All tosh, of course. The desert west of the Nile is certainly the largest area of arid land on earth. But it is not dead. As the Roman geographer Strabo said, it is dotted with oases like the spots on a leopard.
What makes an oasis? A geological fluke. These are places where waters which have trickled for thousands of years - and thousands of miles - through underground passages from the rainy heartlands of central Africa, unexpectedly emerge, producing islands of trees and grasses and insects and birds. And occasionally people.
Siwa has always seemed to me the most miraculous of Strabo's leopard spots. From the Nile at Cairo, it goes over 500km in a straight line across waterless desert. From the nearest point on the barren Mediterranean coast it is at least 300km, or a nine-day trek with camels. Getting to or from Siwa has always been a monumental undertaking. But there, lurking under the palm trees, this speck of desert has harboured a minor civilisation of its own, unbroken for thousands of years.
Unlike the Egyptians of today's Nile Valley, whose claims to pharaonic ancestry have always struck me as somewhat dubious (after all, the Arabic language was imported a mere 13 centuries ago), the Siwans can plausibly claim that the Berber tongue they still use has been spoken in the area since before the dawn of history; since, in fact, that not-so distant era, recorded in rock carvings discovered deep in the Libyan desert, when rain still fell, and when the Sahara was a giant savannah inhabited by giraffes, elephants and crocodiles.
These days it takes nine hours by bus to Siwa from Alexandria, including a final four-hour stretch across a flat, featureless desert, as eerily silent as it has been for 3,000 years. But unlike most Egyptian buses, this one was not even crowded. My fellow travellers ate sunflower seeds or slept with the curtains drawn. A 19th-century Englishman, Bayle St John, on his descent into the valley of Siwa, spoke of "towers and pyramids and crescents and domes and dizzy pinnacles and majestic crenellated heights, all invested with unearthly grandeur but exhibiting that they had been battered by the mighty artillery of time". Unfortunately darkness had fallen when our bus began dropping through the folds of the escarpment. Minutes later I was walking down an empty, sandy lane to a hotel overhung by palm trees.
Siwa contains about 10,000 people, scattered in villages through the oasis. It may be a small dot on the map, but I was hardly the first to have found it. Herodotus himself, who knew Siwa as the land of the Ammonians, visited in the middle of the fifth century BC. He came investigating the mysterious story of Cambyses, the King of Persia, whose huge army had vanished in the sands outside Siwa. To this day explorers still look for their bones.
Herodotus went home to Greece spreading tales of the miraculous Spring of the Sun (today known as Ayn El-Gubah, or Cleopatra's bath), which bubbled ice-cold by day and boiling hot by night. Then, one morning early in 331BC, the Siwans awoke to find that their appointment with history had arrived. The most glamorous man of his time - of all time, some whispered - had materialised out of the desert. His name was Alexander.
My first morning in Siwa I walked along paths lined by palm trees, listening to the pervasive sound of running water. I agreed with Herodotus: the springs of Siwa were a kind of miracle. The whole oasis contains at least 200, including a dozen or more major springs, which suddenly appear as deep, turquoise pools bubbling through clearances in the trees. And these were not the feeble, decorative palms you find in southern Europe, but hardy creatures of the desert, jackhammered by sunshine. Enormous spiky frondes dangled this way and that, like the taloned wings of some prehistoric reptile. But down below, long grass grew, and labourers sat, sorting the orange dates from the brown.
The story of Alexander's visit to Siwa was no conjuring trick to attract tourists. It was simply one of the strangest tales in world history. As the new pharoah of Egypt, he came for one reason: to put questions to the ram-headed god, known to the Greeks as Zeus Ammon. Alexander would never admit to the questions that he asked, nor to the answers that he received. But it was this encounter at Siwa that convinced him of his world-conquering destiny. Later he would even ask to be buried in Siwa. Despite recent claims by a Greek archeologist to have discovered Alexander's tomb here in a Greek doric temple, it seems that Alexander's last wish was ignored.
Donkeys scuttled past in fast motion, pulling creaky carts. Thoughts of world conquest did not seem to be on the agenda today. Siwa still runs on the brawn of donkeys. The smell of their droppings fills the air. Their braying - rather than the noise of traffic, of which there is none - woke me up on each morning of my stay.
