Acknowledgment: A lot of the more academic information contained in this post is courtesy the handout that we received on our faculty trip to the oasis a couple of weeks ago. Needless to say (at least needless for any AUC-ans who might be reading this post) that information was supplied by John Swanson.

Since Siwa is an oasis, I was not surprised in the least to find a vast amount of sand/mud based structures – both natural and man-made – when we reached there. The ruins of the old city shown below are, as expected, made of bricks made of the local soil. What I wasn’t prepared for at all, until I read about it in the aforementioned document, was the omnipresence of salt in all things Siwan. Not just in the kitchens and pantries, which is the normal place to find it, or even in the salt flats by the lakes where it is harvested, but as the very substance of the traditional Siwan homes. The soil (called karshiif) with which the Siwans made the bricks for their buildings, is comprised of a large proportion of salt crystals. Nowhere else have I seen the phrase “salt of the earth” given such literal meaning! Apparently salt provides excellent insulation against both extremes of desert climate, which was probably the reason folks chose it. But problems arise when there is prolonged exposure to moisture or wet climates. Again, not usually a problem in the desert, which is probably why these homes survived as long as they did. However whenever Siwa experiences heavy rainfalls (once every quarter of a century or so) the salt dissolves, destabilizing the brick walls. So the ruins of the city we saw are literally the melted or dissolved walls of the dwelling places of yesteryears.

Photo of a melted wall:

The melted walls of Shali (Old town) in Siwa

Until recently, people just rebuilt their homes at the same sites after these disasters. Now most of the old city is abandoned — to my utter surprise not ALL of it was and people did in fact still live in these derelict structures. and makes for an interesting site to visit and especially to clamber around in the the evenings and to go up to see the sunset. The facade is beautiful by night – and there’s a romance to walking there at night that’s rather bleached away in the unrelenting glare of the sun by day.

Shali by night

Meanwhile the salt saga does not end there. Later when I went shopping — for olive oil actually – I found salt yet again, in the form of containers. Not just in containers (though they had those too) but as the containers. At first I thought these containers were a rough hewn stone or alabaster, but no, they were made of salt. To my everlasting regret I had no camera, and for some reason (in the interests of being able to carry in undemolished back to Cairo, I suppose) I didn’t buy one. I did however buy a jar of the regular salt as wellas an unusual conction they called olive salt. A purplish-black mass of crystals that makes a lovely addition to risottos and salads… but that’s another posting.