Egypt’s Siwa fortress renovation boosts hopes for ecotourism

The 13th century edifice, called Shali or “Home” in the Siwi language, was built by Berber populations, using kershef, a mixture of clay, salt and rock which acts as a natural insulator in an area where the summer heat can be scorching. (AFP)
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Updated 15 November 2020

Egypt’s Siwa fortress renovation boosts hopes for ecotourism

  • This year, the coronavirus pandemic put a brake on travel worldwide and dealt a further blow to arrivals

SIWA, Egypt: Tucked away in Egypt’s Western Desert, the Shali fortress once protected inhabitants against the incursions of wandering tribes, but now there are hopes its renovation will attract ecotourists.
The 13th-century edifice, called “Shali” or “home” in the local Siwi language, was built by Berber populations atop a hill in the pristine Siwa oasis, some 600 kilometers (370 miles) southwest of Cairo.
The towering structure is made of kershef — a mixture of clay, salt and rock which acts as a natural insulator in an area where the summer heat can be scorching.
After it was worn away by erosion, and then torrential rains almost 100 years ago, the European Union and Egyptian company Environmental Quality International (EQI) began to restore the fortress in 2018, at a cost of over $600,000.
“Teach your children, and mine, about what ancient Shali means,” sang a choir of young girls in brightly colored robes at the renovated fortress’ inauguration ceremony last week.
Dotted by thick palm groves, freshwater springs and salt lakes, the Siwa oasis’s geographic and cultural isolation offers a rare eco-friendly getaway, far from Egypt’s bustling urban communities.
The region’s tourism model contrasts with Egypt’s mass approach in other areas, such as its Red Sea resorts in the east or along the Nile valley, especially in Luxor and Aswan in the south.
Tourists began gravitating to Siwa from the 1980s, after the government built roads linking it with the northwestern city of Marsa Matrouh, the provincial capital on the Mediterranean.
The Marsa Matrouh governor has called the oasis, registered as a natural reserve since 2002, a “therapeutic and environmental tourism destination.”
Eco-lodges offer lush vegetable gardens and kershef facades.
Restoration works at the Shali fortress were carried out under the aegis of the Egyptian government, which has been pushing to make Siwa a global “ecotourism destination.”
The project also includes setting up a traditional market and a museum on local architecture.
“The project will certainly benefit us and bring tourists. Today, I can offer my palm frond products inside Shali,” said Adam Aboulkassem, who sells handicrafts in the fortress.
EQI project manager Ines Al-Moudariss said the materials used in the restoration work were sourced from the fortress site itself.
She said the project was about “bringing the inhabitants of Siwa back to their origins and offering them employment opportunities” and services.
Events in the past decade outside the desert oasis have had a ripple effect in Siwa, and tourism slumped after political unrest that rocked Egypt and other countries in the Middle East in 2011.
Foreign tourist arrivals at the oasis have plummeted from around 20,000 in 2010 to just 3,000, said Mahdi Al-Howeiti, director of the local tourism office. Domestic tourism has only partially made up for the sharp decline, he added.
This year, the coronavirus pandemic put a brake on travel worldwide and dealt a further blow to arrivals.
And though the project is seen by some as a way to bring back visitors, critics say it fails to address the concerns of the 30,000-strong Siwi population, a Berber ethnic group.
“No Siwi goes to Shali. We are attached to it, but from afar, like a landscape,” said Howeiti.
He said there were more pressing issues for residents, such as fixing crumbled and unsafe roads or treating agricultural wastewater that harms the cultivation of olives and date palms — key pillars of the local economy.
Tourism and Antiquities Minister Khaled Al-Anani said at the inauguration that the fortress was a “cultural asset” and its renovation was “essential.”
But he also acknowledged that “we need to work on the infrastructure of the region, the airport and especially the roads.”
The closest airport to Siwa, located just 50 kilometers (around 30 miles) from the border with war-torn Libya, is restricted to the military.
But some locals remain skeptical.
“The fortress was not in danger of collapsing,” said Howeiti.
“In my opinion, it would have been better to leave it as it is. These ruins have a history.”


