A Perfect Place for Hallucinating

Deep in the desert, time stands still and the calendar has little importance.

SIWA, the Libyan desert - For 12 hours the bus drove through the Sahara Desert, across the Libyan depression, whose name aptly reflects the mood created by the flat, monotonous, whitish-yellow landscape, broken only by the knife-like thrust of the narrow black asphalt road. The only major sensation on the journey occurred when the driver suddenly braked, hurling the drowsing passengers forward, making their heads smash into the backs of the seats in front of them and scattering belongings. A stray camel was standing on the road, contemplating the fast-approaching vehicle, as though asking himself: Where are you rushing to in this nowhere place?

A second, and final, sensation was the sight, at long last, of the tops of the palm trees at Siwa, the desert oasis hidden in a small depression within the great depression. Small only in relative terms, because the forest of dark green palms that covers this rift is huge and dense and stands out all the more against the omnipresent yellow backdrop. Now the water, too, comes into view; two blue lakes that irrigate this earthly bit of paradise.


And as always, one is astonished by the fact that even in these remote places, half cut off from civilization, people live a regular life, in their mud-brick homes. (Because rain is so rare here, the hardened mud is used for construction, until the house crumbles and the whole village crumbles, and the inhabitants move to new mud-brick homes in a different place, and the remnants of the abandoned village rise atop the hill as a non-historic reminder of the desert's eternal forgetting. )

Life here goes on at its own ancient pace, which is at the same time contemporary. For example, the young man who served breakfast in the cafe on the main street is by profession a teacher of languages in the Siwa school. He speaks Arabic, English, a little German and a little Hebrew. The thing is that the people who live at Siwa are the Amazigh, who speak a language of the same name; Arabic is only their medium of communication with the outside world.

When I first visited this place 20 years ago, everything was wilder and more chaotic. The journey from Cairo to Siwa took three full days, and Siwa itself was shrouded in mystery. It was said that the local residents bathed naked in the hot springs that emanate from the rock and spill into the ponds. Siwa was also a destination of Alexander the Great, and it was here that the oracle of the Egyptian god Amun revealed to him that he had chosen him to be his son and to rule Egypt as its king. This is not a legend. In February of 331 BCE, Alexander set out for Siwa and took along his chronicler, Callisthenes, who provided future generations with a detailed account of the events.

The temple of the oracle of Amun still stands, albeit in ruins, surrounded by another of the ghost villages whose residents left and moved to a more modern abode. One can still see the holy of holies where Alexander communed with the god, who sent him an encouraging message. What apparently happened was that the priest of Amun, via a hidden opening, sneaked into an unseen corridor in which he could hear the supplicants' requests, after which he rushed out and, supposedly in the name of the god who had heard the wish, served up a response written on papyrus.

A few years after that famous visit, when his close friend Hephaestion died, Alexander again sent couriers from Babylon to Siwa to ask Amun if he would also adopt his deceased friend as his son, but the god refused.

On the way back from the deserted temple, our footsteps echoing on the crunchy gravel the only sound to be heard, we met someone, Ibrahim Dahli by name, who volunteered to drive us back to the hot springs in his Volva, vintage 1960 or so. Western progress was visible on a hilltop along the way in the form of a gender temple: a center for women's crafts that was dedicated by Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the Egyptian president. At the foot of the hill, the government of Greece, which considers itself Alexander's heir, has established a monument of its own, a Hellenic Center. More than a decade ago a Greek archaeologist stirred an academic furor when she claimed to have found the burial place of Alexander the Great here, on the basis of a reading, which turned out to be a misreading, of an inscription she unearthed.

This is the ideal place for hallucinating. You can walk in the shade of the palm trees, immerse yourself in the clear warm waters, observe the goat herders and the olive pickers and imagine that you have returned in a time machine to an era in which the boundaries between reality and the imaginary are blurred, and the laws that dictate what is permitted and what is prohibited are not clear. Ibrahim, our volunteer, took us to his home - that is, to one of them - in which he lives with his second wife and her children, in an estate outside the town. From a saltwater spring behind the house he extracts salt that he uses to pickle the olives from his grove. His first wife, who did not bear him children, lives in the town. "Would you like to visit her?" he asked.

It was a holiday, the Hijri (Islamic ) New Year. Women in colorful scarves embroidered in patterns typical of Siwa and girls costumed in the muslin dresses of bridesmaids and brides were on the way to visit relatives, by foot or by taxi. A taxi here is a cart hitched to a donkey or an off-road vehicle driven by a little boy. Happy New Year, Siwa, where the calendar and time itself have minimal influence, and where Alexander the Great, were he to reappear, would arouse no more interest than he did in his lifetime, when he bothered the god Amun with a second request, which was one request too many.