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.
The material for the tarfutet – the distinctive all- enveloping shawl worn by Siwan women is still made in the town of Kirdasa near Cairo.
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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.
The Siwa oasis is located in a deep depression that extends
below sea level. This depression, an area lower than the
surrounding region, reaches to about -19 m. To the west the
Jaghbub lies in a similar depression and to the east the large
Qattara Depression also lies below sea level.
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.
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.
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 tarmacadamed 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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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. They also eat palm hearts (agroz).
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. This festival takes place on the first full moon of October, shortly after the grain harvest.
Siwi children traditionally also celebrated Ashura by lighting torches, singing, and exchanging sweets. Adults’ celebration was limited to the preparation of a large meal. Siwis are preferentially endogamous, only rarely marrying non-Siwis. Nonetheless, Bedouin brides command a higher brideprice in Siwa than Siwi ones.
Discover Siwa Oasis
The Siwa Oasis (Siwi: Isiwan; Arabic: واحة سيوة Wāḥat Sīwah, IPA: [ˈwæːħet ˈsiːwæ]) 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 Berbers-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.
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 to bring Siwan behavior in line with Egyptian morals.
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, 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.