Rise in tourism draws Egypt's remote Siwa oasis into modern age

The ancient Berber settlement, once popular only with ecotourists, is receiving more visitors as government promotes it as a holiday destination

The 13th-century Fortress of Shali is typical of the traditional mud-brick structures found at Egypt's Siwa oasis. Photo: Ulrich Hollmann
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Until recently, most visitors to Siwa in Egypt would probably have had to settle for lodgings in camps of straw or mud-brick huts.

Despite being on the eco-tourism map for decades, the remote oasis city in western Egypt maintained a simple take on life that made it an attractive escape from modern living.

But all that is changing after the government began promoting Siwa as a tourist destination, and its predominantly Berber population say they are enjoying the benefits.

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

“The city was a lot more crudely built because there was no reason to develop it. We had always had tourists come, but their numbers were limited to those who were interested in eco-tourism, which isn’t for everyone,” said Ali Mohamed, 63, a driver and tour operator.

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

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

But since the population is mostly conservative Muslim, the city still does not have any establishments that serve alcohol, which recent visitors also complain about, Mr Mohamed said.

“It’s not that Siwans don’t drink. We do, but it’s not something that you want people to know about you because we are all devout Muslims," he said.

"Mostly we drink araq, a local drink that we make by fermenting dates in our homes. But it’s too strong for tourists."

The growing number of tourists has increased sales of Siwa’s famous handicrafts, such as crudely-spun wool ponchos and small handbags and wallets decorated with colourful beads, according to Khaled Hussein, the owner of a large shop in the city square who said he had to hire five more local women in the past three years to meet the demand.

“We used to set up moveable stalls on the sides of the square and display our goods. We would pack them up at the end of the day though. Recently, with more buildings erected that include shops, handicrafts sellers are renting them as more permanent stores,” Mr Hussein said.

Wafting through the square is the aroma from another Berber speciality – soaps made of olive oil mixed with essential oils. The oil is sourced locally from the city's large olive orchards.

The city is also famed for its sand baths, particularly during the summer when high temperatures heat the desert sand to the optimal level.

Egypt's tourism authority is promoting the sand baths as part of Siwa's attraction for visitors in search of “healing experiences”.

Siwa’s founding goes back to prehistory, when Berber tribes arrived from 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 handed down orally from generation to generation.

“The language has never been written down or recorded, it’s our little secret and 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 ancient Greek nobles also visited.”

Among Siwa’s most famed spots is a hot spring named after Queen Cleopatra, who was said to have bathed there when she visited. Near by, a temple to the ancient Egyptian god Amun stands on top of a flat hill that was once visited by Alexander the Great.

Another spot, Jabal Al Mawta, or Mountain of the Dead, has a necropolis dating back to the Late Pharaonic and Greco-Roman periods.

Unlike some of Egypt's other local populations, residents of Siwa have welcomed the effort to increase visitor numbers to the city, which lies about 50km from Egypt's eastern border with Libya and requires an 800km road trip to reach from Cairo. Bedouins in Sinai, for example, told The National during a visit in 2022 that they were against large-scale tourism development in the peninsula.

“Siwa has always been quite underdeveloped, which did attract a certain kind of tourist. But the problem is our schools, roads and services all need upgrading and more tourism will mean we can fix our city up better,” Mr Mohamed said.

It is not a view shared by some of Siwa's residents who moved here to escape the bustle of modern life.

“I moved here in 2009 after spending 10 years as Greece’s consul in Egypt. When I first came here, none of these buildings were here. It was quiet, simple and really beautiful," said an elderly man who introduced himself to The National as "Vasileos the Greek".

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

Updated: February 09, 2024, 6:00 PM