It is famous for its stunning scenery and traditional mud-brick buildings.
But environmentalists say Egypt’s Siwa oasis is under threat as local people increasingly use modern materials, instead of the locally-sourced salty ‘karshef’ rocks to build with.
Karshef, made up of fossilized salt that settles on the shores of Siwa’s salt-water lakes, is mixed with mud and water and used to construct low-rise buildings with thick walls and shallow foundations.
Wooden beams for the ceilings and palm thatch for the roof are the only other materials used.
Environmentalist Mounir Neamatalla came to Siwa in the 1980s and built an eco-lodge as part of a mission to conserve the cultural and environmental heritage of this part of Egypt.
“One of the most important issues that brought us here to Siwa was protecting the architectural heritage of the oasis. The oasis has a special architectural heritage and a way of building that is unique in the world. People here build with a material called karshef which is fossilized salt with mud. In recent years, only a small number of people have been interested in protecting this way of building and they continue to live in houses or create commercial buildings made of karshef, but most people have decided to go for steel and cement,” he said.
Although the thick walls keep the buildings warm in winter and cool in summer, life can be uncomfortable in karshef housing. The mildest breeze blows sand from the walls and subsidence is commonplace.
The increased digging of wells by farmers and commercial water-bottling companies means the land is getting wetter, causing the soft karshef constructions to sink.
“The reason is firstly, the builders are not here anymore and the other reason is that the land has become more humid - before there was no humidity. So people abandoned karshef and started building with stone and now people no longer learn to build with karshef, they learn the modern techniques. The old technique is hard,” said builder Amr Hamza Himeda.
Karshef constructions have to be built in stages, with each half-meter high section left to dry for a week before the next layer can be added.
It takes six months to build a one-story house and a year to build two floors.
Local landowner Hasan Kilany said permission to demolish traditional buildings and erect modern ones in their place was easy to come by.
And like other Siwans, he said he had opted to build his house with modern materials, which were cheaper and more readily available.
“These days, nobody builds with karshef anymore. The foreigners who come like karshef. They buy land and build with karshef. But because it's expensive, everyone here builds with bricks and cement,” he said.
As Siwa’s traditional buildings gradually disappear, environmentalists say that without government intervention, locally-sourced karshef will soon be used for nothing more than the building of tourist holiday homes.