The Siwa Oasis
Due to its remote location, being nearer to the Libyan borders than it is to Central Egypt and because of the diversity of its history and cultures, Siwa became the most famous and mysterious oasis in Egypt
The inhabitants living is Siwa were the most powerful people in all of the Egyptian oasis to defend their traditions and customs and perhaps their geographical location helped them to achieve this.
What is an Egyptian Oasis?
Oases are the "Islands of the Blest" as Herodotus, the famous Greek historian call them. The common definition of an oasis is an area, rich in water resources and located in the middle of the desert. However, concerning the Egyptian oases, located in the Western Desert, the concept of an oasis is rather more complicated.
Siwa, Farafra, Dakhla, Kharga, and Bahareya are not just luxuriant areas lying in the middle of the desert; they are a depression in a calcareous sandy plateau with many springs that are fed from the deep underground water. According to this concept, Al Fayoum will not be considered as an oasis because in spite being a depression in the desert, it takes its water resources from the River Nile and not from underground springs.
This means that an oasis has to be fed from the aquifer that is spread all over the entire Egyptian Western Dessert with a capacity of over 50,000 cubic kilometers of underground water.
The origin of the name Siwa
The mysterious origin of the name of the Siwa Oasis was never discovered by any scholar or historian that studied the history of this magnificent oasis. All what we know about the name "Siwa" is that it was first used during the 15th
Century. Before that period, Siwa, the same as most of the oases of Egypt
, was called
many names. Siwa was called the Oasis of Jupiter-Amun and Marmaricus Hammon, or the Field of Palm Trees by the Pharaohs and it was also called Santariya by the Arabs.
Siwa follows the rules and regulations of the governorate of Matruh, the district located at the far North West of Egypt
. Siwa is located exactly 270 kilometers south of the Mediterranean Sea and about 800 kilometers to the North West of Cairo. Putting in consideration that Luxor is only 721 kilometers to the South of Cairo, one can truly understand how far Siwa is from Central Egypt
especially with the desert located between the oasis and the Nile River Valley.
Siwa has a surface area of around 50 kilometers from the East to the West. The length of Siwa, from south to north is 8 kilometers. This makes it a relatively large oasis in comparison to the other oases of Egypt
The history of Siwa
Scientific researchers recently proved that inhabitants coming from different civilizations, located to the West of Siwa, lived in the Siwa Oasis since prehistoric times. These populations shared a lot of characteristics and the way of living with the people from Libya and North Africa.
Siwa always has held significant importance since the Old Kingdom because it always represented a vital transit point for Caravan trading between the River Nile in the East and the people living on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the West.
The importance of Siwa started growing immensely during the 26th Dynasty in the era of the New Kingdom. This was due to the fact that the Pharos built an important religious site near Siwa, the temple of the oracle of Amun. Caravans going to Siwa started to increase because all the people wanted to visit the temple of the oracle and ask the priests working there to predict different aspects of their future.
At the end of the 26th Dynasty, when a huge Persian army conquered Egypt
, their commander, Cambyses wanted to punish the Egyptians so he led his army to the desert route going to Siwa to destroy the temple of the Oracle. However, Cambyses and his whole army that consisted of 50,000 men with their weapons and heavy equipment disappeared in the Western Desert forming a mystery that was never solved until today. The Egyptians at the time claimed that this was the curse of the oracle that made Cambyses and his whole army vanish in the desert.
One important event, or maybe the most significant incident in the history of the remotely located oasis of Siwa was when Alexander the Great, after conquering Egypt
, wanted to visit the temple of the Oracle in 331 BC. After taking the advice of the oracle, Alexander claimed himself to be the son of the god Zeus Amun. This made a great difference to the ancient Egyptians accepting the rule of Alexander after knowing that he will not affect their ancient religious traditions. This was because most of the Pharaohs named themselves as sons of the different Pharaonic gods.
After the spread of Christianity in the 5th and 6th century AD, most of the temples and Pharonic religious sites in Siwa were mainly abandoned.
When the Arabs conquered Egypt in 640 AD, they went to seize Siwa and the commander of the army gave the inhabitants of Siwa, a tribe of the Amazeeg, three choices, the first is to join Islam, the second is to pay gratitude to the Arabs and live in their oasis peacefully, and the third choice was to leave the oasis without taking any of their belongings.
However, the people of Siwa were very intelligent as they asked the Arabs for three days to decide which choice they were going to take. On the dawn of the third day they took all their valuable items and fled to the west.
