The rise of tourism draws Egypt’s remote Siwa oasis into the modern era

The rise of tourism draws Egypt’s remote Siwa oasis into the modern era

Until recently, most visitors to Siwa in Egypt would probably have to settle for accommodation in thatched camps or mud-brick huts.

Despite being on the eco-tourism map for decades, the remote oasis town in western Egypt retained a simple view of life that made it an attractive escape from modern life.

But that is all changing after the government began promoting Siwa as a tourist destination and its largely Berber population says it is enjoying the benefits.

Five years ago, the main square in the small town of 60,000 was made up exclusively of traditional mud-brick structures; now there are two-story concrete buildings with busy restaurants, cafes and craft shops.

“The city was built much harder because there was no reason to develop it. We had always had tourists coming, but their numbers were limited to those interested in eco-tourism, which is not for everyone,” said Ali Mohamed, 63, a driver and tour operator.

“But once the city started to be advertised as a tourist destination, around 2019 and 2020, we started getting tourists who were curious to see the city but not necessarily familiar with its culture.”

These tourists were unhappy with the accommodation on offer, so a number of hotels have sprung up offering rooms with TVs, minibars, air conditioning and buffet meals – once only available at one or two establishments in town.

But since the population is mostly conservative Muslims, the city still has no establishment serving alcohol, which even recent visitors complain about, Mr. Mohamed said.

“It’s not that the Sivans don’t drink. We do, but it’s not something you want people to know about you because we’re all devout Muslims,” ​​he said.

“Mostly we drink arak, a local drink we make by fermenting dates in our homes. But it’s too strong for tourists.”

The growing number of tourists has boosted sales of Siwa’s famous handicrafts, such as crudely woven wool ponchos and small bags and wallets decorated with colorful beads, according to Khaled Hussein, the owner of a large shop. in the town square, who said they’ve had to hire five more local women in the past three years to keep up with demand.

“We set up mobile stalls on the sides of the square and displayed our goods. However, we will pack them at the end of the day. Recently, with more buildings being erected that include shops, handicraft vendors are renting them out as more permanent shops,” Mr Hussein said.

The square is filled with the aroma of another Berber specialty – soaps made with olive oil mixed with essential oils. The oil is sourced locally from the city’s large olive groves.

The city is also famous for its sand baths, especially during the summer when high temperatures heat the desert sand to its optimum level.

Egypt’s tourism authority is promoting the sand baths as part of Siwas’ appeal to visitors seeking “healing experiences”.

The founding of Siwa goes back to prehistory, when Berber tribes arrived from the western regions of the Sahara desert and established traditions that have remained unchanged ever since.

The city’s Berbers are culturally distinct from other ethnic populations in Egypt and, as well as Arabic, speak an Amazigh language that has been passed down orally from generation to generation.

“The language has never been written or recorded, it is our little secret and it will most likely die when the last of us dies,” Mr Mohamed said. “The city has such a long history – there have been people here since the ancient Egyptians and later the ancient Greek nobles visited as well.”

Among Siwas’ most famous spots is a hot spring named after Queen Cleopatra, who was said to have bathed there when she visited. Nearby, a temple to the ancient Egyptian god Amun stands atop a flat hill that was once visited by Alexander the Great.

Another site, Jabal Al Mawta, or Mountain of the Dead, has a necropolis dating from the late Pharaonic and Greco-Roman periods.

Unlike some of Egypt’s other local populations, the people of Siwa have welcomed efforts to increase the number of visitors to the town, which lies about 50 km from Egypt’s eastern border with Libya and requires a road journey of 800 km to reach from Cairo. For example, said the Bedouin in Sinai national team during a visit in 2022 that they were against the development of large-scale tourism on the peninsula.

“Siwa has always been quite undeveloped, which attracted a kind of tourist. But the problem is that our schools, roads and services all need improvement and more tourism means we can fix our city better,” said Mr Mohamed.

It’s not a view shared by some of Siwa’s residents, who moved here to escape the hustle and bustle of modern life.

“I moved here in 2009 after spending 10 years as the Greek consul in Egypt. When I first came here, none of these buildings were here. It was quiet, simple and really beautiful,” said an elderly person who introduced himself national team as “Vasileos the Greek”.

“Some of the new structures are out of place and it’s a shame that the nature of the inner city is now changing so much.”

Updated: February 09, 2024, 6:00 p.m

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