Siwa Oasis

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Siwa Oasis
Siwa Oasis has many mud-brick buildings
Siwa Oasis has many mud-brick buildings
Location in Egypt
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Country  Egypt
Governorate Matruh
Time zone EST (UTC+2)

The Siwa Oasis (Siwi: Isiwan/ⵉⵙⵉⵡⴰⵏ; Arabic: واحة سيوة‎‎ Wāḥat Sīwah, IPA: [ˈwæːħet ˈsiːwæ]) is an oasis in Egypt, between the Qattara Depression and the Egyptian Sand Sea in the Libyan Desert, nearly 50 km (30 mi) east of the Libyan border, and 560 km (348 mi) from Cairo.[1][2][3] About 80 km (50 mi) in length and 20 km (12 mi) wide,[1] Siwa Oasis is one of Egypt's most isolated settlements, with 23,000 people, mostly Berbers[1] who developed a unique culture and a distinct language of the Berber family called Siwi.

Its fame lies primarily in its ancient role as the home to an oracle of Amon, the ruins of which are a popular tourist attraction which gave the oasis its ancient name Ammonium. Historically, it is part of Ancient Libya.


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The Siwa oasis is in a deep depression that reaches below sea level, to about −19 m.[4] To the west the Jaghbub oasis lies in a similar depression and to the east the large Qattara Depression also lies below sea level.


The oasis was called Ammonium in ancient times. Early Arab geographers termed it Santariyyah. Its modern name Siwa, first attested in the 15th century, is of uncertain origin. Basset [5] links it to a Berber tribal name swh attested further west in the early Islamic period, while Ilahiane,[6] following Chafik, links it to the Tashelhiyt Berber word asiwan, a type of bird of prey, and hence to Amon-Ra, one of whose symbols was the falcon.[citation needed]


The Siwa Oasis is vast, extending beyond the horizon
Site of Siwah Oasis in Egypt (top left)
File:Amun 2010.jpg
Last standing wall at the Temple of Amun at Umm 'Ubeida

Although the oasis is known to have been settled since at least the 10th millennium BC, the earliest evidence of connection with ancient Egypt is the 26th Dynasty, when a necropolis was established. During the Ptolemaid period of Egypt its ancient Egyptian name was sḫ.t-ỉm3w, "Field of Trees".[7] Greek settlers at Cyrene made contact with the oasis around the same time (7th century BC), and the oracle temple of Amun (Greek: Zeus Ammon), who, Herodotus was told, took the image here of a ram. Herodotus knew of a "fountain of the Sun" that ran coldest in the noontide heat.[8] During his campaign to conquer the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great reached the oasis, supposedly by following birds across the desert. The oracle, Alexander's court historians alleged, confirmed him as both a divine personage and the legitimate Pharaoh of Egypt, though Alexander's motives in making the excursion, following his founding of Alexandria, remain to some extent inscrutable and contested.[9]

Evidence of Christianity at Siwa is uncertain, but in 708 the Siwans resisted an Islamic army, and probably did not convert until the 12th century. A local manuscript mentions only seven families totaling 40 men living at the oasis in 1203.

In the 12th century Al-Idrisi mentions it as being inhabited mainly by Berbers, with an Arab minority, while a century before Al-Bakri stated that only Berbers lived there. The Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi travelled to Siwa in the 15th century and described how the language spoken there 'is similar to the language of the Zenata'.[10]

The first European to visit since Roman times was the English traveler William George Browne, who came in 1792 to see the ancient temple of the oracle.[1]

The oasis was officially added to Egypt by Muhammad Ali of Egypt in 1819. In the Spring of 1893, German explorer and photographer, Hermann Burchardt, took photographs of the architecture of the town of Siwa, now stored at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin.[11]

The Siwans are a Berber people, so demographically and culturally they were more closely related to nearby Libya, which has a large Berber population, than to Egypt, which has a negligible Berber population.[12] Consequently, Arab rule from distant Cairo was at first tenuous and marked by several revolts. Egypt began to assert firmer control after a 1928 visit to the Oasis by King Fu'ad, who berated the locals for "a certain vice" and specified punishments to bring Siwan behavior in line with Egyptian morals (see next section).

Siwa was also the site of some fighting during World War I and World War II. The British Army's Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was based here, but Rommel's Afrika Korps also took possession three times. German soldiers went skinny dipping in the lake of the oracle, contrary to local customs which prohibit public nudity.[13] In 1942 while the Italian 136th Infantry Division Giovani Fascisti occupied the oasis, a tiny Egyptian puppet government-in-exile was set up at Siwa. The oasis makes a brief appearance as a base of the LRDG in the 1958 war film Ice Cold in Alex.

