The oasis of Siwa is more than the gateway to the Great Sand Sea. This once sleepy frontier town, less than 50 kilometers from the border of Libya, has a rich cultural history. Siwa is home to Egypt's only native Berber population as well as the famed Temple of the Oracle. Alexander the Great traveled here and obtained the confirmation he sought. The priests addressed him as deity and established his right to rule Egypt. Famous for its olives and dates, Siwa was once an important stop on the Caravan Route. But to protect the oasis from hostile invaders the Siwans built the Fortress of Shali in the 12th century and for hundreds of years no one went in. And while Siwa first appeared on an Egyptian map in the 26th dynasty, it was likely settled long before that. Flints found in the area suggest that Siwa was inhabited during the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras when the barren desert was a lush savannah. But before you brave the long trek across the desert from Bahariya or south from Marsa Matruh on Egypt's Mediterranean coast, take note. This difficult to reach destination is no longer solitary. In the peak season tourists and tour buses can give Egypt's most picturesque oasis an amusement park feel. Visit off peak but don't stay home.
Travel to Siwa Oasis is a challenge as well as an experience. Until the new road from Bahariya is complete, families traveling to this corner of the Western Desert have two choices: travel north from Cairo to Alexandria and then west along the Mediterranean coast to Marsa Matruh or hire a 4x4 and a driver and navigate the sand covered stretches of old road across the desert. The trip along the sea offers the opportunity to play in the waves, the desert trek a chance to tour one or more of the five Abandoned Oases found along the route. Either way the trip from Cairo is at least two days.
The best time of year to visit Siwa is from October to April. The average daytime high exceeds 40°C (104°F) from June to August making desert expeditions and cultural touring all but unbearable. Late evening and early morning temperatures are significantly lower than the daytime high throughout the year and in December and January can plummet to freezing. The peak tourist season is Christmas, New Year and Easter.
Heat exhaustion, dehydration and sunburn are the most common aliments afflicting tourists to Egypt's Western Desert. Families traveling to Siwa should add drinking water to the list. Salt seep in local wells makes the tap water undrinkable. Apply high factor sunscreen to all exposed areas, including your child's nose, ears, and toes, before you set out and repeat applications throughout the day. Buy bottled water and encourage the children to drink regularly.
Siwa Oasis is a great place to shop for traditional handicrafts. Palm frond baskets, silver jewelry, simple pottery and embroidered shirts and shawls as well as excellent dates and olives can all be purchased here. Take note, prices are often fixed and not negotiable.
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