Siwa... the Sacred Oasis

Siwa... the Sacred Oasis

After arriving in Cairo, moving to Alexandria and getting ready to travel to Siwa oasis in the heart of Egypt's western desert near the Libyan border, I put pictures, books and maps aside and studied the satellite image of the 600-km road from Alexandria. The Google website made me come nearer to the outlying oasis, to my great astonishment. That dark green spot, like a tame bird, lies on a golden nest called the great sea of sand. It also amazingly stands west of Qatarra Depression, which looks like a huge hole hollowed out in the heart of the desert by a giant hand. The first question was: How did ancient and modern history makers reach that spot? But the burning questing was: How did such unique life continue for thousands of years in that remote place? Still, the more burning question was: What is left of the lives which Siwa witnessed over the ages?

We took the north road along the Mediterranean coast between Alexandria and Marsa Matruh which is lined with scores of holiday villages, some of which are finished, but the majority still under construction, and many are nothing but fences and sings and plans of projects. We then went south along a road which looked like a thick line on sand which is indistinguishable except for road sings. Even vague, intriguing geography, which looks like a blank carpet, is only identified at check or traffic points.

Moving from the Nile to the desert, from plants to barrenness, is extremely difficult and different. That's why Egypt's history had never witnessed migrations from the valley to the desert. Even the countless new towns, resorts residential blocks and concrete buildings stretching on the road are dull. Moving means changing one's lifestyle, something unknown to the Egyptians at all. The oases therefore remained isolated, its people moving to the valley, but not the other way round, with just a few exceptions to the rule. For this reason, the desert was discovered only during the last two centuries. Even when the Arabs entered Egypt they did not come through the desert but followed the coastal dusty tracks. There are many stories and legends about armies which perished in the desert and its wild beasts.

Geography begins to reveal that change is coming; Sand revealed hundreds of multi-colour semi-pyramidal shapes formed by the force of weathering, similar to the Saqqara Step Pyramid, as if they were huge blocks, a fleet of rocks or ghosts of huge ships abandoned by their pilots in the wilderness! When the green oasis appeared at last, it looked as if that eternal fleet defended Siwa from all sides, stopping the great sea of sand from the south and preventing the oasis from falling to the east, where the Qattara Depression is.

Before entering the world of Siwa, let s listen to the voice of history, as Herodotus said: "After travelling to the heart of the desert you pass through woodlands where wild beasts roam, behind which is an area of sand dunes which stretches from Thebes in Egypt to the pillars of Heracles. After walking for ten days in this particular area you see ruins covered with salt stones which changed into huge crystal balls. On those hilltops, and from the heart of salt there are renewable freshwater springs behind the forests".

A salt city

We are now in the middle of three spaces: sea, oasis and depression, which, when combined, pose threat, but here they represent a forgotten paradise. With these spaces, history tells us about journeys which stressed the importance of Siwa, mainly the journeys of salt, hajj (pilgrimage) and trade.

In the heart of Siwa, there is a stranger 12-km road which runs across a sea of salt. On both sides of the asphalted road there is salt water, which, now in winter, reflects the sky, but once it is summer, the surface of water is covered with a layer of salt. Sand-based silt, which occasionally appears in the sea, is still used by the residents to build their traditional houses, a centuries-old custom. We are now approaching the only town which is fully built of sand. From a distance the uninhabited salt town appeared surrounded by a huge wall, parts of which were damaged. A mosque made of sand stands at the town's gate. We recognized it though it has no minaret, for a simple reason-the mihrab, protruding from the mosque's wall like a semi-cylindrical column. With my fellow the photographer, the guide and the driver we quietly toured this unique town which deserves to be added to UNESCO's list of world heritage sites. It almost never rains in Siwa, otherwise it and other rains we will see later, would have disappeared, but when it does, it rains heavily.

The town does not stem is uniqueness from sand which it is built of alone, but also from the fact that it houses perhaps the oldest olive (zeitoun) oil press in Egypt, which gave it its name "Zeitouna". The guide verified the age of the town and the press from the trunk of the palm tree there which is worn out, indicating its life has expired. We know that palm trees live as long as four centuries; accordingly we can determine the age of this town.

