confirm with great admiration that Siwa Oasis is resisting this ncroachment, and to this day the society has managed to maintain its purity, declining civilization's decadence and corruption. Here in Siwa you do not hear the sound of airplanes, horns or loudspeakers,

but rather the sound of the wind as it blows and rustles through the palm and olive trees, blowing the golden sand over a sea of desert.

You hear the gushing of underground currents, as water pours out into the picturesque springs, where no trace of pollution exists, and even the taste of the food is free of chemicals.
I was very fortunate to be staying in Egypt's first ecolodge, the internationally renowned Adrere Amellal (White Mountain) Ecolodge. Located 9km west of the oasis in picturesque surroundings, the ecolodge offered excellent food and service, and made for a very memorable experience. While my colleagues couldn't find accommodation in the same hotel, they were able to lodge in the impressive Siwa Safari Paradise, an environmentally friendly hotel surrounded by palm trees in the center of Siwa.

We also had the chance to dine in Nur Al Waha, a wonderful restaurant that serves traditional Siwan and Egyptian cuisine, including a highly-recommended meat dish, prepared by sealing the meat in a barrel of hot coals buried in the sand for several hours.
   
This year I decided to attend the Siwa Spiritual Journey festival, part of a tradition started over two hundred years ago. It usually coincides with the full moon during the month of October, but before determining the date, a number of factors are considered, for example, air temperature, and the harvest season for dates and olives, as consideration is given to the comfort and convenience of those participating in the occasion.

The Islamic calendar is also taken into consideration. For example, the Holy month of Ramadan starts mid-October of next year, Inshallah (by the will of Allah), at the birth of the new moon, causing the Elders to postpone the feast until after Ramadan, i.e. in late November. Consideration is also taken of the weather and of the circumstances of Siwa's population, which numbers over 18,000.
   
It is worth mentioning that, contrary to how the festival's Arabic name is often understood, this is primarily a religious and spiritual feast, in which customs and traditions mingle in a most beautiful way.
On the day before the feast, the Siwans become active, with each person donating one and a half pounds to the closest mosque, as well as five loaves of bread, to be used in the preparation of a meal of fatta (bread soaked in meat broth).
The people who own cars then pass by these mosques to collect the donations, as well as the cutlery owned by each mosque (the purpose of which will be explained later), and take them to Jabal al-Dakrur, south-east of the capital, the site where this festival has taken place for the last 200 years.

A large number of the inhabitants proceed to this mountain the night before the feast to put up tents for their accommodation throughout the days of the festival. The tents are equipped with games such as chess, dominos, and backgammon.
Those participating in the slaughtering of the cattle and the preparation of meals then proceed to the cooking site on the mountain, about thirty meters above land level, on a flat piece of tiled land. The cattle are slaughtered on the eve of the feast, and preparations are made for cooking. At sunrise on the first day of the feast of Spiritual Journey at Siwa, the cooks start cooking the meat in its broth in huge pots, with the cooking continuing until the time of the noon prayers, with people gathering to hang decorations, their children running around in their colourful new clothes.

Outlets for the sale of Siwa handcrafts, confectionary, food and different merchandise are spread out. In addition, representations are also made by the fire, ambulance, and security personnel.
A very organized, systematic, and amazing operation then takes place. In a corner on the mountain, around one thousand metal bowls are first


washed, then handed to a group of men seated before a huge pile of bread. They break the bread into suitable portions, putting an amount in each bowl. The bowl is then passed hand to hand by the youth, who number around twenty, down the line at incredible speed, until it reaches the person in charge of organizing these bowls in equal parallel lines, with a depth of seven bowls and a length of 142. This intricate operation is concluded minutes before call for the noon prayers.

All then proceed to prayers in the sandy space at the base of the mountain. There are no mats or carpets there, but only clean and leveled sand. The Elders go down from their open hall at the top of the mountain with the eldest to act as Imam (lead the prayers). After prayers, the second part of the feast begins.

Four parallel rows of the youth stand between the hundreds of bowls and the pots of cooked meat and broth. The youth start lifting these bowls from their places and passing the bowls from one to the other very quickly to cooking pots, where the meat broth is poured into the bowl.
The bowl is then returned at the same speed to the designated space on the surface located at the center of the mountaintop, and a number of the men start chanting anasheed (religious poetry) amidst these rhythmic movements. Meanwhile, feasters gather in circles on the sandy surface where they had prayed, at the base of the mountain. Once all are seated, the last phase starts: young volunteers carry the bowls, placing one in the middle of each circle. No one makes any move in the direction of these bowls. All sit silent, until the chief cook ascertains that each circle has a bowl of fatta in its midst. He then cries Bismillah (in the name of Allah) and everyone reaches for the bowl to start eating with their hands, in a gesture symbolic of the spirit of equality amongst them.

The council of elders assembles during the day, in a special hall on the mountaintop, to discuss issues and problems. The people of Siwa do not resort to courts or lawyers; the council solves all their problems, and its rulings are enforced and respected.

After evening prayers, the people gather in a large circle and start chanting anasheed: Allah is Great, Peace and blessings be upon the Prophet Mohamed. These recitations have a deep effect on listeners. The people then scatter; some go about their business whilst a large number remain to spend the night in pleasant conversation and games in the tents.

