Most Siwans live within sight of their ancestral home, the hilltop fortress of Shali. Its karshif (salt-impregnated mud) walls and heavy wooden gates protected its inhabitants for centuries until three days of heavy rains in 1926 melted their mud homes and forced them to relocate to the plain below.
Aesthetically, modern breeze-block houses are no match for their former homes, but Siwans seem content with the extra room and creature comforts. They have also enjoyed the perceived benefits of development, including new schools, television service, and better health care.
Early visitors were treated with suspicion, and at times hostility. Today, Siwans welcome visitors, and tourism fuels a small economy focused on the town’s main square. Most hotels, shops, and restaurants are located here, and kid-driven donkey taxis offer cheap and fun rides around the square or to the outskirts of town.
Despite rapid changes, Siwa town still retains a village feel. Women sheathed in fabric scurry from door to door, double-parked donkeys get into mischief, and village elders gossip over strong tea. You’ll quickly recognize all the main characters and plots, and after a few days here you’re bound to feel as if you’re part of a soap opera.
Siwa town is small enough to get around on foot, though a bicycle is handy for trips to other parts of the oasis. Nearly all visitors arrive by road from Marsa Matruh, but intrepid travelers can arrange permission to leave by the desert route to Bahariya. The track is partially paved, but should only be attempted by experienced off-road drivers in high-clearance vehicles equipped with extra fuel, spare parts, and plenty of water in case of a breakdown.
Before leaving, be sure to peruse the shops and stalls around town, as Siwa is the best place in the Western Desert to buy traditional crafts and jewelry. There's only one bank in Siwa, so bring plenty of Egyptian cash with you.