Egypt - Siwa Oasis

Siwa Oasis (Siwi: Isiwan; Arabic: واحة سيوةWāḥat Sīwah) is an oasis in Egypt, located 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.

About 80 km (50 mi) in length and 20 km (12 mi) wide,Siwa Oasis is one of Egypt's most isolated settlements, with 23,000 people, mostly Berber speakers who speak a distinct language of the Berber family known as 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. Its modern name Siwa, first attested in the 15th century (earlier Arab geographers termed it Santariyyah), is of uncertain origin. Basset links it to a Berber tribal name swh attested further west in the early Islamic period, while Ilahiane, following Chafik, links it to the Tashelhiyt Berber word asiwan, a type of prey bird, and hence to Amon-Ra, one of whose symbols was the falcon.

Agriculture is the main activity of modern Siwi, particularly the cultivation of dates and olives. Handicrafts like basketry are also of regional importance. The isolation of the oasis caused the development of a unique culture which was shown in its pottery, costume, styles of embroidery and, most notably, in the silver jewellery worn by women to weddings and important occasions. These pieces were decorated with symbols which related to Siwa’s history and beliefs and attitudes. 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.

 

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". 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. 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. The Romans later used Siwa as a place of banishment.

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 similair to the language of the Zenata'.

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.

The oasis was officially added to Egypt by Muhammad Ali of Egypt in 1819. 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. 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 the site of some fighting during World War I and World War II. The British Army's Long Range Desert Group 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.

The ancient fortress of Siwa, built on natural rock (an inselberg), made of salt, mud-brick and palm logs and known as the Shali Ghadi ("Shali" being the name of the town, and "Ghadi" meaning remote), although now mostly abandoned and 'melted', remains a prominent feature, towering five stories above the modern town.

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;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.

Another attraction for tourists is Fatnas Island, which became a palm-fringed peninsula located on the edge of a saltwater lake.The lake had been partially drained in recent years because of a plan to limit the effect of rising water levels in Siwa due to agricultural runoff from uncontrolled wells (a major problem affecting the entire oasis); Fatnas Island is now surrounded mostly by mud flats.

 

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