Where did all that salt come from? The answer is very simple: Siwa was completely covered with the Mediterranean which eventually receded. Nobody from those ancient times can tell us how the sea disappeared, but marine fossils, salt rocks and lakes bear witness to the earlier presence of the sea. In the heart of all this salt there was one stone room which looked like the tombs we were to visit later. Was the town of Zeitouna built on the ruins of an old temple?! The people of Siwa call the salt building material "karsheaf"! As nineteenth-century traveller Minotoli described Siwa "its land is wet, with many swamps, covered with salt lakes on which there are fertile islets with fruitful trees."

... And a mud town!

From Zeitouna we proceeded to Shali in the heart of Siwa. Shali in the local language means home/town. The village of Shali was founded at the end of the 18th century with fortifications on a plateau overlooking the whole oasis to defend it against enemy tribes. Shali's old houses reflect this: high walls, watch towers and layers of houses looking like a single house or fortress, all of meshed mud supported with stones. It has been deserted since 1820, and its uniqueness once again makes it worth being considered for addition to UNESCO's list of world heritage sites, as "modern" houses have been slowly but fiercely replacing traditional architecture in Siwa. Shali and Zeitouna are the rarest models of mud and salt architecture respectively. Who will intervene to preserve what is left of these antiquities?

From the heights of Shali you can see the desert, the great sea of sand and the streets around. You can also see how the houses are designed. There are goat and chicken pens opposite or next to the houses. Many people turned courtyards into markets to display handicrafts, such as women's clothes and dolls. The difficulty of going up Shali helped defend it. In addition, the windows are narrow and form a triangle , allowing dwellers to watch the outside, with a fire burning all the time (in the past) and guards. The town's six wells make people in no need to go outside.

The foundation of Shali was a turning point in the life of the people of Siwa, who moved from isolated villages with a centre (acropolis) to the walled oasis of Siwa. Some scholars date that inward exodus at AD 1100-1203. It was a peace initiative which stopped Bedouin's raids and looting.

A mountain for the dead

The people of Siwa also built layers of tombs on hilltops in addition to houses. Unfortunately, most tombs suffered severe damage and looting at the hands of desert travellers in the 18th and 19th centuries. People talk about a "Mr Harry", who built a small house near the mountain and hired local labourers to dig for the treasures in the tombs. In addition, the residents of old Shali took shelter in the tombs from air raids during World Wars I and II, and some fled from the Italian invasion of Libya, and their descendants settled in Siwa. We were unable to take photos inside the tombs, (one of the most famous is called "Si Amun"), which are relatively smaller than those in the Valley of the Kings.

An oasis and three springs

According to some sources, Siwa had as many as 300 springs, but among the most well-known ones three survived: Cleopatra, Quraishat and Abu Shoruf. There is usually a restaurant or a café for tourists round the spring but algae grow in the third spring whose custodian explained that he used it as a bulti (tilapia) farm, which kept the spring clean at all times. The spring also contains sulphuric water which makes the fish pop-eyed! Abu Shoruf spring is about 7 km east of Quraishat spring. It is near a village with the same name. It moved to its present location following the building of a government health clinic, schools and new houses. We visited one of houses of these whose owner had completed and, like many of his neighbours, added a palm frond hedge to protect household privacy. This small one-thousand-population village enjoys electricity supply from a generator which operates from 5 p.m. to 2 a. m. But Siwa's springs have other stories to tell. From the highest top in the oasis you can see many house springs here and there. Geologists assert that Siwa sits on a sea of fresh water. Any person can drive a pipe 70 or more metres deep into the ground in a house or grove to get a spring.

