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The view on approaching Siwa from the desert. On the horizon is the bright blue lake, mostly salty and silty, and the mountains beyond. Picture: ARCHIE HENDERSON
The view on approaching Siwa from the desert. On the horizon is the bright blue lake, mostly salty and silty, and the mountains beyond. Picture: ARCHIE HENDERSON

Siwa is a good place to take a break from battlefields. Alexander the Great did so about 2,300 years ago, our lot more recently.

Exploring the desolate areas around the El Alamein battlefield can be exhausting, especially climbing the steep twin peaks of the Quaret el Himeimat in the south, on the edge of the Qattara Depression, which was a natural defence in World War 2 against any enemy flanking attempts. The rest of the battlefield is scrub, stone and sand in desert depressions (the deirs) or on the rocky outcrops where digging into that iron-hard terrain to avoid being killed by shot or shell in 1942 must have been almost impossible. No wonder they used dynamite.

We didn’t have to dig, but reading the map was challenge enough in a place of few topographical clues. Ruweisat Ridge, an indiscernible elevation, was crucial high ground where New Zealander Charlie Upham won the second of his two Victoria Crosses in World War 2. Alam Halfa, a long stretch of dreary sand, was the site of Bernard Montgomery’s first victory, a textbook defensive battle before he defeated Erwin Rommel’s German-Italian Panzerarmee in the great offensive of late 1942, one of the turning points in that war.

Two man-made landmarks that remain are the broken-down railway station that gave the battle its name and Egypt’s most recent pyramid, just south of the coastal resort at Sidi Abdel Rahman. The pyramid marks the place where the Luftwaffe’s equivalent of Upham, air ace Hans-Joachim Marseille, a German of French Huguenot lineage, died when his Messerschmitt 109 crashed.

Siwa offered relief after such unrelenting trudging. Alexander might have felt the same in 332BCE after his conquering, raping or pillaging. His journey to seek respite in Siwa is highlighted in the new Netflix docudrama series Alexander: Making of a God. The TV show is about the Macedonian over-achiever who, between the ages of 20 and 32, conquered much of the known world at the time. His role is played by Buck Braithwaite, who stars in another series new on the screen this year, Masters of the Air, about US airmen who flew extremely hazardous bombing raids over Germany in World War 2.

In 332BCE, Alexander took a gap year during halftime in his war with Darius III, the Persian king, on his way to destroying that empire, the superpower of its day. He’d crossed the Hellespont, that narrow stretch of water now known as the Dardanelles, which joins the Black Sea with the Mediterranean, and was busy spreading his own kingdom from Greece to northwest India, most of western and central Asia in between, when he decided to stop over in Egypt.

Egypt appealed to Alexander because the locals, who never much took to the overbearing Persians, lapped him up. They didn’t seem to care about his genocide in the Lebanese city of Tyre in 332BC, or slaying the male population of Gaza, then selling the women and children into slavery.

Perhaps it was Alexander’s brutality in his move south that persuaded the Egyptians to suck up and welcome him as a liberator rather than a conqueror. Fond of flattery, he took to the Egyptians too, establishing a new city on the delta coast and naming it after himself. Alexandria, which would later house the famous Lighthouse — among the seven wonders of the world and destroyed by an earthquake in the 1300s — and the Great Library, became a centre of Hellenic civilisation and replaced Memphis (now modern-day Cairo) as the capital of Egypt. All the time, however, Alexander’s eyes were on Siwa, about 700km away.

Siwa is a peaceful urban oasis, an ideal getaway from any fighting. That’s because of its remote location, deep in the Egyptian desert and described by writer William Dalrymple as one of the most “otherworldly” places on earth. Apart from a lone Italian bomber that did little damage, it escaped the ravages of World War 2, even though it was the headquarters of the Long-Range Desert Group, a potent force of Allied irregulars operating behind enemy lines.

Siwa lies 10m below sea level on the edge of the Great Sand Sea, a vast expanse of towering dunes — the “real” Sahara of childish imaginations and Beau Geste cartoons. It’s a full day’s drive from Alexandria to get there, or a 90-minute charter flight if you can afford one.

Alexander’s trip was very different. He would have come, as we did, along the Mediterranean shore to Paraetonium (today Mersa Matruh, a major fortress for SA soldiers in World War 2), where you turn left into waterless desert. His journey was sustained by heavy rains, which he considered to be divine intervention.

The TV series’ computer-generated images of Siwa portray a verdant area in the middle of a desert. The plantations of dates and olives have not changed much since Alexander’s time, but the ancient buildings and temples, all them built with mud because that’s all they had then, have decayed over the centuries. Recent heavy rains in the area have done even more damage, with the fear of extreme weather changes very real.

