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Egypt’s Desert Gem


The rising moon stands up in clear skies next to a weathered building in ruins of the ancient fortification of Shali

It was just a couple of hours from sunset, and I felt I was at the ends of the Earth.

Miles away to the west, a great salt lake was sparkling in the sunlight, while in front of us was a never-ending range of peaks and valleys rolling far beyond the horizon.

This was the fabled Great Sand Sea of western Egypt – 28,000 square miles of giant sand dunes stretching for hundreds of miles into the sunset.

Cartographers called it a sea, but in reality this corner of the Sahara seems more like a mighty range of mountains. With its sharply veering ridges and giant, looming shadows, there is a distinctly Alpine feel to Egypt’s western wilderness.

“It’s nothing but silence for hundreds of miles,” said Max, a German friend of mine, as we both gazed off into the distance. “It’s just pure nature.”

Speaking of his love of desert, the travel writer Colin Thubron once said that it “strips away everything inessential”. Perhaps nowhere else in Egypt better illustrates Mr Thubron’s aphorism than the Great Sand Sea.

Sitting on one of its enormous peaks and watching the sun complete its inevitable descent towards the horizon, the sheer enormity of the world begins to manifest itself.

In this part of the universe, the day begins, then it ends – and there is little in between except sand and virtual silence.

But on the edge of this great wilderness, life flourishes.

Siwa Oasis is probably the most remote community in Egypt. Owing its existence to a depression sinking 18 metres below sea level, the town was virtually independent until the late nineteenth century.

Its isolation spawned a unique culture which has thrived since the time of the ancients. Locals speak their own language, a relative of the Berber tongue, while gay marriages were reportedly sanctioned until the middle of the last century – despite the best efforts of horrified Victorian administrators.

In between there was Roman occupation, a visit from Alexander the Great and the loss of an entire Persian army after it perished in the desert on its way to crush the settlement.

Nowadays, things are beginning to change. It all began with the first asphalt road leading out of Siwa back in 1984. Now officials talk of establishing an airport to make access even easier.

That would be a great mistake. The appeal of this unique oasis town lies in its wonderful isolation. Take the desolation out of Siwa, and you’ll take away its soul as well.

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Alastair Beach
Alastair Beach is a freelance reporter based in Cairo who has worked for a variety of publications, including the Independent, the Sunday Telegraph and Spectator. He was previously based in Syria.


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