Near a huge water tank which looks like a swimming pool where algae grow, and on the wall of a small building there was a small 50cm x 1m signboard on which 38 words were written: Matruh Governorate, Siwa District, Aghormi Village Local Unit, Local Development Programme, Ministry of Development Sector, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Lowering Groundwater Level and Use of Wastewater in Agriculture. As our guide explained "When a spring was dug for irrigation under Al-Takroor Mountain its hot water gushed out heavily and in the meantime the level of salt water rose, which led the officials of the authorities referred to in the above signboard to consider drawing fresh and salt water here and there to a single tank, then distributing it for irrigation." Under the two pipes which pump hot and cold water into a square tank, a boy jumped into the water and enjoyed a hot/cold bath at the same time! This abundance of water allowed Siwa to house four spring water bottling companies, including a national company managed by the Egyptian army.

One common historical mistake is calling Ain Shams Spring, which in near the oracle, Cleopatra Spring, as appears on a signboard there! It is Herodotus who gave the oasis this historical name saying "Egypt is the gift of the Nile; springs are the gift of Amun's worshippers." When I asked researcher Abdul-Aziz Abdul-Rahman Al-Dumairy, Siwa Antiquities Director/Ahmed Fakhry Museum Repository Director, about this wrong name, he explained "There is another name, "Bath Spring", as reported in Siwa's property records for over two centuries. Brides in the past used to bathe in its pure, strong flowing water, which is warm in winter, cold in summer whatever the temperature may be. It is just amateurs who gave it this touristic name, as there is no evidence that Cleopatra ever came to the oasis. It may have been so called like the Cleopatra Bath, which lies west of the city of Marsa Matruh."

Women and traditions

Architecture is not the only thing that distinguishes Siwa, but traditions do as well. These traditions stem from its isolation inside a triangle at the corners of which are the capitals of Egypt, Libya and Sudan. It is this fact which the father of Egyptology, Archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry asserted after spending years among its inhabitants.

Women are still not unveiled. Once a woman goes out, she covers her face completely. A married woman wears a black scarf and veil! Women wear blue embroidered dresses at work, black dresses at weddings and white for providing consolation. Girls today go out for shopping as well as for working in certain trades, such as the date factory we visited where most of the ninety workers were girls. On her wedding day, the bride wears seven layers of clothes (the figure seven is a good omen) so as to wear a different dress each day of the first week of marriage: the closest to her body being thin white, next thin red, black, yellow, blue, red silk, and green silk, respectively.

The bride gets ready later to wear the traditional black wedding dress which is heavily embroidered with colour graphic designs round the neck and many buttons and mother-of-pearl with small pictures of the sun to drive away the evil eye. Some argue that these buttons represent sunbeam, the symbol of the god Atun; others say they are magic mirrors thought to give energy from the sun to those who adorn themselves with. Women wear broad silver necklaces decorated with drawings of the sun, dates, palm trees and fish. Hair is decorated with a heavy crescent-like piece of silver covered with a silk shawl shich has colour ribbons with multi-colour woollen ends hanging down.

We approached a two-year-old girl with our camera, but she immediately covered her face like a grown-up woman. Another three-year-old girl refused in English to be photographed, both following strict traditions.

In the footsteps of Alexander the Great

The young Alexander inherited two things: His father's empire, and his own dream of knowing who killed his warrior father, King Philip of Macedonia. In 334 BC, Alexander left Greece and set out to complete the conquests begun by his late father leading a 30,000-strong army and a fleet of 160 ships. He defeated the Persian king Darius at Issus (modern Turkey) in 333 BC, and conquered all Phoenician cities except Tyre (Lebanon) which was besieged for seven months and Gaza (Palestine), which was his final point before setting out for Egypt, where he showed respect for the Egyptians' deities, and even celebrated an Olympian festival in which sport was mixed with religion and art in the Greek style. When Alexander was 13 and one of Aristotle s disciples, he heard exciting news about Amun's priests and their power of divination. He sought a particular prophecy: Who killed his father, and what the future of his own empire will be like.

