Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Trip to Mersa Matruh and Sīwa,

First Day

12.15 am – Off to Mersa Matruh from Al-Manṣūrah.
4.30 am – Arrived at an R&R for Fajr prayer.
7.00 am – Arrived at Mersa Matruh. And we were resting for the whole morning.
2.00 pm – After Zuhr prayer, we went to Cleopatra beach and Cleopatra Bath. Beautiful. Here, we met another group of Malaysian students from Tanta.
4.30 pm – We leave Cleopatra Beach and headed to Agiba Beach to watch sunset. Agiba means ‘miracle.’
8.30 pm – We returned to Mersa Matruh and we were told that we’re gonna stop at Souq Libya. But, because the managing committee didn’t alert our bus driver because they were sleeping during the journey, we returned to our inn instead and had our dinner there. At first, our bus driver refused to take us to Souq Libya saying that he’s already exhausted. But, the managing committee tried and managed to persuade him to bring us there at eleven o’clock. At least, they compensated their mistake.
11.00 pm - Out to Souq Libya. I bought a bottle of hair tonic; the same one I got when I was in al-Madīnah al-Munawwarah. Many rare things are sold here. You can even get some fake cosmetics such as ‘Nivea for Sun’ et cetera. Usually, Malaysians love to shop for dates stuffed with chocolates or almonds. Herbs are also available. It is famous because most of the goods sold here came from Libya. We returned to our inn at 12.15 pm.

Second Day

On my way to Sīwa. Stopped in the middle of vast Egyptian Sand Sea.

8.00 am – Off to Sīwa.
10.30 am – Stopped at R&R in the middle of the journey.

I've always wanted to do this...

Where we stopped. Note the bloopers.

12.00 pm – Arrived at Sīwa. We visited first Mountain of The Dead (Gebel el-Mawta). The ticket price has been raised from LE1 last year to LE15 for students. But, our managing committee managed to talk with the guards and got all 150 of us (Tanta + Al-Manṣūrah) for LE 150. However, the guards were seemed pissed off with our managing committee and they said, “I don’t wanna see you again.” Poor suckers. Nothing much to discover here except scattered skeletons and excavated chambers. On the top of the hill, I met Matthew, an English teacher from Modesto, California. We had a little chit-chat. He told me he came to Egypt to study Arabic language. He taught English in South Korea and Turkey. He seemed to be annoyed with Cairenes because they tried to suck the hell amount of money outta him every time. And he asked whether I feel the same. Well, who doesn’t? That’s why he tried to find a quiet place like Sīwa to relieve his tension.
1.00 pm – We stopped for afternoon prayer at Sīwa Grand Mosque. After prayer, we met Sheikh Idris as-Suyuti; a local Sīwan. He received his education in al-Azhar University and acquainted with Malay students. He briefed us a little about Sīwa in simple, standard Arabic and later act as our tourist guide.
1.30 pm – I’m the only participants from Al-Manṣūrah visited the Shali. Others shopped dates at nearby shops.
3.00 pm – Moved to visit the Temple of the Oracle.
4.00 pm – Leave the Temple of the Oracle and went to Cleopatra Spring. On the way to the spring, we can see the ruins of Temple of Amun (Temple of Umm Ubaydah) but we did not stop. We had our meals there. Some of us bathed and swam at the Cleopatra Bath.

Cleopatra Spring or Juba Spring

Sīwan dates

5.45 pm
– We leave Cleopatra Spring and stopped again at Sīwa town for second round of dates shopping.
6.15 pm – We leave Sīwa and returned to Mersa Matruh. However, we didn’t go to Salt Lake because of timing problem. Plus, the place is already closed.

Bus of Malaysian visitors from Tanta is leaving Sīwa

10.00 pm – Arrived at Mersa Matruh.

Third Day

8.00 am – All of us went to White Beaches. It was named as such because of their white sand. Really. You can see it by using Google Earth. There are many beaches here. We just went to White Beach (شاطئ ٱلأبيض). Doing what people usually do at beaches.

White Beach

1.00 pm - Then, we leave Mersa Matruh and headed home. Did not manage to visit Rommel Museum because we arrived too late and the museum was closed at our arrival. Lousy management.

Most beaches at Mersa Matruh are beautiful.

9.30 pm – Arrived at Al-Manṣūrah. End of trip.

