Siwa is an oasis and town in the Western Desert of Egypt. It is the most remote of Egypt's five western oases. The oasis is 80 km long by 20 km wide, with a population in 2016 of some 33,000. It has a scattering of villages but only one large settlement, here referred to as "Siwa town" for clarity. Its main sight is the Temple of the Oracle, which even Alexander the Great came to visit.
Siwa is in a great depression in the Sahara, so although it is 300 km from the Mediterranean coast at Marsa Matruh, it lies at sea-level or even a few metres below. This brings it close to a great aquifer of sandstone and limestone, containing "fossil water" - rain that fell 40,000 years ago. All the oasis water comes from this non-renewable resource. The depression was scoured out by wind-blown sand and salt, and the water is only usable if it is not salty. Most of Siwa's water is salty and the town is surrounded by large bitter lakes, which support wildlife (eg migratory birds, which gorge on the insects and grubs) but not agriculture. Wells nowadays have to drill down 300 m to access fresh water, so the area remains fertile but its development is constrained - tourist hotels are notoriously profligate users of water. Siwa's aquifer continues across the border into Libya, where it emerges as the Jaghbub oasis. Some 200 km east of Siwa is the even larger and deeper depression of Qattara, where all the water is saline and useless, so it is not an oasis.
The inhabitants of Siwa are ethnically Berber and their mother tongue is a Berber language called Siwi. They also speak Egyptian Arabic, and many can speak a little English.
Like the other western oases, the climate is hot desert, near 40°C summer and 5°C in winter. There is almost zero rainfall.
There are no flights to Siwa so the only approach is along two very long roads.
550 km west of Cairo (but 750 km by either road) or from Alexandria, the best approach is by the coast road to Marsa Matruh, then it is 300 km southwest across the desert to Siwa. This road is asphalt throughout—beware blowing sand. It is a long way with no filling stations though there is a café midway.
The other way is to Bahariyya oasis then west across the desert. This road is asphalt. From there a dirt track heads west to Siwa. It is being upgraded and buses previously ran this way, but in 2019 it was closed by the military.
West of Siwa is the border with Libya (50 km), which is closed throughout, and south are only the trackless sands of the desert.
- 1 Siwa main bus stop. You would not call it a station. It is in the broad street outside the police station. Tickets go on sale about 1 hr before the bus departs. Taxis also gather in this area.
From specific destinations:
- Cairo – Nightly around 8PM from West Delta Gateway Station, and heading back at the same time. 12 hr. LE60 (Sep 2018).
- Marsa Matruh – At least daily from the coast. 4 hr. You might prefer to take a day-time bus through Marsa Matruh from Cairo.
- Bahariyya – In 2019, there was no bus or taxi service, or least foreigners were not allowed along that road.
A taxi on the Marsa Matruh route might cost LE1,000.
Bicycles are the best way to explore Siwa and surroundings, and Chinese gear-less models can be rented for LE10 per day (LE5 half day). Before accepting a bike, however, check that it is sturdy, that the brakes are functioning well and that the handle bars are not cracked or bent. Driving on sand-covered streets can be quite a challenge for inexperienced cyclists.
By donkey cart
Donkey cart drivers are mostly children who have been riding donkeys for several years. Prices for this mode of transport are negotiable - just make sure the price is clearly agreed before setting off - and run from around LE3 for a short trip within the downtown up to LE30 for longer journeys. To get a few people and their backpacks from the bus station to town center can be as cheap as LE1.50. An afternoon trip to Cleopatra's Well will probably cost about LE20-25.
- Siwa town
- King Farooq Mosque
- Tomb of Sidi Suleiman
- 1 The museum. Sa-Th.
- 2 Shali (Fort of Shali). Siwa's original town, founded early 13th century and remaining the chief settlement until the 1920s. Parts of the old town walls and gates survive, along with houses and a mosque from 19th C. Wander the tiny alleys, then you can climb the hill just west which has Graeco-Roman rock tombs. free.
- 3 Temple of the Oracle (Aghurmi) (Hill of Aghurmi 4 km east of town). The temple, built perhaps in 570 BCE, was dedicated to Amun, the same deity as Zeus or Jupiter / Jove. The priestly oracles pronounced on propositions put to them and in 331 BCE Alexander the Great came to ask if he was the son of Zeus. He sent everyone else out of the room before receiving the answer, and afterwards enough gold was distributed to ensure that the answer was yes as he had claimed. It is called "leadership", and thus he legitimised his rule in Egypt. He intended to be buried here but lies in Alexandria at an unknown site. The temple is undecorated except for the Hall of the Sacrament. It never had a tiled roof, but palm trunks were overlain. The area became built over and the temple was lost sight of until rediscovered in 1853. LE50 foreigner, LE25 adult, LE15 student.