File:Girl wearing the traditional dress of Siwa Oasis grinding salt.jpg
Girl wearing the traditional dress of Siwa grinding salt

The ancient fortress of Siwa, known as the Shali Ghadi ("Shali" being the name of the town, and "Ghadi" meaning remote), was built on natural rock (an inselberg) and made of kershif (salt and mud-brick)[1] and palm logs. After it was damaged by three days of heavy rains in 1926 [14] it was abandoned for similar unreinforced construction housing on the plain surrounding it, and in some cases those in turn have been replaced by more modern cinder block and sheet metal roof buildings. Only one building in the Shali complex has been repaired and is in use, a mosque. Gradually eroded by infrequent rains and slowly collapsing, the Shali remains a prominent feature, towering five stories above the modern town and lit at night by floodlights. It is most easily approached from its southwest side, south of the end of the paved road which curves around from the north side of the Shali. Several uneven pedestrian streets lead from the southwest end of the Shali into it, the ground rent in places by deep cracks. Many of the unreinforced kershif buildings bordering the streets of the Shali are also split by large cracks, or they are partially collapsed.

Other local historic sites of interest include: the remains of the oracle temple; the Gebel al Mawta (the Mountain of the Dead), a Roman-era necropolis featuring dozens of rock-cut tombs;[1] and "Cleopatra's Bath", an antique natural spring. The fragmentary remains of the oracle temple, with some inscriptions dating from the 4th century BC, lie within the ruins of Aghurmi. The revelations of the oracle fell into disrepute under the Roman occupation of Egypt.[1]

Siwan homosexual tradition

Siwa is of special interest to anthropologists and sociologists because of its historical acceptance of male homosexuality and even rituals celebrating same-sex marriage - traditions that the Egyptian authorities have sought to repress, with increasing success, since the early twentieth century. The practice probably arose because from ancient times unmarried men and adolescent boys were required to live and work together outside the town of Shali.

The German egyptologist Georg Steindorff explored the Oasis in 1900 and reported that homosexual relations were common and often extended to a form of marriage: "The feast of marrying a boy was celebrated with great pomp, and the money paid for a boy sometimes amounted to fifteen pounds, while the money paid for a woman was a little over one pound."[15] Mahmud Mohamrnad Abd Allah, writing of Siwan customs for the Harvard Peabody Museum in 1917, commented that although Siwan men could take up to four wives, "Siwan customs allow a man but one boy to whom he is bound by a stringent code of obligations."[16]

In 1937 the anthropologist Walter Cline wrote the first detailed ethnography of the Siwans in which he noted: "All normal Siwan men and boys practice sodomy...among themselves the natives are not ashamed of this; they talk about it as openly as they talk about love of women, and many if not most of their fights arise from homosexual competition....Prominent men lend their sons to each other. All Siwans know the matings which have taken place among their sheiks and their sheiks' sons....Most of the boys used in sodomy are between twelve and eighteen years of age." [17] After an expedition to Siwa, the archaeologist Count Byron de Prorok reported in 1937 "an enthusiasm [that] could not have been approached even in Sodom... Homosexuality was not merely rampant, it was raging...Every dancer had his boyfriend...[and] chiefs had harems of boys".[18]

In the late 1940s a Siwan merchant told the visiting British novelist Robin Maugham that the Siwan women were "badly neglected", but that Siwan men "will kill each other for boy. Never for a woman", although as Maugham noted, marriage to a boy had become illegal by then.[19] The Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry, who studied Siwa for three decades, observed in 1973 that "While the Siwans were still living inside their walled town, none of these bachelors was allowed to spend the night in the town and had to sleep outside the gates...Under such circumstances it is not surprising that homosexuality was common among them....Up to the year 1928, it was not unusual that some kind of written agreement, which was sometimes called a marriage contract, was made between two males; but since the visit of King Fu'ad to this oasis it has been completely forbidden...However, such agreements continued, but in great secrecy, and without the actual writing, until the end of World War II. Now the practice is not followed." [20]

Despite the multiplicity of sources for these practices, the Egyptian authorities and even the Siwan tribal elders have attempted to repress the historical and anthropological record. When the Siwa-born anthropologist Fathi Malim included reference to Siwan homosexuality (especially a love poem from a man to a youth) in his book Oasis Siwa (2001),[21] the tribal council demanded that he blank out the material in the current edition of the book and remove it from future editions, or be expelled from the community. Malim reluctantly agreed and physically deleted the passages in the first edition of his book, and excluded them from the second.[22] A newer book Siwa Past and Present (2005) by A. Dumairy, the Director of Siwa Antiquities, discreetly omits all mention of the famous historical practices of the inhabitants [23]


Köppen-Geiger climate classification system classifies its climate as hot desert (BWh),[24] as the rest of Egypt.