Cleopatra Beach & Cleopatra Bath

Statue of Cleopatra VII, daughter of Ptolemy XII

Cleopatra Beach is just beautiful. The water is so damn crystal clear just like fairy’s tears. It’s a rocky beach.

Cleopatra Beach

Meet our model for this post. Couldn't use his camera because he forgot to charge its battery.

Crystal clear water


Rock of Cleopatra Bath

Nothing much to discover here except a hollow chamber in a ginormous rock that is believed to be used exclusively by Cleopatra when she spent her summer here. It is called ‘Cleopatra Bath.’

Our model again. The hole where sea water come inside the bath.

Water out.

The chamber has two holes that enable sea water to enter and leave the bath. Both are rectangular and man-made.

The entrance into the bath from the beach

The entrance into the bath from inside the bath

Another one more is the stone’s natural entrance to the bath. The rock also enables sunshine to enter from above. See the picture below.

Historic, but there were foul smell inside. Probably urine odour. Perhaps, some Egyptians was mistaken by assuming it for being a toilet because the place’s name in Arabic is ‘Hamām Cleopatra.’ Hamām can roughly be translated into ‘toilet.’

Wall of the Hamām Cleopatra

Our model is on the top of the rock

Another picture of Cleopatra Beach

It was rumoured that Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan shot their scene singing 'Suraj Hua Maddham' in Kabhi Kushi Kabhie Gham movie at this white rock. Our model was making the mock-scene.

Agiba Beach

Agiba’ in Arabic means miracle.

The locals call it as such because a magnificent seven different colour formation on the sea (some said on the sky between the sea and the sun) during sunset can be witnessed here.

To our dismay, we couldn’t see it because the sun was set into the nearby hill, not into the sea.

So, we just witnessed a sunset that you can see it anywhere else. But, the beach here is just beautiful. And the water is bluish and clear.


The town of Sīwa as seen from Mountain of the Dead

Located approximately 300 km southwest from Mersa Matruh and 50 km east from Libyan border, the oasis is a depression about 18 metres below sea level. Its length is 80 km whilst its width is 20 km. It is officially added to Egypt by Muhammad Ali in 1819.

Grand Mosque of Sīwa

Sīwa is the only place in Egypt that is lived by Berber people. Most of the people here wear ‘jalabiyyah’ (traditional Arabian cloak), from young to elderly, unlike other Egyptians who wear ordinary t-shirts and jeans.

The town of Sīwa as seen from Shali

In Siwi language, the word Sīwa means ‘the bird of prey.’ The original town of Sīwa was located at Aghurmi (where Aghurmi clan lives now), near the Temple of Amun (Temple of Umm Ubaydah). Since they were frequently attacked by Bedouins, forty men from seven clans decided to build a new fortified town of Shali. Inhabitants of Sīwa is divided into fourteen tribes, and each tribe has their own chieftain (sheikh or al-Qāid) and their assistants. Sheikh claimed that these leaders govern their people according to Sharia law. Police is only needed for a few matters only. The town council is called ‘al-Agwad.’

They have distinguished language called Siwi language – subfamily of Berber language. But, Arabic is still widely used (to talk with outsiders and to be used on signboards). They are nice people.

Sheikh Idris as-Sanusi is briefing about Sīwa to Malaysian students

Sheikh Idris as-Sanusi said that Sīwa is a manifestation of the verses 33 until 35 from Surah Yāsīn al-Qurān.

“And a sign for them is the dead land. We give it life and We bring forth from it grains, so that they eat thereof.

“And we have made therein gardens of date-palms and grapes, and We have caused springs of water to gush forth therein.

“So that they may eat of the fruit thereof - and their hands made it not. Will they not, then, give thanks?”

Sīwa. Donkey cars are used as public transports here. Locals call it 'taxi.'

The History of Sīwa

The Manuscript of Sīwa (مخطوط سيوة) is the most important historical record of Sīwa. It is said to be written a hundred years ago by Abu Musallim, a qadi who received his education at al-Azhar University and kept by one of the Sīwan clans. It describes a summary of information from medieval Arab chroniclers, oral history of the oasis, origins of the different clans, their customs and traditions and other historical events. No fixed date can be given for the introduction of Islam into Sīwa but we cannot be far wrong if we say that the new religion (Islam) found its way into Sīwa in all probability before the end of the first century of Islam (7th century AD).

