The Siwa Festival in Egypt

The Siwa Festival in Egypt

adventure travel & photography

Destinations/Places: Pakistan ◦◦Turkey ◦◦ Egypt ◦◦ Bulgaria ◦◦ Mongolia ◦◦ Bangladesh ◦◦ Jordan ◦◦ Russia ◦◦ Turkmenistan ◦◦ Iran ◦◦ Kazakhstan

About the festival

This festival takes place in the Egyptian oasis of Siwa, located 900 km southwest of Cairo, during the full moon in October.

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The history of this festival dates back over 150 years. Many primitive rural communities frequently experienced conflicts over land and water, and Siwa was no exception. After several endless disputes, Ahmad Madani, a Sufi from the Madanya clan, brought peace by calling all the oasis men to a meeting in the mountain village of Dakrour, near the oasis. He ordered them to pray to God and did not return home until they had calmed down. Three days later, they solved the problem, and that moment marked the beginning of the festival.

The festival takes place in the village of Dakrour, about 3 km from the main square of the oasis. On the first day, twenty-five volunteers gather at the festival site to maintain and clean the grounds, cook and pray. They also set up the small huts scattered around the hills and erect tents where festival-goers spend the festival's three nights.

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On the first day, all the men and boys begin to fill the festival grounds. All girls twelve years old or younger go to Dakrour with their fathers and brothers in the morning and return home at sunset. Guests from Marsa Matrouh, Alexandria and abroad also come to enjoy the festival, bringing food and treats, such as ice cream, that are missing from the oasis.

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On the first day, animals are slaughtered for the ritual meal and fires are lit. Men stew meat in large pots placed over the fire while singing hymns and religious melodies. The cooking continues throughout the night and ends at noon on the second day. The desert sky fills with otherworldly sounds at night, redolent with the aroma of simmering meat and smoke.

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In the early afternoon of the second day, the tribal leaders gather to receive congratulations from the festival participants and guests. Each endeavour to take a photograph and shake hands with the most distinguished men present.

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In the meantime, the guests take their places on the sandy ground below the mountain's summit and form circles of six or seven. After the formal ceremony, the volunteers place large plates loaded with meat and bread on their heads and walk down the mountain, placing a plate of food in each circle.

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No one may touch the food until the chief Sheikh gives permission. Anyone who tries to eat before will get into trouble. While the men are serving everyone, one of the sheikhs calls out, "Basmala!" ("In the name of God!"), after which people start eating. Everyone present - rich and poor, young and old - eats from the same plate. This symbolises the solidarity and equality of all people before God.

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When the Sheikh raises his hand, it's time to finish eating. Volunteers go around collecting plates of leftover food.

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After lunch, everyone walks down the main street, where merchants sell delicacies, fruits, vegetables, and toys. Butchers hang raw meat in the open, covered with flies and dust. Some of them roast it right on the street over improvised fires. The smell of fire, grilled food and dust fills the air.

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The party goes on for three days. After the sun has set, fires are lit everywhere so that the whole neighbourhood flickers as if covered with fireflies. Young men celebrate in the darkness. The only light comes from candles and fires. Often the party falls into total darkness, and then only the music and the smell of desert and herbs reach the senses.

In the oasis of Siwa, there are fifteen mosques, each responsible for collecting money from the villagers to cover the cost of the festival. Each household receives meat in proportion to the number of people in the family.

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In the morning of the third day, the men of Dakrour return home, singing hymns on the way. Later they meet at the Sidi Soliman Mosque to pray, which marks the end of the festival. Women and girls over the age of twelve remain in the villages during the festival. They meet every day in a house where they cook traditional food, eat together, sing, dance and play. The married women and their children spend the festival days at their sister-in-law's or mother-in-law's house. Text and pictures may give a small insight into this great festival. But they cannot replace the real thing. That was the first time I had such an authentic experience, and I have not stopped looking for adventures since.

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Practical information

You should arrive in Siwa a day or two before the festival begins to secure a hotel room. There is a night bus from Cairo at 8 PM from West Delta Gateway Station. The journey lasts about 12 hours and costs about LE 60. Please check the bus schedules before your trip. That was my choice when I visited the oasis.

Another option would be to take one of the several daily buses to Marsa Matruh via Alexandria and then a taxi (300 km through the desert).

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Another way would be travelling first to Bahariyya oasis from Cairo then west across the desert. This road is paved. From there a dirt track heads west to Siwa.

Go to the festival site on the night of the first day to see the cooking fires. Take one of the donkey carts or small motorbikes used as taxis from Siwa to Dakrour. The sight of the illuminated, fire-strewn mountain at its base is awe-inspiring. The people are friendly and do not mind being photographed. Mingle with the crowd and try everything that comes your way. Sit next to the men carving meat and listen to the hymns they sing. After a while, they'll grow on you.

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The next day, have your picture taken with the dignitaries of the oasis; they will not mind. Also, photograph the volunteers carrying the pans filled with food on their heads as they move gracefully among the guests and participants sitting in the sand. Take part in the boys' nightly celebrations - dances, wild music ... fun that has nothing in common with today's bars and dance clubs. And yet, the adrenaline rush is far more powerful.

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Buy yourself some cotton candy. When was the last time you ate something like that? Ice cream in the desert? They have it for two pounds a cone. After spending the day at the festival, head to Mustafa's Café directly opposite Shali (the old fortress) in Siwa and have a glass of freshly squeezed fruit juice for a euro and enjoy the excellent views and flavours from this remote and exotic location.

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You also can join the following tours from Cairo:

Interesting books about the Siwa oasis:

Digital downloads and prints available

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