With its serene landscapes, the Siwa Oasis in Egypt is a perfect setting for a weekend yoga retreat that invites calm.
The Siwa Oasis is about a 10-hour drive from Cairo down a bumpy desert road full of potholes and cracks. The trip takes all night through endless stretches of foggy desert spotted with gas stations.
Mubarak once built a road to Siwa, but larger forces of wind and sand overtook the thin stretch of tarmac. The oasis has always been either inaccessible or, despite the inventions of modern transport, inconvenient for travel.
But Siwa’s inaccessibility is part of its appeal. Its remoteness means Siwa has preserved a distinct culture and unique traditions.
LAND OF PALMS
I travelled to the Siwa Oasis as part of a 3-day yoga retreat hosted by Yoga with Amr. But I didn’t know quite what to expect.
When we finally arrive in Siwa, eyes blurred by the all-night ride, its profusion of palm trees seem almost miraculous after hours of pale Western Desert. Palms grow everywhere and total some 300,000 trees – far outnumbering Siwa’s 33,000 residents. The Ancient Egyptians called the oasis Sekht-am, or “palm land.”
And the Siwa Oasis is soft on the eyes. There are no apartment blocks of metal or concrete; no roadblocks or wire. Tied dried palm leaves are made into fences and table salt-colored bricks make houses.
Just 50 kilometers east of Libya, the oasis has its own unique culture and language protected by centuries from outside influence. If you sit at a campfire at night with locals, you’ll hear Libyan and Amazigh songs. You’ll see elaborate embroidery at the shops in town, full of geometric lines and circles, and you’ll eat meals full of dates and olives – the staples of Siwan agriculture.
The locals all speak fluent Arabic, but amongst themselves they speak Siwi – a language completely foreign to Egyptian visitors.
We check in at the Nour el Waha Hotel, a simple yet beautiful hotel on a palm-lined sidestreet that’s a 10-minute walk from the city center. We wash up, then head for breakfast at a long table under a cluster of palm trees. It’s a feast of local green olives, fava beans, omelettes, falafel, jam and cheese with fresh bread.
The grounds of the Nour el Waha are soft and sandy, filled with cozy corners and chairs made of palm. Inside, the rooms are basic though the thick blankets with colorful roses don’t quite match the breezy feel of the hotel. Outside, there are tiny palms growing wherever the seeds have dropped and there’s the sound of chickens next door. It’s quiet and each room has a beautiful terrace perfect for sipping morning coffee.
We head out after breakfast for a full itinerary of sightseeing.
THE MOUNTAIN OF THE DEAD
Our first stop is the Mountain of the Dead (Gebel el-Mawta), an archaeological site that dates back to the Roman presence in Siwa who settled in the oasis after Cleopatra’s death.
The limestone hilltop some 1.5 kilometers outside of town is home to ancient Egyptian tombs where the Romans buried their loved ones. The tombs date from the 26th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, with some from the Greek and Roman periods.
The base of the mountain contains mounds that lead to various tombs. There are several stunning graves full of wall paintings beautifully preserved in bright colors, although countless robbers have carried off chunks in both ancient and more recent history. The mummies once housed in the tombs showed that Siwans were strongly influenced by ancient Egyptian culture.
The Tomb of Pathot is one of the oldest in the Siwa Oasis, dating back to a priest who lived during the 26th Dynasty. It’s a relatively large tomb with a corridor, six small chambers and a burial chamber. The last chamber holds a scene painted in red ochre of the deceased worshipping Osiris and Hathor.
The Tomb of Si-Amun is the most striking and important tomb in the oasis. It was discovered in 1940 but likely pillaged during the Roman period. It’s the resting place of Si-Amun, or man of Amon, likely an official or merchant who lived between the 3rd and 2nd century BC. He may have been a Greek that practised the ancient Egyptian religion and married an Egyptian woman.
Si-Amun is portrayed on the walls of his tomb as a mature man with a beard and light skin but in typical Egyptian attire. On another wall, his young son is wearing a Greek tunic. Classic images from ancient Egypt fill the tomb, like an embalming scene featuring Anubis and Osiris.