- 4 Temple of Umm Ubeida (Umm Ubaydah/Temple of Amun) (400 m south of Temple of the Oracle). This temple was probably built by Nectanebo around 380 BCE. It too was dedicated to Amun, and in the 18—19th century became a decoy: explorers looking for the Temple of the Oracle thought this must be it. They made detailed sketches of its layout and decorations, fortunately, because in 1897 the Ottoman governor decided that the limestone masonry would be much better employed for a new police station, so he blew it up. Only one wall remains and various large fragments. The origin of the present temple name is uncertain, but "baydah" means white. free.
- 5 Gebel el-Mawta (Mountain of the Dead) (1 km north of town centre). Sa-Th 9AM-3PM, F 9AM-noon. Limestone hillock with many rock-cut tombs, mostly from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. The highlight is the group of four tombs on the northeast slope (no photography within). These are the Tomb of Si-Amun with beautifully colored reliefs; the Tomb of Mesu-Isis is little decorated but contains a mummified skull; the Tomb of Per-nj-pa-thot has inscriptions and drawings; and the Tomb of the Crocodile where the wall paintings are deteriorating, but the yellow crocodile is probably the deity Sobek. Adult LE50.
- 6 Gebel Darkur (4 km southeast of town). This is a limestone scarp west of town; you can climb it for the view. There are several rock tombs, but they're plain with no inscriptions or decorations. The thing to do here is to have yourself buried in hot sand for 20 minutes, it's supposed to be good for rheumatism. In October there's a village festival here, but it's a Siwa family reunion not a tourist event.
- 7 Ain Duheiba. A village 25 km west of Siwa with Graeco-Roman graves. They are undecorated.
- 8 Bilad er-Rum (30 km west of Siwa). Has extensive rocktombs and a ruined Doric Temple. This is sometimes claimed as Alexander the Great's burial site, which it is not.
- 9 Maraqi (30-35 km west of Siwa). A secondary oasis dotted with rock tombs and scraps of temple ruins, and there is a prehistoric human footprint. The area is fertile, though the lake it surrounds is very salty. Here you are close to the border, so the military may curb your explorations. The aquifer continues northwest under the border to re-emerge at El Jaghbub oasis in Libya.
- 10 Biʾr Wahid (Well No. 1) (15 km southwest of town). A lake and garden surrounded by sand dunes, almost a cartoon image of an oasis. A spring feeds a pool at 30°C and you can bathe here, though the minerals will stain your costume and towels; the nearby lake is cold.
- There are other wells and springs at Ain Qureishad, Abu Shuruf, Ez-Zeitun and Ain Safi. Abu el-Auwuf has a necropolis and chapels.
- 1 Cleopatra's Bath (Sun Pool/Pool of the Sun at Ammon) (900 m south of Temple of Umm Ubaydah). A natural hot spring feeds this rock pool at 29°C. It is a popular swimming hole for locals and visitors alike, with a cafe. The association with Cleopatra is entirely fanciful. Another spring feeds a smaller pool just north, called Ain Gubba.
- 2 Fatnas Island (6 km west of town). This has become joined to shore as Lake Siwa silted up. Bathe in the hot smelly spring, have tea at the café, relax amidst the greenery and watch the sun set over the lake. It is usually idyllic but the bugs can be pesky.
- Excursions – By 4x4 to the various outlying sights, either as day-trips or as overnight safaris.
- Equinox sunrise – Timasirayn temple is a ruin 12 km west of town, accessible by 4x4. On the morning of the equinox (Mar 21 and Sep 23, plus or minus a day in some years) the sunrise viewed from here is over the Temple of the Oracle, prominent on its hill. Tourist entrepreneurs and flaky archaeologists have tried to play this up—there is maybe a secret tunnel to Chichen Itza and Angkor Wat hereabouts—but its significance remains unclear. You cannot see much without powerful binoculars or zoom lenses, and even the ancient Egyptians knew it was unwise to look at the sun through those.
- Popular items are local crafts, jewelry, and baskets woven from date palms.
- Or splurge on your wedding dress—these have red, orange, green and black embroidery, embellished with shells and beads.
Siwa Dates are the best in Egypt, and perhaps the whole world. Apart from regular dates, they are also sold stuffed with almonds and chocolate. Shops specialicing in dates are found around Market Square, and prices range from LE7-8 for a 500-g box.
- Abdu's Restaurant (around the corner from the town center). 8:30AM to midnight. Small, popular place. Offers a breakfast and a variety of entrées such as pasta, vegetable stews, couscous, meats, and salads—all freshly made, so be prepared to wait. LE6-25 per entrée.
- East-West (on the road leading from the town center to the bus station). Fresh fish, pigeon, and pizzas. LE3-15.
- Dunes Restaurant (Sharia Torrar). Tables set under the palm trees. Pancakes, smoothies, stuffed pigeon. Sheeshas, live music. From LE8-25.
- Alexander Restaurant (off central market square). Pizza, vegetable stews, great chicken and curry. Slow service. From LE5-15.
- New Star Restaurant & Coffee Shop, Sharia Subukha (Opposite Siwa Safari Paradise). Set in a beautiful palm grove. Usual food. Sells traditional clothes and crafts From LE5-20.
