Reading stories about the desert as a kid, I never understood the relief that comes from arriving in an oasis. After 10 hours of driving through the Egyptian Sahara, I now understand. There is literally nothing out here. We drove through hours of barren, arid land. Aside from the military check points and occasional car, there was a lot of nothing around us. No trees, no bushes, no camels, no birds, no nothing. Just empty space. I had only experienced this once before when driving through the Atacama desert in Chile.
It’s such a humbling and relieving feeling when you finally do arrive in an oasis town. Our destination was Siwa, which is in western Egypt near to the Libyan border. Famous for its date groves and small town feel, Siwa felt so homey to me. It feels so authentic, like you are experiencing the real rural Egypt. We arrived just before sunset. Walid took us to the ruins of the old city, where we could get a lovely sunset view.
Susceptible to occasional flash flooding, Siwa was nearly destroyed in the early 20th century by strong rains. All the buildings are built out of mud bricks, so you can imagine what happens when it rains hard. Everything just washes away.The ruins of the city that still exist today are haunting and strangely beautiful. They remind me of a surrealist painting, or something from the mind of Salvador Dali. They are jagged, irregular, and totally deformed. Some roofs still stand, with a side of the house missing. Some windows still appear in the walls, but are strangely sunken or lopsided from the rain. It was a really unique vantage point.
The next day, we explored the tiny oasis town by bicycle. Now this should come as no surprise to anyone that this was a highlight activity for me. I have been desperately missing my bike recently with all the driving we’ve been doing. It felt so natural to be on a bike again! They were in various stages of disrepair when we got them, and mine got a flat tire about 2 minutes into leaving. But with a quick replacement, I was off. We biked around the town of 20,000 people, exploring some of the other ruins and sites. There was the Mountain of the Dead, a large hill ful of tombs dating back to the Greco-Roman period. There was the Oracle Temple visited famously by Alexander the Great. And finally, there was a rest at Cleopatra’s bath, a natural spring that Cleopatra (supposedly) used to visit during the long summer months. We went for a short swim, and ordered a few delicious fresh juices, including fresh date juice which I had never drank before. Super good!
But my favorite part of the day was just riding on my bike. I got this little red cruiser with a basket in the front and old fenders on the back. It had strong, thick tires since the roads here aren’t paved, and a patchy leather seat. It was such a joy riding through the massive date fields here. For those of you that don’t know, date trees look almost exactly the same as palm trees and the dates grow in these big bundles that are harvested by farmers by climbing up the tree and cutting them off. You can feel the rural life around you in a way you can’t in a bus, and you get to smell, hear and bounce your way through people’s lives. It was still incredibly hot out, but on the bike, it didn’t feel so bad. I was just too happy, too at peace.