These functions are repeated for three consecutive days, on the morning of the fourth day, at around eight thirty, all gather in their white clothes at the base of Jabal al-Dakrur, some holding green flags on which verses from the Qur'an are printed.

Leading this procession are the elders and chiefs of the clans. After greeting each other with a handshake and reading part of the Qur'an, they then start off whilst calmly chanting anasheed. The procession continues amongst the palm trees with their ripened golden fruits, and the olive fields of green and black.

Every once in a while they stop to read the opening verses of the Qur'an. A number of the inhabitants join this procession until it comes to an end, an hour and a half later, at the grave of Sidi Soleiman, known as the Sultan of Siwa, where they form a large circle and chant their anasheed. After some time, the chanting.
   
stops and they again read the opening verses of the Qur'an. They then greet each other for the last time, and everyone leaves.
The Siwa Spiritual Journey feast comes to an end, and all are eagerly looking forward to their encounter next year Inshallah (Allah Willing).
I met with Haj Abdul Rahman Osman Osman Ahmed, head of the Sufi Medina Brotherhood (attributed to the Medina el Monawara in Saudi Arabia), as well as Chief of the Elders Council of Siwa Oasis, and when he learnt that I represent the Egyptian Federation of Tourist Chambers he reprimanded me on the actions of tourists during the festival, complaining that most of the problems occurred in the presence of representatives from Egyptian tourist companies and tourist guides.

I expressed my surprise, as according to my knowledge and to that of all my colleagues, the Siwa festival was a feast attributed to tourism, during which marriage ceremonies, date and olive harvesting and peace-making take place.
However, he corrected my information and added that the feast is a spiritual festival, during which the name of Allah, Glory be to Him and the Noble Prophet Mohamed, is praised. All festivities of the feast are religious, with the people of Siwa, youth and elders alike, gathering with love and respect to recite Qur'an and to chant anasheed, make peace and resolve
disagreements, harvest dates and olives and conclude marriages for three days amidst a beautiful, picturesque setting. As such, they were astounded to find female tourists wearing revealing clothing, with their heads uncovered, standing amidst this religious ceremony to take photographs, and at times sitting amongst the people.

Such behaviour, he explained, is absolutely contradictory to the spirit of the occasion, and it was the duty of tourism and hotel companies to consider the feelings of the people of Siwa and their spiritual festival by informing tourists and visitors to wear suitable clothing. Visitors should respect the occasion and its festivities, assuring me that the people of Siwa would warmly welcome tourists and visitors of Egypt, but it is important that these actions would not be repeated at next years feast inshallah.

A number of European ambassadors residing in the same ecolodge I was in concurred with these views when I brought them up. They explained that I was the first to fully brief them on the religious character of these celebrations, and assured me that they would put these concerns into consideration, and try to use their channels to help inform tourists visiting Siwa about the oasis' cultural norms and traditions, and the need to respect and abide by them.

In a number of encounters with the people of Siwa, they expressed their appreciation for Governor Lieutenant General Mohamed Shehata's respect for the cultural environment of Siwa.
Manifest in various ways, such as the lighting of the roads with special lighting posts, the recent construction of a branch of the al-Qahira Bank, a commercial complex, and a modern cafeteria, the architecture and design of all are in harmony with the Oasis' traditions, e.g. using al-karshif (soil impregnated with salt) for the building.

The governor also hired a specialized international lighting company to illuminate the ruins of Shali Fortress in the center of town, as well as most of the oasis's other monuments. He has also ensured that Siwa's roads not be paved with asphalt, but rather with a more natural mixture of compacted sand and limestone.

The preservation of the Siwan architectural tradition in all the above maintains a sense of harmony with their surroundings, and adds a touch of beauty to Siwa Oasis.

Despite the large population of the Oasis, there are no regular medical services or basic specializations such as opticians.
Their only access to these basic services is the "medical caravan", which visits them twice a month, forcing residents of Siwa, despite their limited financial capabilities, to travel to Marsa Matrouh or Alexandria for their needs.

The Siwans are all currently hoping for the swift installation of a modern and environmentally friendly sewage network in the city, one of their main requests.

They're also hoping for investment in the clear salt lakes of the oasis, and praised the benefits brought about by current investors, which have allowed them, by the Grace of Allah, to finally realize fixed incomes. Additionally, a Cairene lady built two workshops for Siwa's distinguished embroidery, some of which was exhibited for the first time a month ago, amongst the couture of a famous Italian designer, and which was greatly praised and applauded.

Lastly, out of their appreciation for the importance of preserving the environment of this precious oasis, the Siwans decided to abide by the environmental law which imposes a study of the environmental impact of any project, regardless of how small, before its undertaking.In this regard, I ask the Prime Minister to issue a decree granting Siwa Oasis "Special Nature" status, to be managed by a Supreme City Council along the lines of the city of Luxor, for Siwa is as historically important as Luxor, and international recognition of its touristic and environmental importance is increasing year after year.

I pray Allah that we all endeavor to preserve this picturesque and beautiful oasis, the Siwa Oasis, the North African Sahara's Jewel, where weather, land and people remain pure.

By: Mahmoud El-Kaissouni
Chairman of the Ecotourism Committee Egyptian Federation of Tourist Chambers

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