Schools in Lebanon reopen, other sectors gradually

Mask-clad shoppers walk past shops in Beirut's Hamra street on May 7, 2020, as Lebanon gradually eases its lockdown measures against the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus. (AFP)
Updated 30 November 2020

Schools in Lebanon reopen, other sectors gradually

  • The death toll in Lebanon has reached 1,000, while the total number of confirmed cases has jumped to more than 126,000 cases, at a rate of more than 1,200 cases per day during the past two weeks

BEIRUT: The Ministry of Education will reopen schools for integrated education starting on Monday.

This comes after two weeks of closure and amid objections from civil bodies and commentators working in the public field.

Hilda El-Khoury, director of the counseling and guidance department at the Ministry of Education, said: “Returning to education through the combined method will be within the preventive measures that were previously approved.”

However, the Civil Emergency Authority in Lebanon said: “The decision will lead to a health crisis affecting the most vulnerable people, namely children and underage students, especially with the number of cases not declining since before the closure, and with the noticeable increase in the daily number of deaths.”

The Ministerial Committee for Combating the Coronavirus has meanwhile maintained its decision to impose a partial curfew in Lebanon but amended its implementation hours. Instead of starting at 5:00 p.m. each evening, the curfew now begins at 11 p.m. and ends at 5 a.m., provided that restaurants, cafes and malls close at 10:00 pm.

During its meeting on Sunday, the committee decided to restore vehicle movement on roads but maintained the suspension of social activities, cinemas and nightclubs.

Health minister for Lebanon’s caretaker government, Hamad Hassan, said that the adoption of the strategy, permitting odd/even license plate vehicles on the roads on alternate days, had doubled the number of COVID-19 cases due to people’s reliance on shared transportation.

He said: “The rate of commitment to complete closure in all Lebanese territories has reached 70 percent over the past two weeks.”

Hassan said that the aim of the measures was to alleviate the pressure on the medical and nursing staff.

“The required medical measures, completed in terms of expanding the hospitals’ capacity to accommodate the COVID-19 cases, have been completed,” he said.

The death toll in Lebanon has reached 1,000, while the total number of confirmed cases has jumped to more than 126,000 cases, at a rate of more than 1,200 cases per day during the past two weeks.

Abdul Rahman Al-Bizri, an infectious disease specialist and member of the emergency committee on coronavirus, regretted the lack of plans for the period following the closure due to a lack of coordination on COVID-19 between state departments.

He said that this had kept the country in a state of confusion and chaos while citizens paid a high price in light of the difficult economic and living conditions.

Al-Bizri said: “The repeated closures are unsuccessful, and one of their consequences is the decline in economic activity, the life cycle, and the living conditions.”

Meanwhile, video footage of Health Minister Hamad Hassan went viral on Saturday. It showed him cutting a cake for the birthday of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in the open market in Baalbek city.

The video was circulated on social media and caused a scandal following a similar episode in which the same minister was involved months ago.

The people of his town in the Bekaa met him during the peak of the spread of coronavirus, and he danced among them carrying a sword. Some people carried him on their shoulders and other social distancing measures were also not observed.

The Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Night-Clubs and Pastries has called in the past few days for the sector to reopen to save what is left of it.

In a statement issued on the eve of the ministerial committees’ meeting, the syndicate called on the caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, to “adopt a health-economic approach for the benefit of the rest of the sector.”

The syndicate added: “The sector has fully fulfilled its duties with regard to the preventive measures.

“We have also advanced a new approach related to the capacity of institutions, whereby chairs and tables are reallocated to accommodate only 50 percent of the original capacity, guaranteeing that no overcrowding will occur.

“We insist on adopting this as a new measure, and we discussed it with the minister of interior, and the sector will reopen its doors on Monday morning while remaining committed to all procedures and laws.”

Bechara Asmar, the head of the General Labor Union, called for the reopening of the country “because it secures a return to the economic cycle during the month of the holidays, protects workers, employees and daily-paid workers in all private, public, and official sectors, and preserves their livelihood at a time when they risk having their wages reduced, starving to death or dying of the coronavirus.”