According to scientific research dating from the beginning of the last century, Siwa oasis was populated in prehistoric times by people who came from civilisations further west. Their culture and way of life shared much with those of Libya, North Africa and the Nile valley.
Since ancient times, from the Greek to Roman eras and on to the Middle Ages, the oasis was referred to by a variety of names as witnessed by various inscriptions unearthed in temples and on tombs. The more recent name Siwa was derived from the name of the indigenous Ti-Swa tribe.
The ancient oasis of Siwa was crucial to the trade caravans which crossed the desert from the Nile valley in the east to the Mediterranean harbours of Libya in the west. Such was its importance that traders from the southern oases and central Africa were frequent visitors. Siwa also prospered as a religious centre, with many kings sending delegates to consult the Oracle of Amun.
The era of the 26th Dynasty drew to a close with the invasion of a Persian army led by Cambesis – though his 50,000-strong force was later to vanish in a desert sandstorm, leaving no trace behind.
The Oracle of Amun derives much of its fame from Alexander the Great’s visit in 331 BC. After consulting the oracle, he claimed to be the son of the god Zeus Amun, and so chose to be buried in Siwa.
Siwa started to go into decline around the sixth century AD, when many of the pagan temples in Siwa fell out of use thanks to the spread of Christianity. This period coincided with the collapse of the Roman Empire and the area’s degeneration into anarchy which culminated in the Arabian invasion of Egypt in 640 AD.
At the height of Siwa’s glory, change was swift and the rewards to victorious assailants were potentially very high. In the eighth century, the Arabian army arrived to conquer Siwa. The inhabitants, an ancient tribe of Amazigh people under Roman rule, were confronted by the Arabian army and given three choices; one, to join the Arabians, two, to pay them tribute and live in peace, or three, to fight for their land.
The clever natives bought themselves time by asking for three days to choose their answer. During this three-day period they gathered together all their riches (such as gold, jewellery, precious stones, and Pharaonic treasures). Then, on the last day, they fled west with all they could carry. Leaving all their heaviest treasures behind, they hid them from the Arabian soldiers and cast spells so that they would be guarded in their absence by the magical powers of their genie.
At the time, there was a drought throughout the countries of northwestern Africa, so the Amazigh people set off eastwards, in caravan formation, searching for grass and water. Then, travelling through the scorching sands of the Western Desert, they found the answer to their dreams – the beautiful oasis of Siwa, with natural springs and fields of apricot, olive, and palm trees, all singing with life.
The Amazigh people decided to make their home here and sent word back west to Algeria and Morocco for their families to come and join them to strengthen the tribe’s power and claim on this fertile land. The first city was named Ami Misalum and built in the lowlands of the oasis. However, this left the Amazigh vulnerable both to attacks from hostile forces and to mosquitoes. So, in 1103 AD they built a strong citadel on the hilltop to protect themselves and their unique culture and made this their kingdom.
New laws and rules were instituted which, along with the more secure location, allowed the tribal chiefs to govern Siwa as an independent state for hundreds of years. For example, in order to irrigate their lands throughout the night, gardeners had to seek permission from the chiefs before the Zagala (‘strong youth’) guards would open up sthe citadel’s doors.
In 1840, however, the independence of Siwa was challenged by the famed tyrant and Turkish ruler, Mohamed Ali. He sent his Egyptian army to Siwa, seeking tribute and the submission of its people to his rule. The Siwans dug a trench around the base of Shali to prevent the Egyptian army from attacking, but Ali fired rockets at the citadel, causing great destruction. He also commanded General Hussein Bek Ashamashurgi to invite seventy-two of the highest local chieftains to a meeting where they were promptly killed. So the Siwans were forced to submit.
a new system of Egyptian government was imposed and the Siwans suffered many hardships, such as paying a one piastre tax for every palm tree in the oasis. This continued until 1950 when a Bedouin businessman bought all the dates in Siwa and paid all the state taxes on the trees.
The police chief responsible for the administration of Siwa, El Misseri, then took control of the oasis. The Siwan people had grown dates from the palm trees to feed the poor and to send money to Mecca to help the nation of Islam. But under Misseri’s control, the sheikhs were forced to sign over the trees to him and he took the proceeds from the sale of the dates for his own gain. This lasted for four years.
The new challenge for Siwa was how to open up to the world. In 1977, president Mohamed Anwar Sadat visited the oasis and showed great sympathy towards the people. Later, in 1983, he gave the Siwans a helicopter to make access to the rest of Egypt easier. This helicopter was for medical purposes and the transport of necessary commodities. (I had the chance to fly in this helicopter when I was just baby Mohamed.) We now have educational support with many schools, starting from elementary school, all the way to preparation for university. The provision of child and youth services and activities was also instituted.
Siwa’s changing fortunes have been reflected in the fluctuations of its population levels, from forty in the twelfth century AD to some three thousand at the time of Mohammed Ali’s invasion in 1805. Siwa continues to expand, and the population is currently calculated to be around twenty thousand and growing.