Jabal Abyad

The Shali

Shali is also known as al-Qaryah al-Qadimah in Arabic. It was built in around year 600 Hijra (1203 AD) according to Sīwan Manuscript. Shali means ‘the town’ in Siwi language. The city’s entrance is called al-Babinshal (ٱلبابنشال). The word is combination of Arabic and Sīwi language which means ‘the entrance to the town.’


Shali was built on the hill because two reasons. One, to guards against bandits from stealing their crops. Two, usually the air of the elevated part of the land is much cooler. So, it is important for the Sīwan living in elevated area to overcome the desert hotness. Allāh has said in verse 81 of Surah an-Nahl, "And Allāh has made for you out of that which He has created shades, and has made for you places of refuge in the mountains, and has made for you garments to protect you from the heat (and cold), and coats of mail to protect you from your (mutual) violence. Thus does He perfect His Grace unto you, that you may submit yourselves to His Will (in Islām)"

Western Gate

Shali is now a deserted. It has two gates: Western Gate and Eastern Gate. The former can be located near the Old Sīwan (Umar) Mosque. East Shali is the old part of the Shali. As the inhabitants began to move out of the fortified town, a group of them went to the west and built an area known as West Shali today. Houses in West Shali are in better state of conservation compared to the East. Many houses in West Shali have already been restored by Shali Project and more are to follow.

The Old Sīwan Mosque (Umar Mosque)

The Old Sīwan Mosque co-existed with Shali. The mosque’s name is Umar Mosque. There is a very famous saying (among Malays) that this mosque was officiated its opening by Caliph Umar al-Khattab. I simply doubt it. There is a jar near its entrance and a basin carved from stone called ‘teghumt.’ The praying hall is supported by six pillars and its roof is built of by date palm trunks. Its minaret is not only used to call for prayers, but it is also used by muezzin twice at a night to announce the ending period of watering the fields and the beginning of a new season. During the day, a professional timekeeper called ‘raqqab,’ uses it to determine the different seasons by using sundial.

The elder Sīwans said, there was a tunnel from al-Babinshal passing below the mosque, but it was collapsed approximately sixty years ago. The Sīwan rebuilt the collapsed part by filling the tunnel with ‘karsheef’ rubble. There was also a shaded gallery between the mosque and the town’s gate called ‘mazallah,’ where the town council (al-Agwad) meeting used to be held.

Deserted housed

People started to move out of Shali during 19th century. No exact cause but it was believed that heavy downpours had destroyed most of the houses which made of clays. On the year 1926, Shali is completely deserted after heavy rain struck the town demolishing many residences. And the remnants of this fort were used as building material for new houses in Sīwa.

Building materials

Karsheef is salty mud taken from the top layer of soil around the Sīwan lakes. It is cut into random pieces to build walls.

Mud is originates from Sīwan soils. The good quality mud is extracted from the direct layer beneath the karsheef. It is used as mortar and wall plasters. It is mixed with water and left to dry for a period of time that could last for months. Date palms are sometimes sow below the mixture, and the mud is only considered as good when the palms emerge out of the dried mud.

Mud is also used to make the floor for the upper storey on the top of the ground floor’s ceiling. This layer is thinner but it is strong.

Olive tree branches were used to connect walls, strengthening the corners and to make doors and windows’ frames.

Palm trees are used as supporting beams for the roof and ceilings. Sometimes, they are used as secondary beams or ceiling boards. They are cut in a certain time of the year in order to obtain the best trunk which contains less fluid inside to avoid infestation. They are cut in half and soaked in salty water to avoid termites and other pests.

Reeds (genera: Phragmites & Arundo) are sewn to make a mat to be laid on the top of the ceiling beams.

Mountain of The Dead (Gebel el-Mawta)


This is the first place you'll see if you come straight from Mersa Matruh. Located at the entrance of Sīwa.

Mountain of The Dead as seen from Shali

It is a large ancient graveyard on a hill. Many tombs here can be dated back to Ptolemaic and Roman period (3rd -2nd century BC). Some say, the graveyard has existed since Paleolithic and Neolithic era. Whatever.

Necropolis of Mountain of The Dead

Last year, Malaysian students were needed to pay entrance fee for only LE 1. Now, it’s LE 15 per head.

