With a population of 23,000, Siwa was, for a long time, the most inaccessible of all Egypt’s Oasis until very recently. It became an adventure travel destination once its notoriety began to rise. The region which lays some 60 feet below sea-level includes a rich history. Notably, Alexander the Great visited to consult the Oracle of Amun in 331 BC. Accomplished archaeologists, such as Liana Souvaltsis, have implied that the great general was buried here, but no factual evidence exists of this. Legends abound of mystical protections which cover the oasis.
The King of Persia is said to have led a 50,000 man army to destroy the oracle and then to have been witness to the destruction of his entire army at the hands of the blazing desert. Jimmy Dunn, in a History of the Siwa Oasis, described the regions early history saying:
Siwa, like the other Western Oasis, has had a number of different names over the millenniums. It was called Santariya by the ancient Arabs, as well as the Oasis of Jupiter-Amun, Marmaricus Hammon, the Field of Palm Trees and Santar by the ancient Egyptians..
We believe it was occupied as early as Paleolithic and Neolithic times, and some believe it was the capital of an ancient kingdom that may have included Qara, Arashieh and Bahrein. During Egypt’s Old Kingdom, it was a part of Tehenu, the Olive Land that may have extended as for east as Mareotis.
In many respects, the Siwa Oasis has little in common with the other Western Oasis. The Siwan people are mostly Berbers, the true Western Desert indigenous people, who once roamed the North African coast between Tunisia and Morocco. They inhabited the area as early as 10,000 BC, first moving towards the coast, but later inland as other conquering invaders arrived. Hence, Siwa is more North African sometimes then Egyptian and their language, traditions, rites, dress, decorations and tools differ from those of the other Western Oasis.
In fact, there is almost nothing known of the Siwa Oasis during Egypt’s ancient history. There have been no monuments discovered dating from the Old, Middle or New Kingdoms. It may have been colonized during the reign of Ramesses III, but evidence only exists beginning with the 26th Dynasty that it was part of the Egyptian empire. It was then that the Gebel el-Mawta Necropolis was established, which was in use through the Roman Period. In fact, some sources maintain that it remained an independed Sheikhdom ruled by a Libyan tribal chief until Roman times. The two temples that we know of, both dedicated to Amun, were established by Ahmose II and Nectanebo II.
The area has an agreeable climate: chilly in winter, hot in the summer and moderate in the spring and autumn. To the west of the town built here is a large saltwater lake, Lake Siwa. The town, famous for it’s dates and olives, is one of the most beautiful landscapes in all of Egypt. Olive Oil is still made in the ancient way of crushing the olives from the 70,000 olive trees in the area with stones. The dates are gathered by stick-bearers, known as zaggala, who are required to remain celibate until the age of forty. They care for the regions nearly 300,000 date trees.
Located on an ancient Berber caravan passage, the Oasis received few other visitors and retained much of its heritage. In fact, until the battles which took place around the oasis in World War II, it was hardly governed by Egypt, and remained mostly a Berber (Zenatiya) community for the prior thirteen centuries. Siwans, the people who populate the oasis, continue to have their own culture and customs and they speak a local language rather than Arabic. Each October there is a three-day festival during which Siwans must settle all of their past year’s disputes.
Though relaxing and far off the beaten path, the Shiwa Oasis is most certainly a part of the tourist community in Egypt. It is very traditional and visitors must keep this in mind when traveling to the area. Girls here are often married by the age of 14 and afterward are required to remain completely covered in clothing while in public. Most older women wear traditional costumes and sliver jewelry like that which is displayed in the Traditional Siwan House museum in the town center.
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