The Siwa Festival in Egypt

The Siwa Festival in Egypt

adventure travel & photography

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Type: Photo stories ◦◦ Places ◦◦ Documentary ◦◦ Black and White ◦◦ Fine Art Prints ◦◦ Seascapes ◦◦ Urban

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 festival dates back over 150 years. In primitive rural communities, including Siwa, conflicts over land and water were common. Ahmad Madani, a Sufi from the Madanya clan, brought peace by inviting all the men of the oasis to a meeting in Dakrour, a mountain village near the oasis. He asked them to pray to God and not return home until they had calmed down. Three days later, they had solved the problem, and that marked the beginning of the festival.

The festival takes place in Dakrour village, located 3 km from the main square of the oasis. On the first day, 25 volunteers gather at the site to maintain and clean the grounds, cook, and pray. They also assemble the small huts scattered around the hills and pitch the tents where festival-goers will stay for the three nights.

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On the first day, the festival grounds were crowded with men and boys. Girls twelve years old or younger accompanied their fathers and brothers to Dakrour in the morning and returned home at sunset. Guests from Marsa Matrouh, Alexandria, and other places also attended the festival.

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On the first day, animals are slaughtered for the ritual meal and fires are lit. The men stew the meat in large pots over the fire while singing hymns and religious melodies. The cooking continues throughout the night and ends at noon the following day. The desert sky fills with otherworldly sounds and the scent of sizzling meat and smoke at night.

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In the early afternoon of the second day, tribal leaders gathered to receive congratulations from festival participants and guests. Everyone attempted to take a photo and shake hands with the most important men present.

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Meanwhile, the guests take their seats on the sandy ground below the mountaintop and form six or seven circles. After the solemn ceremony, volunteers place large plates loaded with meat and bread on their heads and walk down the mountain, distributing a plate to each circle.

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No one can eat until the supreme sheikh gives permission. Anyone who attempts to do so will face consequences. As the men serve the food, one of the sheikhs calls out, "Basmala!" ("In the name of God!"). At this, everyone - rich and poor, young and old - begins to eat 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 is time to stop eating. Volunteers go around and collect the plates with the leftovers.

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After lunch, everyone strolls down the main street, where merchants offer delicacies, fruits, vegetables, and toys. Butchers hang raw meat in the open, swarmed with flies and covered in dust. Some even roast it on the street over makeshift fires. The aroma of fire, grilled food and dust permeates the air.

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The festival continues for three days. After the sun sets, fires are lit everywhere, so the whole neighbourhood flickers as if covered in fireflies. Young men celebrate in the darkness. The only light comes from candles and fires. Often the celebration falls into complete darkness, and only the music and the smell of desert and herbs reach the senses.

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

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On the morning of the third day, the men of Dakrour returned home, singing hymns as they went. Later, they gathered at the Sidi Soliman Mosque for prayer, marking the end of the festival.

Women and girls over twelve stayed in the villages during the festival. Each day, they met in different houses, where they prepared traditional food, ate together, sang, danced, and played. Married women and their children spent the festival days at the home of their sister-in-law or mother-in-law.

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Practical information

Arrive in Siwa a day or two before the festival starts to secure a hotel room. It takes around 12 hours from Cairo, so make sure to check bus schedules before you travel. Alternatively, take a bus from Alexandria to Marsa Matruh and then a taxi (300 km through the desert) from there.

You can also drive from Cairo to the Bahariyya oasis and then west through the desert to Siwa. This route is paved.

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On the night of the first day, visit the festival site to witness the fires. Take a donkey cart or small motorcycle taxi from Siwa to Dakrour. The view of the mountain, illuminated and strewn with fire, is impressive. The people are welcoming and don't mind being photographed. Mingle with the crowd and sample what is offered. Sit near the men carving meat and listen to their singing. After a while, you'll find it captivating.

Have your picture taken with the dignitaries; they won't mind. You can also take photos of the volunteers carrying pans of food on their heads, moving gracefully among the guests and participants seated on the sand. Join the nightly celebrations of the boys - dances, wild music... an adrenaline rush unlike anything you'd find in today's bars and dance clubs.

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Buy yourself some cotton candy! When was the last time you had something like that? Ice cream in the desert? You can get it here for just two pounds a cone.

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After spending the day at the festival, head to Mustafa's Café, right across from Shali (the old fortress) in Siwa. Enjoy a glass of freshly-squeezed fruit juice for just one euro, and take in the stunning views and flavours of this remote and exotic place.

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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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