Some of the artefacts scattered on the hill

The graveyard can be divided into two areas: one area for commoner’s burial (south) and one for elite’s burial (north). Many skeletons are scattered on the hill but it would be insolent to take them home. It’s not yours!

Burial area for commoners

Head of femur (left); oblique fracture. Condyles of femur (right).

Burial area for elites

A tomb built for commoner

A tomb built for elites

Some of the ancient paintings inside a tomb. Vandalized.

The hill hosts the Tomb of Siamun (6th pharaoh of 21st Dynasty during Third Intermediate Period), the Tomb of Mesu-Isis, the Tomb of Niperpathot, the Tomb of the Crocodile and a 1,500-year-old tomb containing Graeco-Roman mummies. Most of them are chained/locked. Asked the guardians to open if you want to get inside and don’t forget to offer them some baksheesh. Some people said, there is an ancient painting inside one of these tombs telling the love story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. I don’t know whether this is true or just a bullcrap. Better read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra texts.

The Temple of The Oracle

At the entrance

The Temple of The Oracle is built as dedication to the cult of ram-headed sun deity of Amun. It was built during the reign of King Amasis (570-525 BC). The temple housed a famous oracle whose fame was widespread in the East Mediterranean during ancient time. Alexander the Great had visited the temple on 332/331 BC. It is located in the eastern part of Sīwa. Aghurmi clan lives in this area. I was told by a man here that there’s only eleven clans living in Sīwa, in contrary to Sheikh Idris’ claim who said there are fourteen.

Temple of the Oracle as seen from Mountain of the Dead

Other Distinguished Visitors

Cambyses of Persia, son of Cyrus the Great who conquered Egypt between 525 and 522 BC had dispatched an army of fifty thousand of men from Luxor to destroy the temple. It was because the oracle had predicted that Cambyses reign in Egypt would soon falter. The entire army vanished without any trace and buried in the vast desert.

Cimon, a general of Athens, stood at Cyprus in 449 BC awaiting prophecy from the oracle before attacking Egypt. It is said that when his dignitaries reached the Temple, the oracle spoke, "Cimon is already with me." When they returned to Cyprus, the found out that Cimon had died as they were speaking to the Oracle.

Lysander, the great general, tried to bribe the oracle to assist his attempt to be crowned king of Sparta. But, upon the Sīwan priests’ order, a delegation was sent to Greece to prosecute Lysander for his impiety. However, Lysander managed to escape the prosecution thanks to the power of money.

Alexander's Visit

The most famous visit ever made to this temple is by Alexander the Great. After defeating Darius III of Persia in the Battle of Issus in 333 BC, he was acclaimed pharaoh of Egypt. He started his journey from his newly-founded city of Alexandria to Sīwa via Mersa Matruh.

Each of the pharaohs of Egypt's during 28th Dynasty had traveled to Sīwa to be acknowledged at the temple there as the son of Amun-Ra. Though we do not know for certain about Alexander's intention in making the journey but it may have been a piece of political image-making.

For this purpose, Alexander had to endure the most difficult journey. According to historian Callisthenes, the convoy’s water supply suddenly finished. But somehow, it rained. A sandstorm caused them to lose their way, but two crows were sent to lead them safely to Sīwa.

When he arrives in the Temple, he was welcomed warmly in a celebrated ceremony. Dancers, musicians, priests and worshippers circled in procession in the forecourt of the temple. A manifestation of the oracle was paraded through the city accompanied by eighty priests. Then, Alexander had private audience with the oracle. We can assume Alexander wanted the same declaration of divine power to legitimize his conquest of Egypt and put himself on the same footing as the pharaohs. Some said, he consulted the oracle in order to seek confirmation whether he was really a son of Zeus, therefore a legitimate ruler of all lands he conquered. After his visit to the oracle, he had his image depicted on coins wearing the horns of the ram, symbolic of Amun.

Treasure vault. All of treasures are stolen by colonialists.

Entrance to the sanctuary from the second hall

The oracle's council room

Old mosque

The mosque's well. For ablution and other purpose. Now, it has dried.

Ablution basin for women

Salt lake

Salt lake

Sīwan girls selling handcrafts for souvenirs. You can get it for LE1-LE2. Very cheap. They are shy. I was told to watch my proximity with Sīwan women. So, I sneaked my camera and capture the picture but somehow they noticed.