The Siwa Oasis is an urban oasis in Egypt between the Qattara Depression and the Great Sand Sea in the Western Desert, 50 km (30 mi) east of the Libyan border and 560 km (348 mi) from Cairo. About 80 km (50 mi) in length and 20 km (12 mi) wide, Siwa Oasis is one of Egypt’s most isolated settlements, with about 33,000 people. Mostly they are Berbers, who developed a unique and remote desert culture and a language called Siwi; they are also fluent in the Egyptian dialect of Arabi, “Masry”, meaning Egyptian.
Its fame derives primarily from its ancient role as the home to an oracle of Amun, the ruins of which are a popular tourist attraction which gave the oasis its ancient name Oasis of Amun Ra.
Geography of Siwa Oasis
The Siwa oasis is in a deep depression that reaches below sea level, about −19 metres (−62 ft). The Jaghbub oasis rests in a similar depression to the west, and to the east, the significant Qattara Depression is below sea level.
The Ancient Egyptian name of the oasis was sḫt jꜣmw, meaning “Field of Trees”. The native Libyan toponym may be preserved in the Egyptian t̠ꜣ(j) n d̠rw “tꜣj on the fringe” where t̠ꜣ transcribed the local Palaeo-Berber name *Se or *Sa. This name survived in the works of Muslim geographers as سنترية Santariyyah.
The etymology of the word سيوة Siwah is unclear. Champollion derives it from ⲥⲟⲟⲩϩ – a corruption of the Egyptian word for “oasis”, ⲟⲩⲁϩ. The additional evidence of the Egyptian source of Siwa’s name is another place name in Kharga Oasis that may share the same etymology – S.t-wȝḥ, modern Deir el-Hagar). Basset links it to a Berber tribal name swh attested further west in the early Islamic period. In contrast, Ilahiane, following Chafik, relates it to the Shilha Berber word asiwan, a type of bird of prey, and hence to Amun-Ra, one of whose symbols was the falcon. Some classical authors referred to the site as “Ammonium”.
Although the oasis is known to have been settled since at least the 10th millennium BC, the earliest evidence of any connection with Ancient Egypt is the 26th Dynasty, when a necropolis was established. Ancient 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 noontime heat.
Alexander the Great reached the oasis during his campaign to conquer the Persian Empire, supposedly by following birds across the desert. Alexander’s court historians alleged that the oracle confirmed him as both a divine personage and the legitimate Pharaoh of Egypt. However, Alexander’s motives in making the excursion following his founding of Alexandria remain mysterious and contested. During the Ptolemaic Kingdom, its Ancient Egyptian name was sḫ.t-ỉm3w, meaning “Field of Trees”.
Evidence of Christianity at Siwa is uncertain, but in 708, the Siwaians resisted an Islamic army and probably did not convert until the 12th century. A local manuscript mentions only seven families totalling 40 men living at the oasis in 1203.
In the 12th century, Al-Idrisi mentioned it as being inhabited mainly by Berbers, with an Arab minority; Al-Bakri stated that only Berbers lived there a century before. The Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi travelled to Siwa in the 15th century and described how the language is spoken there ‘is similar to the language of the Zenata’.
The first European to visit since Roman times was the English traveller William George Browne, who came in 1792 to see the ancient temple of the Oracle of Amun. In her description of the 19th-century explorer Luigi Robecchi Bricchetti, Bompiani called this site the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon.
Egyptian sovereignty was confirmed on Siwa 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.
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 Egypt, which has a negligible Berber population. 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 Fuad I, who criticised the locals for “a certain vice” and specified punishments to bring Siwan behaviour 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 oracle lake, contrary to local customs prohibiting public nudity. 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.
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) and palm logs. After the damage by three days of heavy rains in 1926, it was abandoned for similar unreinforced construction housing on the plain surrounding it. In some cases, those, in turn, have been replaced by a more modern cinder block and sheet metal roof buildings.
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 are partially collapsed. Only one building in the Shali complex has been repaired and uses a mosque.
Other local historical 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; 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.