We travelled along the western arm of the Nile on our journey north, as did Alexander leave Memphis, travelling north along the Nile to the Mediterranean. He decided to found the city of Alexandria opposite the island of Pharos. As there was no sufficient lime to plan the large city which would be a new capital, engineers used the flour (or wheat) which was designated for the soldiers. And as we left Alexandria to Marsa Matru, so did Alexander 2340 years ago. And as a sand storm blew when he was on his way south to Siwa, we faced a similar situation halfway as the asphalted road was being resurfaced and he dust made visibility almost nil. When Alexander ran out of water, it rained and the soldiers filled their skins. "Alexander didn't come with an army, but he only brought a group of twenty guides," said researcher Muhammad Hassan. When we lost the way to our resort at the edge of the sea of sand near Al-Takroor Mountain we asked the people of Siwa, but when Alexander lost his way, Amun sent him and his company two crows to guide them to his oracle.

In front of the oracle

We reached the gate of the oracle, or the town centre during the age of the god Amun. On the top of the 30-metre high plateau where the oracle was built in a horseshoe shape we were able to see the wide green belt surrounding this religious corner. Amun's scattered villages had one centre the acropolis, or the oracle where we stood, surrounded by three sections or walls reflecting class hierarchy: The first for rulers; the second for women, children, relatives and guards; the third for soldiers and guards' quarters. A short distance from the oracle stood another of Amun's temples near what was called Ain Shams.

Siwa (or Amun's) oasis seems to have enjoyed some sort of autonomy over 22 centuries ago. An indication of this is portraying the governor of Siwa on equal footing with Ahmose II, in contradiction to the then current rule of portraying provincial governors behind the pharaoh. We almost heard an ancient Egyptian song which Selim Hassan translated: "Amun! You are the sheepherder in the morning and the guide of the anguished to the pasture. As the shepherd guides sheep to grazing, so do you. Guide the anguished to food, because Amun Ra guards all those who depend on him. Amun Ra! I love you! I have filled my heart with you. You will save me one day from people's lies, because god, the truthful, lives in the truth. I shall not surrender to the fear in my heart, because what Amun said will prevail and flourish."

In praise of solitude

When the Nile valley was struck by devasting floods, people had nowhere to shelter other than the oases-small and large, from north to south in Egypt's deserts. With recurrent floods, oases functioned as builders of communities. Ever since prehistoric times, oases have sheltered those who ran away from the rage of nature and have been a safe haven from religious and state terrorism. Oases have thus attracted people from all walks of life who carried their expertise with them: artists, craftsmen, teachers, farmers, etc. They have become a sort of a place of exile away from the authority in the Nile valley; however, this does not mean that they are devoid of arts.

Oases, which were isolated, have become centres of attraction. This is Siwa, which is a unique case in that it is the only place in Egypt which is in need of labour and knows no unemployment! That's why there are many workers in tourism and education, for example, who are not original residents fo the oasis. Foreign investors find a golden opportunity in Siwa as a feddan there is only a few pounds worth. The oasis which used to be content with its isolation and hailed by archaeologists began to adapt to changes with the arrival of newcomers, and its heritage has changed from customs and traditions to folklore. True, that's just the beginning, but time and the pace of change will damage this exclusivity, as they have done elsewhere.

A Siwa resident told us an interesting story which happened before Siwa was connected to the current Matruh road in the 1980s. When he finished primary school he wanted to buy preparatory school uniform, but since that was not available in Siwa he had to go to Matruh. At nightfall he, his friends and the driver had to sleep in the car on a plateau, and move at dawn. They lost their way more than once and spent three days in search of a school uniform! However, he was satisfied with that solitude which gave Siwa its exclusivity in architecture, traditions and language.

Siwa's dialect is difficult to understand. It is influenced, among other things, by its position as a transit point for Berber-speaking Moroccan, Algerian and Libyan traders. A Siwa song goes "Don't cry, my love! Many others have been in love. If you had really loved me, you wouldn t have left me . Siwa's people practise code switching alternating spontaneously between two or more dialects depending on the situation.

To conclude

With the approach of the night you almost hear that all men in Siwa are notables. Faces reveal more than history does. Dialect tells better than documents and records. It says that the oasis has been more than just a passage, better than a transit point and more important than just a destination. It was a sacred oasis in the past by virtue of the accounts of Amun's priests, but now it is more sacred, thanks to the efforts of those who are at great pains to plan for the future in which prophecies become a reality.


