The Siwa Oasis (واحة سيوة Wāḥat Sīwah; سنترية Santariyyah) is an urban oasis in Egypt, its ancient name being Oasis of Amun-Ra. It is situated between the Qattara Depression and the Great Sand Sea in the Western Sahara Desert, 50 km east of the Egypt–Libya border, and 560 km from the capital city of Cairo. Throughout all great civilisations that embraced Egypt, Siwa has been a pilgrim centre to the Oracle Temple of Amun, or Zeus-Jupiter, where many legendary Pharaonic, Ancient Greek, and Roman figures were initiated. Including Alexander The Great who was initiated there as the son of Zeus and saviour of Egypt, following the footsteps of his ancestors, prominent Hercules and Perseus.
Taziry Ecolodge has been built at the footstep of the famous Red Mountain of Siwa (Taziry), facing the magnificent White Mountain (Gafar), overlooking the vast salt lake, and the timeless dunes of the Great Sand Sea. “Taziry” in Siwi means “full moon”.
Osman, a chef and a camp owner. He makes one of the best cups of tea around and impresses his guests with arm-wrestling matches, as well as by holding scorching metal teapots and burning coals in his bare palms without getting burned. Traditional Siwan dishes are buried and cooked in hot sand pits.
People residing in Siwa are of the Amazigh tribe (Berber), population nearing 30,000. They are devoted Muslims, and speak in their own tongue called Siwi, although all Siwans also are fluent in Egyptian Arabic dialect called “Masry”. It used to be an isolated oasis for thousands of years before a tarmac road was built to the Mediterranean coast in the 1980s. Siwa’s only links with the outside world were by arduous camel tracks through the desert, used primarily by traders and pilgrims heading either to Mecca through Cairo or to the Oracle Temple. It is said that it took Alexander the Great around 14 or 15 days to reach Siwa with camel caravans through the desert, and some legends speculate that he was not only guided by the star constellations but also by desert birds such as desert ravens and falcons, as the birds fly towards water sources, i.e., oasis.
If one visits Siwa Oasis, there are several remarkable sites such as the 12th-century fortress known as Shali, which has been traditionally constructed of kershif (salt and mud-brick) and palm logs. Other fascinating local historic sites include the remains of the Oracle Temple and ruins of Aghurmi; the Gebel al Mawta (the Mountain of the Dead), a Roman-era necropolis featuring dozens of rock-cut tombs; and Cleopatra’s Spring among other natural hot springs (didn’t expect to encounter onsen in the Egyptian desert, right?). Once you witness the rich diversity of history, unique traditions, and culture, one cannot miss the natural wonders of the oasis, those being the Western Sahara Desert, Salt Lakes, and lush date palm and olive tree gardens. Since the Great Sand Sea used to be literally under the sea, you can still witness tons of seashells, fossils of starfishes, and even of big ocean creatures like whales.
Desert drivers Sayed Horera, Fathi Abdalla Benhgarr (Siwawi), and Naser Sarhan during our expedition to Al Arag.
Finally, let’s talk about tea, or shahīn in the Siwi language. I have spent nearly 8 months living in this otherworldly beautiful environment working as a tour guide, and as you can imagine, I drank a lot of tea. Is it somewhat similar to the Bedouin tea traditions? No, with a tiny sprinkle of yes. Bedouins are nomadic while Siwans are a settled Berber tribe. As much as there can be some similarities as they somewhat share the same region of the vast desert space in the same country, there are huge differences in mentality and the way of life, including tea drinking. One would be surprised by how unique the customs are among the Amazigh people.
Tour guiding in Siwa on a tuk-tuk. Photo taken near Amun Temple by one of my guests from Yemen, Mohammed Alqersh.
They call it Zarda, which translates as “tea cooked on fire”. As much as you can see modern Siwis simmering their tea on gas stoves for its convenience, the most authentic cup of Siwan tea must be prepared on fire, typically olive tree root wood started with some dry palm branches. It will be either red (black) or green tea from Sri Lanka, although black tea is way more common. In all the grocery stores you can find a variety of 500 g cardboard boxes filled with Ceylon tea and a generous bonus glass teacup inside.
One of the countless desert safaris we have ventured on. Youssef, known by the nickname Laly, prepares the tea for all guests and safari drivers.
In Siwa, tea is drunk all day long and always in company. Mohammed Elabd, a safari driver, says that tea in Siwa is very important and no day passes without it. It is drunk at least three times per day: after breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When you visit someone’s house, they will offer tea. People drink tea when meeting friends or having guests as a warm gesture of hospitality, when making business deals, and in every other possible situation can be an excuse to enjoy another cup of tea. When you go to a date or olive garden and desert, tea will be made on fire, which is the tastiest, with conviction state all Siwans – a gas stove will never beat the real fire. When Mohammed goes to Cairo, he takes his Siwan tea with him since the modernity of the big city doesn’t offer loose leaf so much these days, some tea bags there and there, but coffee is unrivalled in the metropolis, especially the rather popular Nescafe.
