There’s more to Egypt than the grand temples of the ancient pharaohs along a legendary river. Head west of the Nile and south of Cairo and find two unique Egyptian oases and cultures.
By Haley Beham for Quest Magazine
When describing the region 750 years ago, Fayoum’s governor Abu ‘Uthmân al-Nabulsi wrote, “Cool are the dawns; tall are the trees; many are the fruits; little are the rains.” With such a tranquil retreat so close to Cairo, it’s surprising one of the most ancient areas in all of Africa remains relatively unknown to the outside world.
Sunflowers, date palms, and water buffalo dominate the landscape. This area, known as the Fayoum Oasis, is not an oasis in the truest sense of the word. Rather, it is fed by hundreds of capillary canals from the Nile instead of springs. Still, the land is fertile.
To truly experience one of Egypt’s best-kept secrets, make your base at the lavishly luxurious Lazib Inn. Set among manicured gardens with only eight rooms, this boutique hotel overlooks the world’s oldest nature reserve on the shores of Lake Qaroun. The area, known for producing delicious fruits and vegetables, inspires the dining experience at Lazib Inn.
The relaxing setting makes Lazib Inn an ideal destination to start or end a journey to Egypt. On the other hand, there’s also plenty to do there. Try horseback rides on Arabian steeds, desert safaris exploring the shimmering sand dunes, and exploration of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Wadi El Hitan (Valley of the Whales). Fayoum, widely regarded as the best place for bird-watching in Egypt, peaks from October to April. At this time, a number of bird species, including a variety of warblers and larks, flock to the oasis.
Further west in a seemingly endless expanse of sand, the Siwa Oasis is home to 20,000 indigenous Siwis. A Berber ethnic group, the Siwis lead minimalistic lives in a tribal system that has remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Since about 700 BC, they have lived in isolation. Specifically, the Siwis speak their own language and boast a cultural identity vastly different from modern Egyptians. For a true glimpse, make plans to visit a local family for tea in their home.
The Greeks first discovered the Siwa Oasis and established the Oracle of Amun there. After reclaiming Egypt from the Persians, Alexander the Great made the long journey to Siwa to visit the Oracle where, allegedly, he was told he was the son of Amun-Ra, the supreme god. Today, you can walk in Alexander’s footsteps and visit the ruins of the Oracle Temple. You shouldn’t miss a visit to Jebel al-Mwata (Mountain of the Dead) either. It’s Siwa’s version of the Valley of the Kings with ancient tombs dug into the mountain. If you’re adventurous, try dune bashing, sand boarding, hiking, or horseback riding in the desert.
Retreat to Adrere Amellal, a 40-room eco-resort located at the foot of White Mountain overlooking Lake Siwa. Each room is hand-built using traditional materials in the unique Siwan style that blends into the landscape. With no electricity, the environmentally-sustainable lodge is a true getaway in the desert.
At night pathways are illuminated by lanterns and beeswax candles. Dining becomes an elegant affair as traditional cuisine made from organic and locally-grown produce is served in a different location each night: in a small nook tucked out of the way of the lodge, by the shore of the salt lake, or in a forest of palm trees.
From Lazib Inn, head up the street to Mahmoud el-Sherif’s pottery shop and stock up on beautifully hand-thrown bowls, platters, and more. – Nicole Porto, Designer