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Siwa, by the modern day caravan
JAN THOMPSON
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 27 - 03 - 2011

THE carpets were being unloaded off the bus and a mild frenzy erupts – “That is mine! No its mine!”.
As the owners identify and reclaim their treasures, one is reminded why the purchase was made. Look at that wonderful texture and pattern; detailed and storytelling in its complexity. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Over a long weekend we journey to Siwa. It was an eight hour drive from Cairo. Inhabited as early as 10,000BC by an indigenous community of Berbers known as Amazish, the village is located north of the Great Sand Sea, 200 kilometers east of the Libyan Border in the western desert region of Egypt.
Not only was our destination filled with interest, the journey offered World War II history as well as sun and sand along the azure delight of the Mediterranean. El Alamein is the site for commemoration of battles fought sixty years ago. Each community honors their fallen. The German and Italian memorials are stone and marble; the Australian obelisk sits beside the British cemetery. Each moving and sad; quiet places to reflect.
The warm and gentle Mediterranean breezes signal our next stop; Marsa Matruh is a seaside township enjoying a reprieve from the busy summer. Only a few hotels are open; just what you want on a break, peace and quiet. The ocean is a pleasant contrast from the hectic environment of Cairo.
The desert is never far away in Egypt. A few kilometers past Marsa Matruh, the long flat endless plains rush up to you. The horizon, like the straight road seems to fade into eternity, repetition of sand, horizon, sand and more horizon, broken only occasionally by wispy clouds ambling across the heavens. Wild camels beside the road stop and stare at these strange visitors to their world; are they reminded of long past caravans?
Eventually the travelers are surprised into the present landscape of time layered hills, wind eroded into strange, wondrous shapes. A change is coming. Like children, “are we there yet” echoes through our modern day caravan of the desert, an air conditioned bus. An excitement spreads. Is that green? Are those palm trees? Is that a mirage? Or is it an oasis?
The reward of the journey waits in the distance. It's just as you image: an oasis. Green, swaying palm trees surrounding a lake of blue natural spring water; the desert's oasis like our precious cargo, our carpets, has texture. Springs cushioned by reeds swaying in the winds that sweep over the undulations. The lush of the green and cool of the water compliment the dry of the desert. About 500,000 palm trees and 100,000 olive trees are in the area.
Siwa, long isolated from the rest of Egypt, both geographically and culturally, until 20 years ago was a private part of the world. Alexander the Great visited it in 331 BC. The Egyptian government replaced the Sheiks as the power brokers and change came in the form of an asphalt highway in 1986.
Today, Siwa – also known as the City of a Million Palm trees – is famous for its dates, olives, bottled water and intricate needlework. The produce, considered the best in Egypt, has been cultivated for centuries. The unique embroidery work was discovered recently and is now eagerly sought by fashion houses and museums throughout the world. The complex ornate stitching of ancient geometric motifs: stars, crosses and fishes were traditionally made for the women's colorful bridal trousseaus.
Our arrival coincides with Eid Al-Fitr celebrations. Traditionally, children get new clothes for Eid and married women wear the tarfottet, a blue cotton sheet embroidered with colored silks. Given on her wedding day, it is worn whenever she leaves the house. The tarfottet is worn over a light black scarf that covers her entire face, allowing her to see through it.
The center of town is dominated by the mud-brick remains of the 13th century fortress enclave of Shali built to repel invading marauders. It was constructed of large chunks of salt mixed with rock and plastered in local clay. After three days of continuous rain in 1926, parts were washed away and the fortress mostly abandoned. It has become a fascinating place to wander around in. Just out of town is the famed antiquity: the Temple of the Oracle. Built in the 6th century, this was the site that Alexander the Great came seeking during his visit.
Another historical site of interest is the “Mountain of the Dead” or Jabal Al-Mawta, which contains honeycombed tombs dating back to the third century BC. Robbed during Roman times and reused over the centuries, it was rediscovered by the Italian Army during the Second World War. Siwans sheltered from bombing attacks in the tombs. The war and foreign armies were strange to this unique community who had little connection to the outside world.
Out of town, a modern adventure awaits in the form of desert dunes and four-wheel-drive vehicles. It is a splendid sight: a sea of sand hill after sand hill, the shapes sculptured by winds, ever changing. The colors of this scene alter as the sun travels across the sky, with sunset heralding the day's end.
After a day of thrills zooming up and down the sand dunes, there are many hot springs to soothe the body, particularly ‘Cleopatra's Bath', formerly used by brides on the day of their betrothal, as part of the marriage rituals. Watching the sun set over the desert as you wash away the day's dust is a surreal experience.
Life is unhurried in the Siwa oasis. Time passes easily. The days of ancient trading centers, caravans and the pilgrims are gone; replaced by the modern traveler exploring the delights, mysteries and wonders of this ancient land by automated transportation – the new caravans.
My carpet has made it home. Back to the start of my story, every time I travel its pattern, I return to Siwa and my memories of this distant oasis.
The Siwa Oasis is an oasis in Egypt, located between the Qattara Depression and the Egyptian Sand Sea in the Libyan Desert, nearly 50 km east of the Libyan border, and 560 km from Cairo. About 80 km in length and 20 km wide, Siwa Oasis is one of Egypt's isolated settlements, with 23,000 people, mostly ethnic Berbers who speak a distinct language of the Berber family known as Siwi.


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