Maher shuffled his way into the coffee-shop sneezing, coughing and complaining, his flip-flops hardly lifting from the dusty floor as he moved, I’m sick he announced to the waiter who didn’t look away from the TV, he sneezed again to prove his point. In Egypt the cure for the common cold is Helba a herbal yellow tea made from fenugreek seeds; Doctors will prescribe Helba for almost any ailment from flu to a twisted ankle. Maher though ordered his usual shisha pipe, hitched up his Gallabiyah and plonked himself on a chair in the corner, sucked on his pipe and coughed some more.
Outside the street is drowning in clouds of dust and sand stirred up by the haphazard traffic, mostly motorbikes, some with three wheels some with two, some with two passengers and some with three and other infinite combinations. A group of lads sitting playing backgammon at the entrance to the cafe oblivious to the swirling Saharan smog, a shop keeper on the other side of the street squirts water from a bottle in a futile attempt at controlling it.
Inside the café every surface is coated in the grainy dust, the waiter understands the futility of wasting his time, when the Khamseen blows the desert comes to town and paints everything beige, welcome to Siwa says the waiter when he puts down my coffee on the dusty table.
Siwa an island adrift in the Great Sand Sea between Western Egypt and Eastern Libya, an oasis of palm trees watered by underground springs, of crumbling mud brick houses populated by Berber Nomads, a place of more legends than tourists, where spring swirls with the Khamseen wind.
Egypt has had a turbulent time over the past few years but consensus has it that things have settled now, increased stability has seen a steady return of tourists with forecasts set to increase, But Siwa is a long way from the sandy beaches of the Red Sea and the Pyramids of Giza, it has never been high on the itinerary of the charter crowds that fill coaches and head from Cairo along the Nile to Luxor, Siwa takes a little more effort to reach.
Alexander the Great set out from Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital, driven by the need to prove his divinity and seek approval from the Oracle of Amun, the desert crossing as harsh now as it was then, with routes obscured by the ever-drifting sands he followed a flock of crows to the oasis, at the Temple of Amun his status as a God on Earth was confirmed and the young Macedonian King went on to make his historical mark. These days it’s much easier to just take the train to Alexandria and then a bus as the crow flies into the desert, it’s a bumpy ride with numerous military check-points, the errant Bedouin tribes having little respect for the border with Libya about 30 miles away.
It’s a rickety cycle ride along a dusty track to the temple ruins, past groves of palm trees dusted dull from the surrounding sands, ageing Siwians sitting on their doorsteps gossiping. Somehow it seems unlikely Cleopatra passed this way and even less likely on a bicycle but a pool fed with natural spring water takes her name, in the past brides would bathe here prior to their wedding but these days it’s more a spot to wash the sand off, sip a juice and watch the local lads dip and dive.
It was 323 years before the birth of Christ that Alexander entered the temple and time has taken its inevitable toll on the complex, but by climbing the path you follow in the footsteps of the Pharaohs and from the crumbling ramparts you can see the extent of the palm groves and beyond the shimmer of a vast salt lake.
The distant Nile is the thread that weaves life into Egypt; the land is parched beyond its fertile banks except for the seven oases where underground aquifers feed the date palms. The dates of Siwa are the best in the world, at least according to a grinning Mustafa, who was trying to sell me a half a kilo from his shack in the shadow of Shali fortress. The verdant gardens have always proved a reliable provider; tourism is an intermittent side show.
I washed the dust from Mustafa’s dates and munched on them as I followed the path through the decrepit ruins to the former fortress that dominates the town, an impenetrable citadel that stood for 13 centuries until 1923 when several days of flash floods took its toll, the houses had been built from Kershef, a muddy mixture of clay and salt and now most of the houses are just mustard colored skeletons, home to donkeys and huddled sheep, although now investment and restoration is seeing a slow transformation with a boutique hotel or two and inevitably a handful of Airbnb’s.
As the sun sinks the call to prayer rises, a crackle and cough from a thousand-year-old minaret, remarkably intact and looking not unlike a potteries chimney, shadowy figures scuttle up the steps to the dun colored Mosque.
Siwians are easy going and independently minded, conservative and polite, the language is Siwian first and Arabic second, the culture is Berber Bedouin, they see themselves as a world apart from the rest of Egypt. Siwa is cloaked in a sandy otherworldliness.
Over breakfast of mashed fava beans and yogurt at Abdo’s restaurant I negotiated with Abdul Rahman to chauffeur me a little further than the bone shaker bicycle could manage, Abdul Rahman assured me of the upmost comfort, no distance too far, salt lakes and sand seas guaranteed.
Thirty minutes later I was being thrown violently from side to side in the back of a motorcycle tuk-tuk, Abdul Rahman glancing over his shoulder every so often to check if I was still aboard, the engine noise limiting our communication to a series of emojis, me thumbs-up and him a smiley face.
The Sahara surrounding Siwa is remarkably wet, despite its status as an oasis it does come as a surprise to see so much water, expansive saline lakes and numerous hot and cold springs all offering respite and rejuvenation and adding to the unique character of this remote Egyptian outpost.
The road out of town is flanked by mountains peppered with tombs cut into the limestone rock, grave robbers long gone, on the walls only intricate inscriptions detailing the importance of life and afterlife remain. And an earie quiet.
The tuk-tuk has overheated, Abdul Rahman had pushed it too far and was now fiddling with the tormented engine, the sand drifted silently across the tarmac, I kicked at the bleached bones of another victim an unforgiving landscape, a couple of local Bedouin from a settlement close by wandered over to offer advice and offer refreshments.
The Bedouin seemed amused at my choice of transport, a shiny 4×4 was parked at the entrance to a cluster of yellow painted buildings in the shade of several palm trees, Bedouin culture is more settled these days. With the tuk-tuk fixed our new friends invited us for tea, we loaded up with supplies and headed off in convoy along a dusty camel track to the edge of a salt heavy lake, as the sun faded we kindled a fire and cooked more tea, selfies were made and conversation revolved around our hosts cross-border drug smuggling business, the border with Libya a few shifting dunes away.
The desert can be unforgiving, vast and unknown, it can also be serene, poetic in its shapes and hues, and it can also be therapeutic, not just in mind but also in body. The desert bathing season starts once the sand is at its hottest, taking a Siwa sand sauna involves being buried up to the neck and left to roast in the hope of curing everything from rheumatism to impotence.
We said goodbye to our new friends, promising to keep in-touch regarding some potential business opportunities and struggled through the darkness back to town.
Next morning in the coffee-shop Maher was puffing on his pipe, the water gurgling in its bowl, a glint of sunlight picking out the particles of Sahara in the air, the TV was switched off and outside the traffic was still quiet, I ordered coffee and waited for Abdul Rahman to take me to the bus station, apart from Maher’s occasional cough we sat in silence, inside the café the dust was settling but outside the sands were shifting.
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John Wreford is a professional photographer based in Istanbul, Turkey.