- Zeytouna (Central Market Square). Popular cafe.
- Bakri's Cafe, Sohag Rest House (Central Market Square). Great place for sheesha and backgammon.
- [formerly dead link] Nour El Waha Restaurant, Seboukha St. (opposite Shali Lodge), ☏ . Nour El Waha is a popular hang-out in a palm grove opposite Shali Lodge. The food is a mixture of Egyptian and Western cuisine. Sheesha is available at night. Enjoy the food & the music & the traditional siwa tea in a romantic ambiance. LE2-5.
- Abou Ayman, town center (at Shali entrance). Very good grilled chicken & Kofta (½ chicken ~LE20).
- Albabenshal Siwa Restaurant, Market Square (Just to the left of Shali Main gate, Fortress of Shali). Good food & dessert (feteer (meat/veg) @ LE15 ½ chicken @ LE20. Do not miss the Konafa and the date chocolate fluf cake. You can have a drink on the roof.
Siwan Tea – This is a red tea that is commonly found on desert safaris and is available in most restaurants. 500 g boxes of red (or green) tea leaves are sold in date/olive shop and cost about LE15.
- 1 Cleopatra Hotel (Just south of town center, near the Military Intelligence). Probably the best value in Siwa. Staff will only clean rooms when requested to do so. Single LE14 w/o bath, LE18 w/bath; Double LE25 w/o bath, LE30 w/bath; Triple LE38 w/o bath, LE42 w/bath.
- Palm Trees Hotel (Sharia torrar, Town centre, in the market). Bed bugs have been reported. Opt for the "chalets" rather than rooms in the main building. Bathrooms can be quite grotty, and don't count all of the toilets being functional. Very large, nice garden with trees and fire pit, where the staff will sit at night with guests. Roof terrace with a view of the oasis and Shali, can be used to hang clothes to dry if needed. Laundry done at LE1 per piece. LE15 for a private room with a shared bath.
- Albabenshal Hotel. Boutique hotel. Albabenshal offers 11 guest rooms on three levels, connected through a network of alleyways and terraces that look over central Shali and the palm groves beyond. Inside, guest rooms are furnished and decorated in authentic Siwan style, with colorful Bedouin carpets, palm frond chairs, tables and beds, and linens of fine Egyptian cotton embroidered by women of the oasis (Siwa Creations). On the main terrace, the Albabenshal Restaurant serves a diverse offering of Siwan dishes. LE375 for double room.
- 2 Siwa Shali Lodge. 16 rooms. Just a few minutes’ walk from downtown Siwa along a palm-covered dirt road, the 16-room Shali Lodge has simple yet elegant rooms furnished with palm frond chairs, tables and beds, complemented with colorful Bedouin carpets. Highly regarded restaurant with several different places to eat. Specialities include date omelet, lamb casserole or vegetarian tajin, each flavored with fresh herbs of the oasis. LE375.
- Siwa Safari Paradise Hotel, ☏ , fax: , ✉ email@example.com. Overpriced and tacky. Bungalows and main building. De luxe hotel with air conditionning, cafeteria, restaurant, swimming pool. Visa card is accepted
- Siwa Villa, Shali (behind the Old Shali), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Traditionally restored boutique hotel. Run by an English family who live in the oasis. LE150 for a room; LE1,000 for the whole villa.
- Taghaghien Island Resort (Taghaghien Island in Lake Siwa (7 km from the town)), ☏ . Single from LE200; double from LE300.
- Ghaliet Ecolodge, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Peaceful boutique garden hotel in the palms near the Amun Oracle and Amun Temple. With restaurant, swimming pool, roof terrace and small bazaar. 13 unique guest rooms. Request one of the upper rooms with skylight windows for a special sleeping under the stars experience. Request one of the lower rooms with small backyard gardens for your own outdoor privacy.
- Tamazigh (around the corner from Adrere Amellal). 8 rooms. A more intimate and more luxurious version of the Adrere Amellal. Large spring-fed swimming pool in lush garden. Some rooms are made entirely out of salt, including the bed and bedside tables.
As a very conservative and traditional town, Siwa is extremely safe. There is no risk of theft or physical violence as long as travelers behave according to expected norms (see 'Respect' below)
Mosquitoes can be a small nuisance.
- Women should not wear clothing that reveals the shoulders, breasts, or legs.
- Public displays of affection are prohibited.
- Alcohol should not be consumed in public.
- Male travelers should avoid contact with the local women as doing so is considered a rude and hostile act.
- Tourist Information, ☏ . Sa-Th 8AM-2PM, F 6PM-8PM. In the municipal building.
- Gas stations – Beside the mosque in Shali and behind Hotel Arous al-Waha
- Telephone office, post office, police – Across the street from Hotel Arous al-Waha
- The only open route is back to the Med coast at Marsa Matruh. Explore the wartime sites then continue to Alexandria or Cairo.