Climate data for Siwa
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) 19.3
Daily mean °C (°F) 12.1
Average low °C (°F) 5.6
Average precipitation mm (inches) 2
Average relative humidity (%) 56 50 46 38 34 33 37 41 44 50 56 59 45.33
Source: Climate Charts[25]


Agriculture is the main activity of modern Siwi, particularly the cultivation of dates and olives. Handicrafts like basketry are also of regional importance.[1]

Tourism has in recent decades become a vital source of income. Much attention has been given to creating hotels that use local materials and play on local styles.[28]


The traditional culture of Siwa shows many features unusual in Egypt, some reflecting its longstanding links with the Maghreb and the fact that the inhabitants are of Berber origin. Until a tarmac road was built to the Mediterranean coast in the 1980s Siwa’s only links with the outside world were by arduous camel tracks through the desert. These were used to export dates and olives, bring trade goods, or carry pilgrims on the route which linked the Maghreb to Cairo and hence to Mecca.[citation needed]

As a result of this isolation, the Berber inhabitants of the Oasis developed a unique culture manifested in its crafts of basketry, pottery, silverwork and embroidery and in its style of dress. The most visible and celebrated examples of this were the bridal silver and the ensemble of silver ornaments and beads that women wore in abundance to weddings and other ceremonies.[29] These pieces were decorated with symbols which related to Siwa’s history and beliefs and attitudes.[30]

The best known of these pieces are a huge silver disc called ‘adrim’ and a torc, called ‘aghraw’ from which it hung over the breast. A girl would give up the disc at a special ceremony at the Spring the day she was married. The jewellery, which was made by local silversmiths, comprised silver necklaces, earrings, bangles, hair ornaments, pendants and many rings.[31] For a wealthy woman, the full ensemble could weigh as much as five or six kilos. These pieces are decorated with symbols common to Berber people across North Africa designed to promote good health, fertility and to protect the wearer from misfortune. Some of the same signs and patterns are found on the embroidery which embellishes women’s dresses, trousers and shawls.[32]

The arrival of the road and of television exposed the oasis to the styles and fashions of the outside world and the traditional silver ornaments were gradually replaced by gold. Evidence of the old styles and traditions are however still in evidence in the women’s embroidery and costume.[33]


Like other Muslim Egyptians, Siwis celebrate Eid al-Fitr (lʕid ahakkik,"the Little Eid") and Eid al-Adha (lʕid azuwwar,"the Big Eid"). Unlike other Egyptians, however, on Id al-Adha Siwis cook the skin of the sheep (along with its innards) as a festival delicacy, after removing the hair.[34] They also eat palm hearts (agroz).[35]

The Siyaha Festival, in honour of the town's traditional patron saint Sidi Sulayman, is unique to Siwa. (The name is often misunderstood as a reference to "tourism", but in fact predates tourism.) On this occasion Siwi men meet together on a mountain near the town, Jabal Dakrour, to eat together, sing chants thanking God, and reconcile with one another; the women stay behind in the village, and celebrate with dancing, singing, and drums. The food for the festival is bought collectively, with funds gathered by the oasis' mosques.[36]

Siwi children traditionally also celebrated Ashura by lighting torches, singing, and exchanging sweets.[37] Adults' celebration was limited to the preparation of a large meal.[citation needed]

Relations with other ethnic groups

Siwis are preferentially endogamous, only rarely marrying non-Siwis.[38] Nonetheless, Bedouin brides command a higher brideprice in Siwa than Siwi ones.[39]

According to older members of the Awlad Ali Bedouins, Arab Bedouin relations with Siwis were traditionally mediated through a system of "friendship", whereby a specific Siwi (and his descendants) would be the friend of a specific Bedouin (and his descendants). The Bedouin would stay at the Siwi's house when he came to Siwa, and would exchange his animal products and grain for the Siwi's dates and olive oil.[40]

The material for the tarfutet, the distinctive all-enveloping shawl worn by Siwan women is still made in the town of Kirdasa near Cairo.[41]

Controversy on Jewish and Israeli tourists

In 2010, Siwa viewers complained to Al-Jazeera after Ibrahim Nasreddin, an Egyptian expert on African affairs, claimed on Al Jazeera's File (Al Milaff) program that Israel was forming ties with Siwa residents during the Siyaha Festival.