The paintings are striking, although they suffered serious damage during World War II. There’s also a beautiful depiction of the sky goddess Nut next to a sycamore tree offering bread to Si-Amun and pouring water. On the ceiling there’s a depiction of Nut with her arms upraised, supporting the starry sky with tiny yellow painted starts.
Today most of the tombs are empty. The mountain is the final resting place of Alexander the Great, according to local folklore. But his tomb has never been found.
Throughout Siwa’s history the mountain has protected locals from both heavy rains and from the invasions of World War II. Siwans and Bedouins took refuge in the tombs during the bombardment of the oasis in 1940. It was during the war that locals discovered the existence of these ancient tombs.
If you climb to the top of the mountain, there are sweeping views of the Siwa Oasis, one of the planet’s last surviving oases, where the palm trees give in abruptly to sandy desert on the horizon.
THE TEMPLE OF THE ORACLE OF AMUN
Our next stop are the ruins of Aghurmi, an ancient fortified village and Siwa’s old capital. It stands abandoned on a plateau surrounded by palm tree groves.
The temple in Aghurmi was the seat of one of the ancient world’s most famous oracles. Built in the 6th century BC during the 26th dynasty of ancient Egypt, the temple is best known for Alexander the Great’s visit in 331 BC. The famous conqueror took the long voyage to consult the oracle and confirm himself Egypt’s legitimate king.
No exact record exists of what really happened, but supposedly the oracle’s reply was positive. Alexander was recognised as descendent from Amon and later claimed divine origin.
Very little of the original carving survives. The two halls and the sanctuary, however, have many inscriptions and a drawn figure of King Amasis II, who reigned when the temple was built.
The temple’s simple plan includes a forecourt, two hypostyle halls and the sanctuary, the seat of the oracle. The sacred boat of Amon was probably kept there. There’s a larger hall near the sanctuary where worshippers waited their turn to visit the oracle and hear his enigmatic replies.
The temple is surrounded by legends of secret treasures and passageways. It’s also a setting for a scene in the video game Assassin’s Creed.
YOGA AT SUNSET
We head back to town and its cluster of cafes and souvenir shops filled with spices and embroidered scarves. We rent bikes and take them down to the lake.
The bike ride is beautiful passing through residential homes against the setting sun, with kids waving from doorsteps and palms swaying in the breeze.
The lake is spectacular, and at sunset the sky goes from pink and red to orange and blue. We have a yoga session overlooking this splendid landscape and snack on tea infused with lemongrass, fruits and dates.
A yoga session in this setting is an entirely different experience from yoga at home with YouTube. Surrounded by nature, you’re immediately more at peace and removed from the city noise and daily distractions.
YOGA WITH AMR
Amr has a passion for practising yoga in natural and serene places, and he’s organised retreats to many of Egypt’s hidden gems including the White Desert, Saqqara, Fayoum and the Sinai. These retreats let travellers connect with nature while deepening their mindfulness and yoga practice.
Amr ends many of his sessions with a reminder to breathe and take in the “beautiful moment you’re now living.” It’s a powerful reminder to appreciate nature’s beauty and our experiences – and a lesson we take away to practice mindfulness back home.
Amr is a certified yoga teacher who teaches at various yoga studios around Cairo. Though his real passion lays in showcasing Egypt’s natural beauty while incorporating yoga, mindfulness and peace into his retreats. In the high season, he offers a trip every month – it’s worth checking his Facebook page for upcoming retreats.
Our Siwa itinerary is packed but it doesn’t feel rushed. Amr allows plenty of time to take in the scenery without making you feel like a busy tourist. And the retreats usually have a limit of 18 people so it’s never a crowded experience.
Our group, a mix of foreigners and Egyptians, groups of friends and solo travellers, get along beautifully. Maybe it’s because we have yoga in common. But this retreat is different from other louder and more selfie-obsessed tours I’ve been on.
After the sun goes down over the lake, we head back into town for some shopping. There are dozens of shops at the Shali, or Siwa’s small downtown, that sell the oasis’ famous dates and olives. We also find litres of olive oil, handmade soaps, embroidered scarves and dried lemongrass and organic hibiscus jams.
It’s a leisurely end to a perfect day of exploration and yoga in landscapes that invite calm and deepen mindfulness.