When you think of an “oasis”, what comes to your mind?
Is it something like this – a lone palm tree, a small pool of water, and maybe a couple of camels thrown in to boot?
How much more "deserty" can you get? A pair of apparently wild camels under a palm tree in the midst of the Sahara? Really?
I have to tell you, that’s what I thought. Even when I read our tour itinerary, and saw that we’d be staying at an oasis, I figured that we’d just camp out with the camels and take turns with the water.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when the oases in which we stayed turned out to be bustling communities in the wilderness of the desert! As mentioned in the previous post, they are scattered through the barren landscape – but they are sizeable and significant towns, at the center of which, of course, is life-giving water.
The date palms surround the oasis of Siwa on three sides. They seem to go on forever - and then the desert starts....
While we stayed in several Oases on our tour of Egypt’s Western Desert (so called because it’s on the west side of the Nile – it is the eastern fringe of the Sahara), our favorite place was Siwa Oasis. This garden in the midst of the desert is about 80 kilometers (35 miles) by 12 kilometers (5 miles). It’s home to — get this — 25,000 people, 75,000 olive trees, and 300,000 date palm trees. The locals in Egypt say that the olives and dates from Siwa are the best and sweetest in Egypt – and I am not arguing with them. According to The Lonely Planet, the donkeys in Siwa outnumber the combustion engines, and life is verrrrry relaxed.
One of the "main drags" in Siwa from our hotel balcony.
While there, we experienced all kinds of surprises and joys. As we did on the previous day, we took a four wheel drive safari, wherein we raced up and down sand dunes at an incredible angle. I had a great view, several times, of what I thought would surely be my own death. But it was so fun – the shrieks of laughter and terror outdid anything I’ve ever heard at Kennywood!
A friendly little game of Backgammon with Kelly down at Mustafa's Coffee Shop.
During the hottest parts of the day, and in the evening, we hung out at a little coffee shop called “Mustafa’s”, where Mustafa himself served us fruit slushees to die for. The service wasn’t fast…OK, it took 45 minutes to get a drink, but hey, what’s the rush? And besides, there was entertainment to be had. The place was stocked with all sorts of games, and the Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones kept coming out of his state-of-the-art sound system (the man didn’t have a bug killer or a flyswatter, but I’m here to tell you that the place sounded great!).
We had the chance to bike around town, and to visit several of the cool, clear springs that underlie the entire operation. The temperature was 107 degrees, yet the water was probably only 75 or 80. Amazingly refreshing!
A little bike tour of Siwa Oasis. It's how we got around town!
Most of our Intrepid Travelers down at the cool springs near Siwa.
If you'd have told me I needed my fishing pole in the desert, I'd have said you were lying!
One of my goals each summer is to introduce someone to the joys of fishing. What a kick it was to teach my friend and guide Ahmed how to fish…in the middle of the Sahara desert…and he caught two! Many of these pools were home to a variety of cichlid that seemed to go between two and eight inches. Not worth keeping, but fun to catch!
As I reflected on the harshness of the desert and the wonders of the oasis, I thought about two scripture passages.
Isaiah 35 talks about the time when God’s reign and rule will be known fully among his people, and the prophet uses the imagery of an oasis in the desert as a way to describe how amazing that will be:
1 The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness.
The unclean will not journey on it;
it will be for those who walk in that Way;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there,
nor will any ferocious beast get up on it;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and the ransomed of the LORD will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
Not long after that, the prophet returns to the same theme in chapter 49, a passage that was more meaningful to me after visiting Aswan in Egypt:
8 This is what the LORD says:
“In the time of my favor I will answer you,
and in the day of salvation I will help you;
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people,
to restore the land
and to reassign its desolate inheritances,
9 to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’
and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’
“They will feed beside the roads
and find pasture on every barren hill.
10 They will neither hunger nor thirst,
nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upon them.
He who has compassion on them will guide them
and lead them beside springs of water.
11 I will turn all my mountains into roads,
and my highways will be raised up.
12 See, they will come from afar—
some from the north, some from the west,
some from the region of Aswan. “
While doing all of this reflecting, I have been reading a book entitled Glimpses of Glory Dave and Neta Jackson. It is an account of the first thirty years of Reba Place Fellowship, the group with whom Ariel will be doing her apprenticeship come October. In it, the Jacksons talk about the wonder of community and the joy of relationship, and say that while Reba Place misses the mark on many occasions, they can see “glimpses of glory” every now and then – and those glimpses provide the community with the incentive to keep on trying, to keep on growing.
I wonder if maybe that’s what the Lord had in mind when he created oases and used that imagery to talk about the promises of his reign and rule among us. For so many of the Israelites, life was hard, hot, and dry. The desert was the norm. But every now and then, they would stumble upon a place like Siwa and then – THEN – they could get a glimpse of what God’s intentions were all about. Oases are definitely NOT the norm in this part of the world, yet they clearly show that such a reality is possible and does exist.
And while I was thinking about all of this, we came to a very special place in the desert. Take a look at this photo and tell me what you think is going on:
Yes, that’s Ariel and I looking at the desert floor, with incredible dunes in the background. But look at what is hidden in the desert:
Fossilized sea shells cover the floor of many parts of the desert.
Can you believe it? All around me – seashells!!! Glimpses of glory in the midst of the desert.
As we left Siwa this morning, I asked the folks in our van to come up with some words that would describe the trip in and out of the oasis. After all, it took three hours of driving to get to the nearest sign of human life after we left. We came up with these words: tedious, boring, unchanging, empty, and mind-numbing. I don’t know how the driver stayed awake – straight and flat and not a living creature (plant or animal) in sight.
Look at those words again: tedious, boring, unchanging, empty, and mind-numbing. Now, think about the people you see on a daily basis. Do you think that some of those folks might use those words to describe their own lives? Don’t many of the people we know seem to exist in a desert (perhaps of their own choosing)?
I wonder…what if God intends each of us – His people – to be like an oasis in the midst of their lives? What if each of us – not all the time, but sometimes, anyway – could be a reminder of the fact that there is more to this life than meets the eye? What if we lived in such a way that indicated that there are seashells in the desert, and that there are cool springs under the sand, and that the scenery we’ve encountered the last three hours isn’t the way it always is?
What if each of us lived as though we were a “glimpse of glory”? What if we shared the light we’ve been given and in so doing, encouraged our friends and neighbors and co-workers to think about the way that life could be – and about the healing and resurrecting that God longs to do? What would that be like?
I think it would be like fishing in the desert. Awesome. Magnificent. Fabulous.
Grab your rod. I’ve got something to show you!
Ariel gives sandboarding a try - she had an awesome ride!
That's me, sandboarding in the desert at sunset. I guess I'm pretty good - I made it down both times without a face plant!