Paradise found

Tracy Johnston discovers the still unspoiled oasis of Siwa in the Egyptian desert.


Tracy Johnston
January 28, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Now that I'm an adventure traveler who likes being pampered, I've come to appreciate the comfortable but eccentric remote-outpost hotel -- a quiet place in some odd, forgotten backwater that's classy enough to provide fresh fruit juice and clean sheets. The best hotels are small and built using native materials, and they have a common place for eavesdropping, a place for getting local news and gossip. The owners, often expats, should live on the premises, because who they are and how they run the place are part of the experience. I'm not interested in their cockamamie political ideas or their mysterious pasts, but getting to know them and their hotel is often the best way to learn about the exotic world in which they run a business.

I always try to find out how the hotel works: How does it fit into the community? What do the local people think of it? What are its biggest problems? The culture of the hotel may be a
hybrid, but it often has its own integrity and charm.

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I found just such a hotel recently, and am moved to write about it because it also has a truly amazing setting: an ancient Egyptian city in an isolated desert oasis just a few miles from the border of Libya. The name of the hotel goes right over the top: the Siwa Safari Paradise Resort.

The owners are an upper-middle-class Egyptian couple who started coming to Siwa because they love the desert. Mustapha Abdal Azid is an elegant, passionate man -- a retired diplomat and banana farmer who was part of the junta of young army officers who overthrew King Farouk. His wife, Zakia, is a creamy-skinned Scandinavian woman he met 35 years ago in Italy. They say they don't quite know how the resort got started: It just grew from a plan to build a compound for their extended family. Mustapha says he got caught up in what Egyptians call "Umbrella Architecture" -- drawing lines with the point of an umbrella in the sand. He demonstrates this by following, with a pointed finger, the sinuous path that winds through a group of bungalows. "You know why I kept going?" he says. "I figured out how to build this many cottages without cutting down a single tree."

I'm tempted to say that the very best thing about the hotel is its delicious food and especially its desserts, but in truth it's the setting -- the oasis of Siwa's extraordinary place in time. Siwa was an important center for both the ancient Greek and Egyptian worlds around 500 B.C. Later it was populated by a tribe of Berbers who migrated from the western Sahara and stayed isolated from the rest of the world for 13 centuries. And now its growing population of 23,000 people is about to make perhaps the most dramatic change: the transition to the modern world.

It won't be long until Siwa's history will have to be roped off and managed for tourists, but right now you can go to the Oracle of Amoun -- where Alexander the Great came with an army of men and horses to find out if he was the son of Zeus -- and stand amid a pile of stones and carvings just lying around in the sand. And unlike other tourist spots in Egypt, you can walk around town without being hassled for money. Siwans, who speak their own unique language, exist with foreigners peacefully. At the same time, traditions persist: Women in Siwa get married at age 14 and afterwards practice a form of Purdah so extreme that no man other than a relative may ever see them. Olive oil in Siwa is still made for export by crushing olives with a grinding stone turned by a donkey.

Last winter, my husband, step-daughter and I left Cairo for Siwa early in the morning (before rush hour) and drove north to the Mediterranean and then west along the coast, passing some of the world's most beautiful beaches. We didn't stop much because what had happened to those beaches was pretty depressing: Thousands and thousands of half-built, architecturally undistinguished vacation apartments and condos were lined up like Lego structures on the sand. We were happy to reach the turn-off to Siwa and even happier when all signs of human habitation stopped. We drove the last 200 miles across a desert that seemed to have no geographical features. Although we were within shouting distance of one of America's prime bogeyman -- Moammar Gadhafi -- we cruised through a land of stillness and light in a peaceful, happy trance.

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We saw the first signs of civilization in the glow of a sunset and, in the far distance, a mirage: a huge lake, or even an ocean, shimmering on the horizon. By the side of the road were a few treeless mud and concrete buildings. If this was Siwa, we said, where were the springs? The palm trees? Almost without warning, we came to a bustling town square, with men and children riding around in donkey carts. Overlooking the square was the ruin of a 12th century mud fortress; we had indeed traveled back in time.

Despite the exoticness of the setting, I had a feeling of dij` vu. The few
tourists in town were young backpackers looking as they did when I was among them
in the l960s: impossibly gorgeous and unkempt. There were some small, funky hotels
and a couple of outdoor restaurants with menus (beefburger, french fries, etc.)
written on fading signs. For backpackers, I learned, Siwa is an exotic place to
relax and stay warm in the winter, live cheaply in an ancient and fascinating
culture and -- because Siwa's spring water is absolutely pure -- recover from
various illnesses.

In my 20s I would have preferred to stay in those $7-a-night hotels,
but now I was thrilled to find the Siwa Safari Paradise Resort just off the main
town square, down a dirt road lined with date palms. The resort was brand new and
deliciously empty, and featured a free-form, spring-fed swimming pool. A charming cottage
for two with a truly wonderful breakfast cost only $60 a night.