The view in the approach to Siwa is striking, and not only because of the contrast with the featureless desert being left behind. “Out of the desert suddenly an incredibly blue lake opens out ... glinting in the light. And around this lake are these set of mountains of the moon — bare, gnarled and eroded,” says Dalrymple in his Empire podcast episode on Alexander.

Alexander did not come for the view, as much as he might have enjoyed it. After all those conquests, he was polishing his CV and had long known about the Oracle of Amun (or Ammon), who might help embellish it. Siwa was a significant location in those days because it was the place where he could receive blessings by ancient Egyptian priests to become a new pharaoh, and therefore deigned important enough for an audience with the oracle, a soothsayer, who was a sort of astrologer/PR person of the time.

In the Netflix series, the oracle is a woman, portrayed by Souad Faress, best known for her roles in Game of Thrones and The Archers. But in history it’s usually a man. Whatever the gender, Alexander’s interview (if that’s what it was) with the Oracle of Amun remains a mystery. Later it was claimed that the oracle declared Alexander to be the son of Zeus and that he would rule the world. The first bit was the oracle telling him what he wanted to hear, while the second was on the money. He did go on to rule the world, if only the world as it was then known.

In the Netflix series, the temple of the oracle is portrayed as huge, lavish and with great pillars; in reality it’s more modest — a pokey little place with not enough room to swing a Bastet, the cat goddess of ancient Egypt.

The oracle, however, had clout. Unlike Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi in Greece, that could be visited by any Alex, Darius or Aristotle and fobbed off with a two-drachma prophecy, the one in Siwa had greater credibility, if only because of its exclusivity. It was distant from the usual clientele, and difficult to reach. Such was life in the ancient PR world.

Today the oracle’s office is touted as one of the main tourist attractions, despite its disappointing décor. Far more appealing is a pool named for Cleopatra (69BCE-30BCE), who is supposed to have swum there, but history gives no proof or even evidence of her ever visiting the place. The pool’s name could just be another case of ancient advertising. Unlike Dalrymple’s “incredibly blue lake”, which is silty, the Bath of Cleopatra delivers. It is set in stone and fed by a warm spring that, even on a hot day, offers a refreshing dip.

The town of Siwa is small enough to be easily explored on a morning walk. It is a bustling place of about 25,000 people with few cars but many donkey carts and motor scooters. It seemed populated mostly by men, one of whom was quick to correct us on their ancestry. “We are not Arab. We are Berber,” we were told of a population predating the great Arab migrations of the 7th and 8th centuries to the Maghreb, that region of North Africa that includes parts of Morocco, Algeria and Libya — and, it’s now clear, Siwa.

The ethnic clarification prompted a remark from a touring companion, as we approached a man having his hair cut in a salon open to the main road: “Obviously a Berber barber.” It was tempting to wait in the queue, but the magazines were in Arabic and we had an engagement with our tour co-ordinator and his drivers for a hair-raising trip into the Great Sand Sea.

To compare those drivers in their Toyota 4x4s to our taxi operators is unfair. For one thing, the traffic in the Great Sand Sea is almost non-existent, but they’re just as reckless as our lot, skirting the edges of high dunes, then plunging down them at speeds that leave stomachs behind. All part of the experience, we assumed. They also knew their ’hood, taking us to one of those oases that we thought existed only in cartoons: a pool of water like glass suddenly appearing in the middle of nowhere, swaying palms and even the chance to swim its icy waters.

And their navigation skills were outstanding. With Siwa out of sight, darkness falling and sand all around us, there were fears of ever getting back to the comfort of a bed at the Siwa Gardens hotel. We need not have worried. After a Bedouin supper, which seemed straight out of a Lucky Star tin, they took us directly home, possibly using the stars of a bright night as their GPS.

Now that there is no longer an oracle to bank on, rides like that one will help Siwa compete with rival tourism attractions closer to Cairo, like Luxor in the Valley of the Kings and the Nile itself. There’s no doubt the place is poor and needs some upliftment in an economy that is built on the abundant dates and olives, and the salt from Dalrymple’s lake.

For Siwa to step up its tourism game, it will need better food, however. Many of today’s tourists are fastidious foodies, often travelling to far-off destinations to taste exotic dishes for their usual, prosaic palates. Our fare was passable if plain and nothing like the Siwa dining experience from 123 years before and reported on in the Geographical Journal of January 2 1898.

“There were several round tables placed down the middle of the room; candles burnt in candlesticks, all of which had been imported from Cairo at a fabulous cost,” the Journal’s reporter wrote. “Lamps of olive oil were also about the room. The food was more than abundant. A whole sheep stuffed with rice, raisins, and pistachio nuts; soup, chicken, vegetables, succeeded each other.”

A meal like that, and a dune ride at night, would have impressed even Alexander the Great. Even an oracle might have said so.

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