It was always hard for the various rulers that took control over Egypt
to make the people of Siwa abide by their rules and regulations. When Mohamed Ali ruled Egypt
, he had to send a large army in 1840 to Siwa to force the people living there to respect his rules.
The former Egyptian President, Anwar Al Sadat, paid a visit to Siwa in 1977 and he started paying attention to the needs of the people living there. He even granted the oasis with a helicopter in 1983 to enable transferring any emergency medical cases that needed immediate interventions.
The diverse and long history of Siwa affected the culture and the traditions of the inhabitants of the oasis forming a unique mixture of beliefs and customs that is hard to find anywhere else in Egypt
The most important touristic attractions in Siwa
The ancient town of Shali
The first recorded visit to old town of Shali, located near the Siwa Lake, was made in 1792 by the British traveler, William Browne. Shali was first inhibited in the 13th century by many Bedouins and Berbers. The houses of the town, which are now totally left in ruins, were constructed using local materials consisting of clay, salt, sand, and straw. This was why many people call Shali the city of mud.
The reasons why Shali was abandoned and destructed was never discovered through history, although there are many theories.
The first claims that after the rain storm hitting Siwa and the whole Northern West of Egypt
in 1926 and then in 1930, all the mud houses and constructions were weakened and then demolished.
Other Historians say that Shali was attacked by a group of Berbers and the people of the town had to escape and they took all what they could transfer with them. The only fact we are sure about is that the inhabitants of the town left it during the 20th century.
The streets in the town of Shali are very narrow and the doors of the houses are very small. Shali was designed that way to defend the town from the Berber and the Bedouins living all around them in the desert. The fort in the city was built out of mud bricks during the 12th and the 13th century to protect the town from other tribes in the areas after the food and water crisis that took place during the Roman Rule of that
Gebel Al Mawta
Gebel Al Mawta, or the mountain of the death, that consists of calcareous rocks is located just to the north of the ancient town of Shali. This mountain was used as a necropolis for quite a long period of time, starting from the 26th Dynasty of the Pharonic New Kingdom when the temple of the Oracle was constructed, to the Greco Roman period.
The most famous tomb in Gebel Al Mawta is that of Si-Amun belonging to the 3rd century BC. The walls of the tomb are richly decorated with many colorful scenes. There are also attractive portrait of Nut, the goddess of the sky on the ceiling of the tomb.
The other remarkable tombs in Gebel Al Mawta include Mesu-Isis, dating from the 3rd century BC, the same as Si-Amun. There are also some tombs that date back to the 26th dynasty including the tomb of the priest Niperpathot and the wonderfully colored so called tomb of the crocodile dating back to the Greco Roman period.
The Cleopatra Bath
This sight is the most important touristic attraction in the Siwa oasis. The locals call it "Ain Al Hamam" or the bath spring and ancient travelers called it the spring of the sun. The Cleopatra Bath is an amazing spring that is surrounded all over by palm trees. The spring is famous for its warm water that is beneficial in assisting to cure many illnesses and medical conditions.
It has to be pointed that any connection between this spring of water and the famous Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra, was never found or discovered. However, this is normal in Egypt
as there is the Cleopatra beach in Marsa Matruh, the city located to the North of Siwa, with no connection as well to the well known ancient Queen of Egypt
Aghurmi and the Temple of the Oracle
Located a few kilometers to the Northeast of Shali, the fortified village of Aghurmi was constructed over a rocky hill. The village was also abandoned the same as Shali for no known reasons. Inside the citadel that occupies the center of the village of Aghurmi, the ruins of the famous Temple of the Oracle of Amun are located.
Historians stated that the God Amun of the temple of the oracle in Siwa is not linked to the more famous god Amun of the Karnak in the East Bank of Luxor, although they both share a lot of common traits. However, the God Amun of Siwa was derived from a local god called Amman who was associated with the hot water springs of the Siwa.
The temple of the Oracle gained its fame from the visit of Alexander the great when he wanted gain confirmation of his claim of the throne of Egypt
The Temple of Um Ubayad
The ruins of the Temple of Um Ubayad are located near Aghurmi. This temple was built during the reign of Nectanebo II, (360—342 BC) the last Pharaoh of the 30th dynasty and the last native Pharaonic ruler of Egypt
Nothing remains of this interesting monument except a single wall that contains long inscriptions and decorated with many colorful reliefs. The rest of the temple was destroyed first by an earthquake in 1811 and then by the people themselves in 1897 for no given reasons.