Western Desert Oases: Places to Explore

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Siwa Oasis

Siwa deserves some time. The most isolated of the five Western Desert oases, it is also the most unique. Located near the Libyan border, and surrounded by a sea of sand, its influences have come from Berber North Africa rather than the Nile Valley. Its native inhabitants maintain their own culture, traditions, and language (a Berber dialect called Siwi).

The main town, Siwa, dates back to the 13th century AD, but the oasis was well known in antiquity. By 500 BC the oasis was famed throughout the ancient world for its oracle at Aghurmi, the ruins of which are still visible today. Pharaonic ruins and Roman settlements can be found throughout the oasis, which appears to have been an important agricultural center in antiquity.

While Siwa was formally incorporated into Egypt in 1819, assimilation didn't really begin until the road to Marsa Matruh opened in 1986. Even today, it's clear from the moment you arrive in Siwa that there's something special about the place.

Siwan culture has endured the influx of foreign influences and a flood of settlers from the Nile Valley. Television and cell phones are omnipresent, but families remain tight, and traditions are still honored. This is a conservative society, in which women rarely venture out alone, and even then are usually covered from head to toe. Visitors are welcome, but families here are generally more guarded about their domestic life than in other areas of Egypt.

Water is plentiful in the oasis, and most of its 25,000 inhabitants are engaged in agriculture. But water is also problematic, as the water table lies just a foot below the surface, so groundwater swells up through porous rocks across the depression. Unused, it collects and evaporates under the baking sun, leaving behind salts that render fields infertile. Projects to create drainage catchment areas or to pump water out of the depression (which lies below sea level) have proven costly, but the growing demand for bottled water may offer a solution. To date, four companies have established water-bottling plants that are exploiting Siwa's excess groundwater while pumping money back into the oasis.

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