Partly in response to these complaints,[42] the program's host produced an episode about the history and Berber heritage of Siwa which aired on 5 November 2010. As part of the episode, six Siwa residents, including Bilal Ahmad Bilal Issa, an Egyptian MP (from Siwa), and Omar Abdallah Rajeh, Sheik of the Awlad Musa Tribe, responded to Nasreddin's claims. In their replies (as translated by MEMRI) the interviewees stated that there were no Jews or Israelis in Siwa, at the Siyaha Festival or otherwise, that Jews or Israelis are not welcome in Siwa as tourists and that they reject any relations with Jews/Israelis or even hate them; the reasons given were that they support the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and as such "view them as enemies".[43][44]


In the mid-20th century, Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry worked at Siwa (and elsewhere in the western desert).

In 1995, Greek archaeologist Liana Souvaltzi announced that she had identified one alleged tomb in Siwah with that of Alexander the Great. The claim was put in doubt by George Thomas, then general secretary of the Greek Ministry of Culture, who said that it was unclear whether the excavated structure was even a tomb or its style Macedonian, while the fragments of tablets shown did not support any of the translations provided by Souvaltzi.[45]

An extremely old hominid footprint was discovered in 2007 at Siwa Oasis. Egyptian scientists claimed it could be 2–3 million years old, which would make it the oldest fossilized hominid footprint ever found. However, no proof of this conjecture was ever presented.[46][47][48]

In late 2013, an announcement was made regarding the apparent Archaeoastronomy discovery of precise spring and fall Equinox sunrise alignments over the Aghurmi mound/Amun Oracle when viewed from Timasirayn temple in the Western Sahara desert, 12 km away across Lake Siwa. The first known recent public viewing of this event occurred on 21 March 2014 during the spring Equinox.[49]



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  7. Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache, ed. Adolf Erman, Hermann Grapow. Vol. IV, p.230; Vol. VI, p.141
  8. Herodotus, Histories, iv (on-line text).
  9. Alexander the Great, Robin Lane Fox, Allen Lane 1973/ Penguin 1986–2004, pp 200–218
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  11. Siwa, viewed from the east, by Hermann Burchardt; Siwa, eastern part; Siwa, western part; Siwa, viewed from the south; Siwa, main street.
  12. The eastern Arabo-Berbers, Libya, and the oases
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  28. Can a Desert Oasis Lead the Way to Sustainable Eco-Tourism in Egypt? Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Mar 01, 2010.
  29. Margaret Mary Vale, 2011, Sand and Silver, 71, 79–83.
  30. Margaret Mary Vale, 2011, Sand and Silver: Jewellery, Costume and Life in Siwa Oasis, London:Kelim
  31. Margaret Mary Vale, 2011, Sand and Silver, xiv, 32, 79–81, 87–99, 101–7.
  32. Margaret Mary Vale, 2011, Sand and Silver, 61–70.
  33. Margaret Mary Vale, 2011, Sand and Silver
  34. Ahmed Fakhry. 1973. Siwa Oasis, Cairo: AUC, p. 64
  35. Fathi Malim. 2001. Oasis Siwa: from the Inside. Traditions, customs, and magic. Al Katan / Dar al Kutub. p. 34
  36. Malim 2001:29
  37. Fakhry 1973:67
  38. Fathi Malim. 2001. Oasis Siwa: from the Inside. Traditions, customs, and magic. Al Katan / Dar al Kutub. pp. 38, 54
  39. ibid, p. 54
  40. Donald Powell Cole, Soraya Altorki. 1998. Bedouin, settlers, and holiday-makers: Egypt's changing northwest coast. Cairo: AUC. p. 143
  41. Margaret Mary Vale, 2011, Sand and Silver, p. 44
  42. "أما ثالث الأسباب فهي أن أهل سيوة اعترضوا على حلقة سابقة من برنامج الملف لأن أحد الضيوف تحدث عن علاقة وطيدة بين الإسرائيليين وهذه المناطق في الواحة المصرية" (ie: "the third reason is that some people of Siwa protested about a previous episode because one of the guests spoke of a strong relationship between Israelis and these parts of the Egyptian oases" The File: The Egyptian Oasis of Siwa: Hidden Heritage, Al Jazeera, 5 November 2010
  43. Egyptian Berbers Defend Themselves against Accusations of Being Jew-Lovers: We Can Smell if a Tourist Is Jewish, MEMRI, Clip No. 2686 (transcript), 5 November 2010
  44. #2686 – Egyptian Berbers Defend Themselves against Accusations of Being Jew-Lovers: We Can Smell if a Tourist Is Jewish, MEMRI, Clip No. 2686 (video), Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar), 5 November 2010.
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  46. Reuters: Human footprint may be oldest ever found 20 August 2007.
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