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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.
The history of this festival dates back over 150 years. Conflicts over land and water were frequent in many primitive rural communities, and Siwa was no exception. After several endless disputes, Ahmad Madani, a Sufi from the Madanya clan, brought peace by inviting all the men of the oasis to a meeting in the mountain village of Dakrour near the oasis. He ordered them to pray to God and not to return home until they had calmed down. Three days later, they had solved the problem, and that moment was 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 pitched the tents where festival-goers spend the three nights.
On the first day, all the men and boys begin to crowd 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 the festival.
On the first day, animals are slaughtered for the ritual meal and fires are lit. The men stew the 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, giving off the scent of sizzling meat and smoke.
In the early afternoon of the second day, tribal leaders gather to receive congratulations from festival participants and guests. Everyone tries to take a photo and shake hands with the most significant men present.
Meanwhile, the guests take their seats on the sandy ground below the mountaintop and form six or seven circles. After the solemn 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.
No one can touch the food until the supreme sheikh gives permission. Anyone who tries to eat before then gets in trouble. While the men are serving everyone, one of the sheikhs calls out, "Basmala!" ("In the name of God!"), whereupon the people begin to eat. Everyone present - rich and poor, young and old - eats from the same plate. This symbolises the solidarity and equality of all people before God.
When the sheikh raises his hand, it is time to stop eating. Volunteers go around and collect the plates with the leftovers.
After lunch, everyone walks down the main street, where merchants sell delicacies, fruits, vegetables, and toys. The 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.
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.
On the morning of the third day, the men of Dakrour return home, singing hymns as they go. Later, they gather at the Sidi Soliman Mosque for prayer, which marks the end of the festival.
Women and girls over twelve stays in the villages during the festival. They meet each day in different houses, where they prepare traditional food, eat together, sing, dance and play. Married women and their children spend the festival days at the home of their sister-in-law or mother-in-law.
You should arrive in Siwa a day or two before the festival begins to secure a hotel room. It takes about 12 hours from Cairo. Make sure you check the bus schedules before you travel. You could also take a bus from Alexandria to Marsa Matruh and take a taxi (300 km through the desert) from there.
It is also possible to drive from Cairo to the Bahariyya oasis and then west through the desert to Siwa. This route is paved.
Go to the festival site on the night of the first day to see the fires. Take one of the donkey carts or small motorcycles used as cabs from Siwa to Dakrour. The sight of the illuminated, fire-strewn mountain at its base is impressive. The people are friendly and do not mind being photographed. Mingle with the crowd and try everything that is offered to you. Sit next to the men carving meat and listen to their singing hymns. After a while, they will grow on you.
Have your picture taken with the dignitaries; they won't mind. It is also possible to photograph the volunteers carrying pans full of food on their heads, moving gracefully among the guests and participants sitting on the sand. Join the nightly celebrations of the boys - dances, wild music ... an adrenaline rush unlike today's bars and dance clubs.
Buy yourself some cotton candy. When was the last time you ate something like that? Ice cream in the desert? You can get it here for two pounds a cone.
After spending the day at the festival, head to Mustafa's Café directly across from Shali (the old fortress) in Siwa, have a glass of freshly squeezed fruit juice for a euro and enjoy the outstanding views and flavours of this remote and exotic place.
You also can join the following tours from Cairo:
Interesting books about the Siwa oasis:
Digital downloads and prints available
More about Egypt
Travel to Egypt
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