In 331 B.C., Alexander III of Macedonia journeyed from a new city on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, a city that would soon give rise to one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, and which three-hundred years later would provide the last gasp refuge for Mark Antony and Cleopatra against the onslaught of the first Roman emperor, Augustus.
Modestly dubbed Alexandria by the conqueror of the known world, he walked through roughly 300 miles of barren desert from the city to the Siwa oasis, home of the Oracle of Amun, who promptly (one can only assume it was prompt, what with the conquerer of the known world showing up on your doorstep in the middle of the Sahara desert) informed Alexander he was the son of Zeus, a child of the Gods, helping to solidify his rule in Egypt. And providing a bit of an ego boost, I would imagine.
No simple task given the failure roughly two-hundred years earlier by the King of Persia, Cambyses the Second, son of Cyrus the Great and predecessor to Darius I, who himself gained fame by beginning a campaign of retribution against the Greek armies of Athens and Sparta, among others, and who died before the ultimate defeat his empire suffered not long after led to the rapid Hellenization of the world and much, much later to this:
Anyway, Cambyses II took his own palm reading from the oracle badly (history is unclear on exactly why the temple needed to be razed to the ground, but my money says the oracle made gentle, good-natured fun of Cambyses the Second’s name and lineage, and there was, as the ancients were often wont to do, a bit of an overreaction) and sent an army of 50,000 men to destroy the temple. To a man, they were lost in the swirling sand storms, becoming a legend, a historical question mark that passed through the ages and also led much, much later to this, if a little indirectly:
Until about thirty years ago, there was no direct paved road to the oasis, making it one of the most isolated spots in the world not located here: http://wikitravel.org/en/Queen_Elizabeth_Islands. Sadly, the oasis contains no ball pit to match Canada’s premiere tourist destination.
It takes nine hours to travel by bus (my particular bus ran the same faded videotape copy of a twenty-year old movie in Arabic on a loop) along the one and only paved road that leads in and out of the oasis, home to the barely-but-still standing Temple of the Oracle, and the Berbers, who distinguish themselves in Egypt by largely maintaining their own culture and speaking the Berber language and not Arabic. Dates and olives are everywhere, I happily bought some and they were delicious, but despite the historic points of interest (also including a roman necropolis complete with well-preserved tombs, Cleopatra’s bath, and damage to the unique mud buildings suffered during German bombing in WWII. Damn Nazis.) this is not an area teeming with tourists.
Rome is gorgeous, but the massive tourist presence often relegates the city’s spectacular ruins (and really, many in shockingly great condition) to a photo op and gelato stand decor. The same with the pyramids of Giza, the only surviving ancient wonder of the world, perhaps best viewed from this KFC across the street.
Siwa suffers no such burden, one of the more isolated spots on the globe.
The bus ride there and back, nine long hours each way, was a little rough, the seats, noise level and quality of road not always to my liking, and it wasn’t the only difficult part of the trip. My hotel, which cost only $4 a night, for good reason, became a mosquito graveyard by the time I left town. The food, and there weren’t that many options, was nothing to write home about (though truthfully I was just grateful not to get food poisoning) and there was little to no protection from the sun, and if you’ve seen any of the other photos of me on this site, you know I essentially burst into flame when confronted directly by sunlight. So, perfect, no, but it was such a spectacular experience in large part because it was so difficult to reach.
There’s no way to get lost in cities like Rome, which is pretty funny considering how often I got lost in Rome, but there’s always a taxi or a landmark to guide you back to your hotel where everyone speaks English. It’s really, really easy to get lost in the middle of the Sahara. Knowing Libya is only 60-70 miles to the west doesn’t really help much or make you feel any better, and while it’s hardly adventure tourism the way people enjoyed a hundred years ago, it’s about as close as I’ll likely experience.
The trip started by meeting a few other English speakers on the bus from Alexandria to Siwa, two of whom were sisters from the U.S. who spent too much time telling everyone how much they hated George Bush. Not that I disagreed, but it was a little much after a while. There was also a British guy, Steve, and I liked him enormously. He lived his life for traveling. He would work some lousy job for X number of months, save up, then buy two one-way tickets, the first to his initial destination and the second his return to London from a different city. He would travel until the money ran out, make his way to the return city, come back to London, and then repeat the process. He’d been doing it for years, all over the world, including hiking through the Darien Gap, the pass between Panama and Colombia, which is one of the most dangerous and deadly spots in the world. When I asked him about this, raising the issue of safety, he just shrugged it off like the possibility of being murdered and buried in the mountains had never so much crossed his mind, let alone kept him up at night.
When the bus finally pulled into Siwa, I headed straight for my hotel, passing many friendly people (Egypt is full of people who say hello on the streets), kids playing soccer and donkeys pulling carts. These, along with sand, dates and olives, were the defining motifs of my visit to the oasis.
The next morning, my first order of business was the Oracle of Amun. The ruins are about 4 kilometers from the center of town, where I was staying. It was really, really hot.