Ashraf Abul-Yazid


Siwa... The Sacred Oasis

A satellite photo of Egypt’s western desert where Siwa oasis is located. Scholars strongly disagree over the origin of these oases as nothing connects them to the sea. They suggested that Siwa separated by the force of winds

The geography of the oasis: Palm trees watered by freshwater springs and salt lakes as evidence of what the sea left there millions of years ago

Cycling is very popular among tourists who hire bikes at stands under the shade of trees to tour the oasis and among palm groves freely on dusty tracks. In addition, safaris are arranged using four-wheel-drive vehicles

In the uninhabited salt town. A mosque made of sand stands at the town’s gate. We recognized it though it has no minaret, for a simple reason- the mihrab, which still exists. A unique town which deserves to be added to UNESCO’s list

The sea receded millions of years ago and disappeared from Siwa’s geography, but its remnants bear witness to its everlasting presence. The remnants of limestone deposits at the bottom of the sea are seen at the first part of the great sand sea

Siwa is approximately 65 feet below sea level. It is said to have 300 springs and a quarter million palm trees. Legend has it that its land is so fertile that one orange tree produced 14,000 oranges! Also grown in Siwa are olives

On her wedding day, the bride in Siwa wears seven layers of clothes (the figure seven is a good omen) so as to wear a different dress each day of the first week of marriage: the closest to the body being thin white, next thin red, black, yellow,

The bride gets ready later to wear the traditional black wedding dress which is heavily embroidered with colour graphic designs round the neck and many buttons and mother-of-pearl, with small pictures of the sun to drive away the evil eye

The bride gets ready later to wear the traditional black wedding dress which is heavily embroidered with colour graphic designs round the neck and many buttons and mother-of-pearl, with small pictures of the sun to drive away the evil eye

Two pictures from a book by the eminent archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry which he published to document his explorations of Siwa begun 75 years ago. The pictures show inscriptions on in the Pharaonic tombs in the Mountain of the Dead

Tourists visit the Mountain of the Dead, with looted and protected tombs under their feet. The tombs were built in the mountain which overlooks the whole oasis

Tourists visit the Mountain of the Dead, with looted and protected tombs under their feet. The tombs were built in the mountain which overlooks the whole oasis

When Alexander was 13 and one of Aristotle’s disciples he heard exciting news about Amun’s priests in Siwa and their power of divination. He wanted to know who killed his father and sought a particular prophecy

There are a number of date factories in Siwa, most of whose ninety workers are women. This factory produces two varieties of dates. There are other famous white and red varieties, the sweetest and thinnest is called "Thiwa”!

There are a number of date factories in Siwa, most of whose ninety workers are women. This factory produces two varieties of dates. There are other famous white and red varieties, the sweetest and thinnest is called "Thiwa”!

There are a number of date factories in Siwa, most of whose ninety workers are women. This factory produces two varieties of dates. There are other famous white and red varieties, the sweetest and thinnest is called "Thiwa”!

There are a number of date factories in Siwa, most of whose ninety workers are women. This factory produces two varieties of dates. There are other famous white and red varieties, the sweetest and thinnest is called "Thiwa”!

This donkey-drawn cart is the equivalent of a taxi or private or popular car called "caroussa” in Siwa. However different in size of shape, it has one function: to carry passengers, often from the same family

Pictured are the researcher, the museum repository, and the front of Amun Temple at Um Obaida, built by Nakhtabu II of the 30th dynasty. Its only surviving wall carries inscriptions of religious rituals

Researcher Abdul-Aziz Al-Dumairy, in charge of the Ahmed Fakhry Museum Repository, Supreme Council of Antiquities, Egyptian Ministry of Culture. Where archaeological finds are kept until they go on display

Museum of Siwa’s Homes

Two freshwater and salt water pipes, used as a shower, too

Children from Siwa browsing Al-Arabi Al-Saghir in front of their house which is hedged in palm fronds

A young man drinks from a large jar used to purify and filter water and keep it cool. Two scenes of quiet life in that outlying oasis

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