The temple of the oracle of Zeus Ammon has never been buried or lost. It is simply there, 20 minutes' walk from the main market-place. It occupies the highest point of the now abandoned hamlet of Aghurmi. I pushed open an ancient wooden door and clambered up the dissolving alleys, beside tottering walls and conical minarets. The temple is the only building of cut stone, as opposed to mud. I entered the back chamber, where Alexander put his questions to the god; the view through the high doors was unbeatable. Over glinting water and an ocean of palm-tree tops, I saw as far as the craggy escarpments and silver dunes lining the edge of the oasis.
What happened to the oracle of Zeus Ammon? It certainly survived into the Christian era. The Greek traveller Pausanias came to Siwa in 160 and found the temple alive and well, with priests still officiating over its rites. But the next time Siwa appears in history - 1,000 years later - it had been thoroughly Islamised.
Today, Siwa is one of the most traditional, Islamic corners of north Africa. It is run by the nine sheikhs of nine tribes. Alcohol is forbidden, even in the secluded Safari Paradise Hotel where tour groups stay. Local women do not show their faces. Tourists are politely asked to cover their arms and legs in public. But when I mentioned to an educated Siwan my concerns about the threat to local customs posed by increasing numbers of tourists I was told in the sweetest way: "But we need tourists. It is our problem, not yours." In fact tourists are received with great kindness.
And despite Islamic strictures, the olive groves and palmeries still rustle to rumours of the old days, when local farm workers,
known as the zaggalah, famously got drunk each night on a liquor called labgi extracted from the crown of the palm tree, and made homosexual love to the sound of music outside the walls of the old town.
"Yes, old Siwa lives on," Mahdi Hweity, who runs the tourist office, told me the next day, "but it is disappearing fast. The old city is falling to bits. Camel caravans stopped coming through around the time that the old city began to be abandoned, in the 1920s. But until 1982 there was no macadamised road and it took 18 hours in a truck convoy from the coast. You slept on the roof of the truck. When you arrived you had two kilos of dust in your clothes."
Talk of change in Siwa sounded ludicrous when I stood in the centre of town amid the few vendors selling aubergines and onions and squawking chickens in cages. I saw backpackers step awkwardly aside as a queue of veiled women was carried past on donkey carts driven by men in jelabbiyas and skull-caps. Behind my head, the abandoned fortress citadel of Shali - a jagged silhouette against the sky - may have been slowly reverting to its original mud, but in the tomb of Sidi Suleiman by the mosque, I found a group of old men on a rug, tapping drums and singing like monks. The Siwan who led me there later asked if I wanted some labgi. Old Siwa has not yet gone.
But tourism and population growth do threaten Siwa with meteoric change in the coming years. On my bus home I met a young Siwan who was studying for a masters degree in agriculture. "My thesis concerns irrigation in Siwa," he explained. "My teachers in Alexandria told me it was a bad idea because there was no information, and it was difficult to research. But I had to do it. They are risking the water supplies of Siwa by introducing chemical fertilisers and causing the fresh wells to be flooded by the salty ones." He did not quite say what I was thinking, that Siwa without fresh water would be worse than a leopard without its spots.
The arrangements for Jeremy Atiyah's trip were made with the assistance of El-Sawy Travel, 80 Park Rd, London NW1 4SH (tel: 0171-258 1901), which can provide tailor-made tours to any part of Egypt or the Middle East. A sample one-week tour, including the first night in the Ramses Hilton in Cairo, two nights in the Montazah Sheraton in Alexandria and four nights' half-board in the Siwa Safari Paradise (tel: 00 20 46 4602289), plus all internal transfers and return flights, currently costs pounds 796.
If travelling independently, Egypt can be even cheaper. Adequate accommodation in Siwa can be found for pounds 5 a night. The bus from Alexandria to Siwa (twice daily) also costs pounds 5. Flights to Cairo before 13 December or after 1 January cost pounds 186 plus pounds 29.40 tax with Lufthansa; the Christmas period costs about pounds 40 more. Trailfinders (tel: 0121-2361234).
You can get Egyptian visas on arrival at the airport, though it is more relaxing to get them in advance. Contact the Egyptian Consulate, 2 Lowndes St, London SW1X 9ET (tel: 0891 887 777, calls cost 50p per minute). Egyptian State Tourist Office, 170 Piccadilly London W1V 9DD (tel: 0171-493 5282).Reuse content