On the way out to Taghagheen Island to watch the sunset with our friends Amal and Ahmed one evening, Alan noticed that there were tombs and interesting formations along the line of hills at the north edge of Siwa Oasis. “It’s not really all that far from town,” he said to me. “We could bike out here and hike around these hills.”
That’s exactly what we did. Yesterday morning we equipped ourselves with roasted salted peanuts, dates and lots of water, then rented bikes at a place right next to the Shali. It was so much fun to get back on a bike, even though the main roads in Siwa Town are filled with potholes, stone, sandy patches and 11-year-olds driving three-wheelers (not to mention the hotshots of all ages on motorcycles!).
It took less than five minutes to leave the downtown area and relax into a peaceful, scenic ride. We turned left at the date factory and pedaled through quiet villages and palm groves for about 35 minutes, until we found a spot that looked just right for hiking, with what looked like a gentle sand slope leading up to a colorful cliff with square-cut tomb openings. We pushed our bikes along bund paths running through a date farm, and parked them next to a fence made of palm leaves.
The farm where we parked was very pretty, though no one was there. I got the feeling that the person who owns it comes out to tend things perhaps once a week.
We set off up a valley towards the cliff and tombs, then started scrambling up the sandy slope. It wasn’t steep, but it wasn’t easy, either. My shoes quickly filled with sand, and it was the one-step-forward, two-steps-back pace for a while.
Eventually though, we got up onto the cliff, and began to explore the tombs. Of course, people in search of treasure had been there before, and cleared most of the tombs. We saw a few where people had tried to penetrate the inner chamber, but then abandoned the effort. I’m guessing that’s because these were the tombs of poor people, and all the opened tombs yielded nothing but bones.
Three of the tombs in the cliff edge.
Bones scattered in front of an opened tomb.
We spent the rest of the day wandering in and among some amazing rock formations. Just like at Gebel el Dakrur, they are sculpted by wind and water, but in this part of the oasis, the rocks are even more spectacular.
We also found way, way more marine fossils here than at Gebel el Dakrur.
My favorite find was probably the shards of a layered, clear, glass-like substance. I don’t know if this is shellfish remains compressed to another state, or sand compressed into glass, or what. But it is completely fascinating and amazing to pick up chunks of a mica-like substance and see it flake into layers of transparent material.
Whenever we lifted our eyes from tiny details, there were spectacular views across the oasis, very different from those you see at Gebel el Dakrur – even though it was a really cloudy day.
We’re enjoying how easy it is to explore Siwa Oasis on foot. You can walk to many fascinating landmarks, monuments and springs around the oasis, including Gebel el Dakrur, a collection of peaks that stands out in the desert landscape.
Gebel el Dakrur is not terribly far from where we stay – a little over three kilometers – but we like to take the longer, more picturesque way, so it can take us as long as an hour to reach it.
As you approach Gebel el Dakrur from nearby Cleopatra Spring (one of the most famous bathing spots in the oasis), you see a mosque and a collection of buildings, some in use, some seemingly abandoned, and quite a few falling to ruin. There are also a couple of big, open fields with signs of cooking fires. This is the location of Eid al Siyaha, the yearly festival of peace and friendship that’s held every autumn in Siwa Oasis.
Several people have told us about Eid al Siyaha, and you can find videos of it on YouTube. It is a three-day event to which all Siwans are invited. Adult women stay home, but even so, that’s a lot of people – the population of Siwa Oasis is said to be about 27,000. Siwans take part in religious celebrations and rituals meant to bind everyone together in a spirit of sharing and fellowship. Abubakr, the gentleman who looks after the Siwa House museum, explained it to us this way: “Perhaps I have a disagreement with someone. We shake hands and say, ‘okay, it’s finished.’ But something remains in the heart. Then at Eid al Siyaha, we see each other, we embrace and kiss each other, and our hearts are cleaned. Everything is clean.”
Yusuf, the owner of the place where we’re staying, has told us about how much fun the festival is. People sleep out under the stars for the duration of the festival, there’s lots of food, and Sufis come to lead the singing and chanting. The men of the village donate huge amounts of food, enough to feed everyone, and also do all the cooking for everyone. It’s all volunteer labor, and a huge collaborative effort. “You feel very good there,” Yusuf said.
At this time of year, though, Gebel el Dakrur is pretty much empty of people, and feels very quiet as you approach. Drawn by the changing colors of the peaks, and their fantastical shapes sculpted by wind, we climbed up slowly the first time, inspecting the variations in the rock, and noticing seams of white running horizontally between layers. Some of it was crumbling away, and soon we realized we were looking at fossils of seashells, compressed into layers of white crumbly material between the layers of sandlike stone.
Scattered on the ground around us, and clustered against rocks, were fossilized bivalve shells with strongly marked ridges, and even more that were irregular in shape, like oyster shells we’ve seen on beaches.
Cluster of marine fossils
We were both thrilled when we found fossils of sand dollars, just like we’re thrilled when we find sand dollars on the beach in Oregon.
I even found a fossil of undersea foliage, with delicate veining.
While the fossils remind you how ancient life on Earth really is, you also get reminders that human beings have been here in the desert and oasis for a long time. Like many of the mountains around the oasis, Gebel el Dakrur has a number of old tombs. Unlike some of the tombs at Gebel al Mawta to the northeast of downtown Siwa, there aren’t any paintings left (or at least, none have been identified as far as I know), but the tombs are interesting anyway.
The largest tomb we entered had some interesting graffiti near the entrance.
Besides the fossils and tombs, Gebel el Dakrur offers spectacular views of the entire oasis, in every direction. To the south is the Great Sand Sea of the Sahara; to the east, there’s the huge salt lake and a number of villages, some inhabited, some abandoned. To the north are spectacular hills, and to the west, another huge salt lake, and less than 50 kilometers beyond that, the Libyan border.
It’s uncanny to look around you at open desert landscape, with palm groves and mud-walled villages dotted for kilometers around, and know that it was once the bed of an ocean. That seems to explain the deep layers of salt in the soil that the Siwi people have dug up to use as building materials over the past few centuries. Today, salt is dug and harvested to be shipped to Europe for de-icing roads, or to be crafted into salt lamps and salt rooms. The salt lakes of Siwa are growing larger as salt water seeps up from the water table, encroaching on both desert and cultivated land. Perhaps the ocean is stealthily returning. Someday, in a far-distant century, divers could discover signs of a lost civilization – a new Atlantis – in the place once known as the Libyan Desert.
As you stand on the peaks of Gebel el Dakrur, winds gust around you, seizing your scarf and blasting dust into your face. Surrounded by tombs, standing on untold billions of fossils of long-dead creatures, and buffeted by mischievous winds, it’s easy to understand why Gebel el Dakrur has a local reputation for being inhabited by afrit, or demons. The first time we climbed one of the peaks, we could see a dark cloudlike haze gathering on the horizon, shrouding some of the distant view. It brewed up into a dark, dramatic sandstorm by early evening; later, as we sipped tea in the town square, we saw the sun disappear into the sandstorm, more than half an hour before sunset. The wind funneled down the narrow main street of Siwa Town, blasting election posters with dust, tossing loose rubbish into the air, and chasing the few remaining donkey carts and three-wheelers making quickly for home.