In the bazaar or any other public place, you might spontaneously get invited for tea. It is polite to accept the invitation if you can, the locals will be very happy. Siwis will rarely pass an opportunity of talking to you over a cup of tea. Even when there is not a deliberate invite, tea shall be there. Let’s say, you go to a motorbike mechanic and while you are waiting for him to fix it, he will put the tea on the stove and while doing his job, you might expect a conversation alongside tea (thank you, Sayed, for fixing my motorbike countless of times). If you go on a desert safari, definitely expect tea made on fire. Siwis spend most of the evenings exchanging words and cheer, sitting around a fire in a hot spring or desert camp, and sipping tea. Usually, peanuts, bananas, tangerines, dates, and possibly a cigarette will be offered alongside the cup of tea.
On the left, Adel Gewady enjoying his daily tea. A safari driver who has a deep love and respect for the desert. He runs a traditional crafts shop in the Souq, the town’s center, and most of the crafts and embroidery are made by his sisters. We would often have lovely conversations in the shop alongside several pots of tea. On the right, Mohammed Elabd enjoying the sun after he prepared lunch and tea for everyone. That day, he taught us how to cook on fire in the desert with the bare minimum of equipment. Dishes are also “washed” with sand rather than water, which surprisingly well gets rid even of grease. Desertman’s wisdom cannot be underestimated.
The person preparing the tea is named sultan (m) / sultana (f). It is a great honour to make tea in Siwan society. As much as you can witness Middle Eastern people “fighting” over who has the honour to pay for everyone’s bill, you might encounter a similar scene of “who is going to be brewing tea”. And in Siwa, a tradition of suffrat de shahīn helps to decide who is going to be the sultan, explained my friend Ali Heida. It is a very esteemed, respected and important role after all, no joking around here. Suffrat is the tray where all the tea cups rest and all the participants sit around it. For example, there are two potential sultans, the fictional Mohammed and Ahmed. The group would split into two teams, depending on who they believe brews a better cup. During this practice, money bets are placed on those two tea makers, and the one who receives the highest bets, buys and receives the suffrat and gets the opportunity to be the sultan. Siwa’s religious landscape is Islamic and yet it has its own unique traditions and rules, hence, in this case, suffrat de shahīn is not seen as gambling because people placing those bets buy the tray, become its rightful owners, and pay for the right to brew tea. It might appear like a game from an outside point of view but in reality, it is very serious. Suffrat de shahīn is done before various events and occasions, such as weddings if there happens to be disagreement about who is going to be the sultan. But the most interesting part of it is that if someone is making bad tea, you can object and suggest buying their tea tray to become the sultan yourself or nominate a better tea master. Therefore, the skill of making good tea is regarded very highly in Siwa.
On the left, Mohammed Al-Damiry making my first tea in the desert on fire. He was my tour guide when I just arrived to Siwa Oasis in December 2021, before I became a tour guide myself one month later. On the right, we were planting vegetables and fruits in Ali Heida’s garden on Fatnas Island. He was a teacher of many things to me: Siwan farming and arrogation systems, history, customs, language, and even manual 4×4 driving in the desert sands.
Similarly as in East Asian tea cultures, it is of the highest importance that the sultan, i.e., tea master makes sure that everyone’s teacup is full. It doesn’t matter if a hundred people show up to the wedding, it is the sultan’s duty to offer everyone tea; no one shall be forgotten about. And again, just like in East Asia, only the tea master brews and pours the tea. So avoid touching the teapot when someone else is brewing, it might come off as offensive and disrespectful. This rule of thumb generally works in most tea- drinking cultures. Chef wouldn’t be very happy either if you would start juggling his kitchenware and changing the recipe with unwelcome ingredients while they are in charge of cooking.
On the way to the Salt Lakes, there is a tea and coffee place run by the well-respected Mr. Mahaadi Hawaady, who used to be the manager of the tourist information since the office started. It is rarely open but you are very lucky once it is as the 360° view of the salt lake is gorgeous. Photo on the left by tour guests from Spain.
Adel Mansour, yet another safari driver friend, has shared with me the “guest cup” tradition. In Siwa, you always have to have an extra cup on your tray, in case someone unexpected shows up, or so you can spontaneously invite a random passerby for a cup of tea. From my personal observations, rarely does someone follow this custom of deliberately placing empty cups on the tray, it might be an old tradition. Because if someone shows up, people will always find a cup for you anyway. Nevertheless, I found the small detail so intriguing that I started to have an extra empty cup as a welcoming symbol of an open invitation to whoever comes to join.
Another typical scenery of Siwan streets: date palm trees, no pavement, instead of traditional mud kershif buildings we see modern white brick structures, men driving tuktuks, and women walking home wearing fully-covering clothing called tarfutet.
To start brewing tea Siwan style you will need: a metal teapot, a big metal cup for water (kubbaitt), small glass cups (in the desert or gardens, you would also often see paper coffee cups), another glass cup for dissolving sugar (a bigger one if tea is prepared for a big group), a metal tray (suffrat), loose leaf Ceylon tea, a generous amount of sugar, herbs/spices, water, and firewood (mostly olive tree roots and dried date palm leaves to get it started). Be prepared, Siwan people drink tea very strong and sweet. The same tea leaves are boiled on a bonfire several times, the first two infusions being the most essential, and the first infusion is always pure tea with nothing added except for sugar. No stirring! As much as your South American friend wouldn’t want to see you stirring your bombilla when enjoying yerba mate, Siwis believe that stirring the leaves in the pot ruins the flavour. Sugar is added after simmering and is dissolved in cups, never directly in the teapot, especially not while it is still on fire as it can burn.