The remains of the temple site was an active excavation site, an ongoing project with Germans and Egyptians, and though there was little left but a couple walls and some etchings, it was still a tremendously cool experience. I pocketed a little sand in a ziplock bag, which I still have, bought my dad a book about the oasis written by a local historian, and spent the rest of the day walking around some of the other sites and the town center, which was larger than I was expecting.
Lots of little shops and handmade items for sale in the town center, and unlike the rest of Egypt, bargaining is not a way of life. After the constant haggling of Cairo, it was a very pleasant change.
The English speaking tourists in town, comprising the aforementioned people along with two others, both young Brits, banded together and we arranged an overnight excursion into the great sand sea of the Sahara. The two young Brits were in desperate need of a few U.S. dollars and when I was able to help them out, it solidified the bonding process.
Before leaving I mailed all of the postcards I had written on the trip to family and friends, and this was no easy task given how well hidden the post office was and the complete lack of English spoken there. I was very gratified when I got back to L.A. and found they had all arrived.
Early the next morning we piled into a truck with a driver who spoke no English and headed out into the desert. First up was a hot spring, which was pretty amazing since it was sitting in the middle of nowhere, and all of us checked and found we had perfect cell phone reception. I can’t make a call in Glendale five minutes from my apartment, but a short drive from the Libyan border in the desert and no problem.
Our second stop was even more memorable. It was a section of desert that was filled with fossils from 20 thousand or so years earlier when the area was covered by ocean. We all took a handful as souvenirs and then made our way to the campsite.
Actually, campsite is a bit of an exaggeration. There was a stone building, with most of a roof, in the absolute middle of nowhere. We were dropped off and our driver left. I doubt with a dozen tries I would ever have been able to find my way back on my own.
We goofed off, played games, including some strange French game that Steve learned involving a coke bottle and stones, which I was winning early on, even though I didn’t understand the rules, but ultimately Steve emerged victorious. We switched to cards, but I couldn’t catch a break, so apparently my luck in that area doesn’t extend to that part of the world.
Mohammed, a friendly fellow who spoke excellent English, came out later in the evening to help us prepare dinner and get us settled. The first step was fire, and this was achieved by flooding the truck’s engine and collecting gas in my used water bottle, then throwing it on some wood we gathered by breaking a chair into pieces and then picking up said pieces into a bundle, and our ancestors would have been proud with our ingenuity. We almost incinerated the other chairs we’d assembled nearby from the building, but once the fire was going we were well on our way.
We dug a small pit, used a makeshift shovel to transfer embers from the fire, and cooked some chicken over it for our dinner. No risk of salmonella, we waited thirty minutes to eat, and we were all ravenous by this point. It was spectacularly good. I couldn’t believe how delicious it all was. The chicken had been marinating in something beforehand, though I have no idea what, and there was also some couscous and vegetables. The only small downside was the agonizing, burning pain I suffered during every bite.
It wasn’t only me, all of our lips were so badly chapped from the wind/sun that it hurt like hell to eat, but it was so damned good and I was so hungry I cleaned my plate like it was my last meal on this earth.
We spent most of the night outside by the fire, though unfortunately there was a lot of cloud cover so we didn’t have much chance to stare up at the stars. I did learn all about the British system of higher education from the young Londoners.
At one point, we took turns walking out into the desert to see how many steps it took before we would completely lose sight of someone. Thirty, it turns out, was the magic number. Thirty steps into total darkness. Further exploration was cut short by several loud dogs of indeterminate number wailing in the distance. We stayed by the fire, swapped stories, eventually deciding to sleep in/near the building, but it was so cramped there was no way we could all fit inside. I slept slightly in and out of the building, and I had the best night’s sleep to that point in my Egypt travels.
Our ride was late the next morning, which made me nervous since I had a bus to catch back to Alexandria later that day, but it turned out to be a blessing. Steve found a Frisbee, damaged as you might expect from spending lord only knows how long buried in the sand, but we had a great time tossing it around for an hour. We managed twenty consecutive throws without a drop, not too shabby given how it would often careen to the right at the last moment. This also afforded many opportunities to make diving catches in the sand.
We said our goodbyes back in town, as I was the only one leaving that day, and then I was back in Alexandria late that night. The bus driver was very helpful in making sure I made it to the right stop. He was also very enamored with my boots. I do not know why.
I probably won’t ever go back. I’d love to see Egypt again, and I might go once all of the current turmoil fades a bit into the background, which it inevitably will, and sooner rather than later I think, though that may be wishful thinking. I doubt I’ll return to Siwa, though. Alexander only went once, he died before he had a chance to return, though frankly once you’ve been anointed the son of Zeus, it’s all downhill from there.
A year or two ago, archaeologists may have found the remains of the Persian army of Cambyses II. We won’t know until more excavation/work is done, if ever, but I’m in no hurry to learn the answer. Myth becomes reality and back again so quickly, sometimes I’m much happier to simply let my mind wander in possibility.
This is one of my favorite photographs, taken with a cheap disposable camera I bought in a drug store, not having any idea whether any of the pictures I was taking that day would ever be successfully developed.
I’m always there, gazing up that short hill at the Temple of the Oracle of Amun, sharing the same view as Alexander the Great almost 2,500 years ago, straddling myth, lost in history, softly treading in the footsteps of giants.