That night we gobbled down the fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, olives and cheese
we had been afraid to eat in the rest of Egypt, and then went into the garden to
play cards. There we found a group of Egyptian bureaucrats and businessmen in
suits and ties talking intently around a table. It didn't take long to hear the
news: Within a year, the Egyptian government was going to open up a nearby
military airport to civilians. We were dismayed by the news, but at the same
time thankful that we had arrived in Siwa at the perfect moment in time.

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For the next few days we rented bicycles from one of the cheap hotels in town
and headed off on journeys even further back in time. I am not a history buff,
but history in Siwa, as in all of Egypt, has a way of staring you in the face.
Greek, Egyptian, Bedouin and Berber artifacts and tales swirled around us in an exciting
stew. At the Oracle of Amoun, which was on a hill, we saw just how vast the place
was -- over 23,000 people and 400,000 date and olive trees. The lake we'd seen
coming in turned out to be no mirage: It was a huge salt lake. Too huge. The
Egyptian government has a project in the works to get rid of Siwa's rising
ground water by pumping it hundreds of miles away into something called the Quattar
Depression.

We stayed at the Oracle for a while, entranced by the mysteries that seem to
live in the very air of Egypt: Who is God? What
is our fate? And how perfect can the experience of eating a ripe tomato be? We
also found Siwa's Mountain of the Dead, which had some tombs dating from the
Ptolemaic period (525-332 B.C.) and earlier. A guardian at the site showed us the
head (complete with hair) of a mummy.

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Back at the hotel we learned that one of Mustapha and Zakia's grown sons had come
home from a hospital in Alexandria, where he had gone after he had broken his arm in a
dune-buggy accident. Although we had figured out that non-Siwan Egyptians were outsiders in
Siwa much like ourselves, dozens of local people came by to offer Mustapha and
Zakia sympathy and help -- some bringing not only food but money. We missed some
Siwa stories because of all the uproar, but Mustapha did find time to tell us a
few.

My favorite was about the Greek woman archaeologist named Liana Souvaltsis,
who spent many years excavating in Siwa, looking for Alexander's burial site. It
seems to be an accepted fact that Alexander the Great wanted to be buried in Siwa,
but he was in Jerusalem when he died, and on the way back to Egypt his body was
kidnapped from its 2,000-member funeral procession. Some years ago, the
woman held a press conference in Siwa to announce that she had finally found
Alexander's tomb. It was a huge discovery and there was much excitement in the
archaeological world, but then came the time for the second press conference in Cairo, where she
was going to reveal her proof. Souvaltsis never showed up.

We learned, too, that for the past
several years another unsuccessful archaeologist has been showing up, donating his
camels to the local people for a tasty barbecue. He is a German man who makes the
long trek from Luxor to Siwa each summer, crossing hundreds of miles of desert in
search of the remains of an army of 50,000 men. The men were sent to destroy
Siwa's oracle by the king of Persia but were never heard from or seen again.

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And we found out about one very intriguing local custom: Each October there is a three-day festival
during which Siwans must settle all of their past year's disputes.

Mustapha also found time to talk to me about the problem of what was going to
happen to Siwa after the onslaught of tourism. "You tell me," he said, "what
better way is there for the local people here to become economically independent?
Selfishly speaking, I'd like to see Siwans keep their culture intact -- it's good
for business. But how can you say that you hope people will remain poor and
uneducated? I think we just have to try to manage development. Keep it small
scale and in good taste."

"But look at what's happened to the north coast," I said.

"I hate what's happened to the whole north coast," he agreed. "I just hate
it. I used to come to Marsa Matrouh (the closest town to Siwa, 190 miles
away) when it was the most beautiful place on earth -- just some Bedouin tents and
a few fishermen on the white sand and that beautiful turquoise water. Now I don't
even like to see what's happened -- I try to avoid looking at it whenever I drive
through."

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"So how can you want development?"

"Maybe one of the good international hotels will come. Maybe they can do it
right."

"A Sheraton?"

"If Sheraton would build the right kind of hotel, why not? For years Siwa
has been dependent on aid. People cheered when Nassar came here in the l950s and
promised the people he'd build a road. Now we have electricity and even
television -- the modern world has come in. We're working with the local elders
here who want development; the young people want it too. There are only a very
few people in the middle who are resisting."

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On our last night in Siwa we heard some singing and drumming and I found out
that it was a "show" being put on at one of the backpacker hotels. I
tried to imagine a group of young Siwan men drumming and singing happily with the
laid-back young backpackers, but all I could think about was a refueling stopover
I once made on the island of Biak off the coast of Irian Jaya. It was 4 in the
morning and three men came into the airport waiting room dressed in grass skirts
and necklaces of bone. They walked over to a corner and started stomping their
feet and playing ukuleles. Out of embarrassment everyone eventually went over to
a duty-free shop and stared at the perfumes desultorily.

I'm rooting for Siwa, but still -- go there as soon as you can.


Tracy Johnston

Tracy Johnston is the author of "Shooting the Boh."

MORE FROM Tracy Johnston

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