For the first infusion, add cold water to your loose leaf in the teapot and wait until it starts boiling (bak-bak), without letting it simmer for too long, remove from the fire. The second time, after the tea starts boiling, you always add either lemongrass (luiza), mint (nana), cinnamon, cloves, or basil (riehān), and again, simmer only for a brief moment. After each following infusion, the simmering time is increased, as well as extra tea leaves and herbs/spices are added. Similarly as with Bedouin or Moroccan tea, the tea is poured from a high point into the glasses to create a foam, infuse the tea with some extra oxygen and cool it down, so it is ready for drinking. In Siwa, it is done by pouring it in a specially dedicated separate sugar cup, afterwards pouring the infusion back and forth into the teapot. The process is repeated several times until all of the sugar is dissolved. The smart trick to this is that if someone has asked for a tea that is only a little bit sweet, you do the pour once by not dissolving all of the sugar. Then dissolve the rest of the sugar by more repeated pours from glass to cup for the rest of the group who wished to have their tea medium or very sweet. This method allows convenient sugar level control.
Before adding sugar, sultan asks how sweet people want the tea – it happens fairly rarely but some people prefer the tea without sugar. So let’s say, that there is one without sugar, someone wants a little bit and another person prefers the tea extra sweet. Thus, the sultan has to mix the sugar accordingly for each individual. Before serving the tea, the sultan always checks the sugar levels and if the tea is any good. After tasting and making sure it is good, the glass cup’s bottom is wiped against the edge of the metal tray so there’s no dripping and wetness (it makes a lovely sound also!), it is given to the closest person, so the participants pass the tea around. After drinking, the cups are given back to the sultan, rather than the sultan collecting them back himself. Like any other tribal community, Siwan customs are about sharing communal duties, therefore, everyone has a role to play and help each other with small gestures like this.
As much as we have discussed tea, other beverages such as fresh hibiscus flower infusion with lots of sugar, dates with milk, guava leaf infusion, sugarcane juice, and a variety of fresh fruit smoothies (mango and basil is my favourite combination) can be enjoyed in the oasis. In Souq, the main square next to the Shali Fortress, there is Siwa Coffee Bar, where I used to briefly work and help out. Apart from a shot of espresso or much-loved Turkish coffee, Siwan tea is also served here, which you can sip together with fellow travellers, safari drivers, tour guides, and locals.
On the left, celebrating Eid al-Fitr with local guides Sayed and Eslam in Hemeida Moussa’s Siwa Coffee Bar. New white galabeyas are worn on this day after a month of fasting, the holy Ramadan (May 2022). On the right, Al Shaazly, a famous smoothie maker near the Cleopatra Spring. He is deaf and yet successfully manages to communicate and even make the funniest of jokes in his own sign language. Another rather famous deaf person in Siwa is one of the best motorbike mechanics around.
Phrases and vocabulary related to tea in Siwan language (note: Siwan language is not written down; it is passed on exclusively orally from generation to generation, therefore, the phonetic transcription might be inaccurate)
▲ Shahīn nazurgaab – black tea
△ Shahīn nauraab – green tea
▲ Hsīh shahīn – I want/need tea
△ Mara hora / h’ora – again / more Shukran – thank you (the same as in Arabic)
▲ Nish sultan (m) / sultana (f) en shahīn – I make tea
△ El brah bradnīm worīsa shahīn? – do you have more tea in the teapot?
▲ Brednim bakbaka? – has the tea started boiling?
△ Shahinnek ahluu (m) / Shahinnem ahluu (f) – you make good tea
▲ Shahinnek (m) baahred / shahinnem (f) baahred – you make bad tea (as much as Siwis have a good sense of humour, please do not use this phrase)
△ El finn djaal – cup (small)
▲ Kubbaitt – cup (big)
△ Sukke’er – sugar
▲ Suffrat – tea tray
△ Karkade – hibiscus
▲ Luiza – lemongrass
△ Nana – mint
▲ Riehān – basil
△ Ymom – very sweet (sugar level terminology)
▲Yazaī – a little bit of sugar
My steady iron horse named Storm was a great adventure companion.
Last but not least, a music video reference by Tinariwen, a Tuareg band (Algeria/Mali) that is widely celebrated in the great vastness of the Western Sahara and beyond. Ishwegh Attay, “I drank a glass of tea that scorched my heart first” (Tamasheq language, Berber origin). Here, we can observe many similarities with the way tea is drunk in Siwa. Especially, the atmosphere captured here can take one to those precious desert landscapes.
Additional video about Siwan tea (in Arabic by BBC XTRA): https://fb.watch/lyhI9HqC7j/
Western Sahara Desert, also known as the Great Sand Sea. All photos in the article are by Katrina Wild unless stated otherwise.