Siwa Oasis

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Siwa Oasis
Siwa Oasis has many mud-brick buildings
Siwa Oasis has many mud-brick buildings
Siwa Oasis is located in Egypt
Siwa Oasis
Siwa Oasis
Location in Egypt
Coordinates: 29°11′N 25°33′E / 29.183°N 25.550°E / 29.183; 25.550Coordinates: 29°11′N 25°33′E / 29.183°N 25.550°E / 29.183; 25.550
Country  Egypt
Governorate Matruh
Time zone EST (UTC+2)

The Siwa Oasis (Siwi: Isiwan; Arabic: واحة سيوةWāḥat Sīwah, IPA: [ˈwæːħet ˈsiːwæ]) is an oasis in Egypt, 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.[1][2][3]

About 80 km (50 mi) in length and 20 km (12 mi) wide,[1] Siwa Oasis is one of Egypt's most isolated settlements, with 23,000 people, mostly Berber speakers[1] 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 [4] links it to a Berber tribal name swh attested further west in the early Islamic period, while Ilahiane,[5] following Chafik, links it to the Tashelhiyt Berber word asiwan, a type of bird of prey, 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.[1] 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.[6] 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. It is hoped that an influx of Egyptian and foreign national visitors will begin to occur so as to be able to witness the recently discovered vernal and autumnal Equinox alignments between the obscure, remote desert temple known as Timasirayn and the Aghurmi mound/Amun Oracle.[7]

Geography[edit]

The Siwa oasis is in a deep depression that reaches below sea level, to about -19 m Ordnance Datum.[8] To the west the Jaghbub lies in a similar depression and to the east the large Qattara Depression also lies below sea level.

History[edit]

The Siwa Oasis is vast, extending beyond the horizon
Site of Siwah Oasis in Egypt (top left)
Last standing wall at the Temple of Amun at Umm 'Ubeida

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".[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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 similar to the language of the Zenata'.[12]

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.[1]

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 (LRDG) 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.[13] 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, built on natural rock (an inselberg), made of salt, mud-brick[1] 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;[1] 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.[1]

Another attraction for tourists is Fatnas Island, which became a palm-fringed peninsula on the edge of a saltwater lake.[citation needed] 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.

Siwan homosexual tradition[edit]

Siwa is of special interest to anthropologists and sociologists because of its historical acceptance of male homosexuality and even rituals of same-sex marriage—traditions that Egyptian authorities have sought to repress, with increasing success, since the early twentieth century. The practice probably arose because from ancient times unmarried men and adolescent boys were required to live and work together outside the town of Shali, secluded for several years from any access to available women.

The German egyptologist Georg Steindorff explored the Oasis in 1900 and reported that homosexual relations were common and often extended to a form of marriage: "The feast of marrying a boy was celebrated with great pomp, and the money paid for a boy sometimes amounted to fifteen pounds, while the money paid for a woman was a little over one pound."[14] Mahmud Mohamrnad Abd Allah, writing of Siwan customs for the Harvard Peabody Museum in 1917, commented that although Siwan men could take up to four wives, "Siwan customs allow a man but one boy to whom he is bound by a stringent code of obligations."[15] In 1937 the anthropologist Walter Cline wrote the first detailed ethnography of the Siwans in which he noted: ""All normal Siwan men and boys practice sodomy...among themselves the natives are not ashamed of this; they talk about it as openly as they talk about love of women, and many if not most of their fights arise from homosexual competition....Prominent men lend their sons to each other. All Siwans know the matings which have taken place among their sheiks and their sheiks' sons....Most of the boys used in sodomy are between twelve and eighteen years of age." [16] After an expedition to Siwa, the archaeologist Count Byron de Prorok reported in 1937 "an enthusiasm [that] could not have been approached even in Sodom... Homosexuality was not merely rampant, it was raging...Every dancer had his boyfriend...[and] chiefs had harems of boys.[17] In the late 1940s a Siwan merchant told the visiting British novelist Robin Maugham that the Siwan women were "badly neglected", but that Siwan men "will kill each other for boy. Never for a woman", although as Maugham noted, marriage to a boy had become illegal by then.[18] The Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry, who studied Siwa for three decades, observed in 1973 that "While the Siwans were still living inside their walled town, none of these bachelors was allowed to spend the night in the town and had to sleep outside the gates...Under such circumstances it is not surprising that homosexuality was common among them....Up to the year 1928, it was not unusual that some kind of written agreement, which was sometimes called a marriage contract, was made between two males; but since the visit of King Fu'ad to this oasis it has been completely forbidden...However, such agreements continued, but in great secrecy, and without the actual writing, until the end of World War II. Now the practice is not followed." [19]

Despite the multiplicity of sources for these practices, the Egyptian authorities and even the Siwan tribal elders have attempted to repress the historical and anthropological record. When the Siwa-born anthropologist Fathi Malim included reference to Siwan homosexuality (especially a love poem from a man to a youth) in his book Oasis Siwa (2001),[20] the tribal council demanded that he blank out the material in the current edition of the book and remove it from future editions, or be expelled from the community. Malim reluctantly agreed and physically deleted the passages in the first edition of his book, and excluded them from the second.[21] A newer book Siwa Past and Present (2005) by A. Dumairy, the Director of Siwa Antiquities, discreetly omits all mention of the famous historical practices of the inhabitants [22]

Agriculture[edit]

Siwa is popular for its palm and olive trees, producing huge volumes of dates and olives. Extra virgin olive oil is one of Siwa's popular products used in Egypt and exported to Europe. Mulukhiyah, a plant from the jute family which is widely consumed as a vegetable in Egypt, is also produced at the oasis.

Climate[edit]

Köppen-Geiger climate classification system classifies its climate as hot desert (BWh),[23] as the rest of Egypt.

Climate data for Siwa
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) 19.3
(66.7)
21.5
(70.7)
24.5
(76.1)
29.9
(85.8)
34
(93)
37.5
(99.5)
37.5
(99.5)
37
(99)
34.6
(94.3)
30.5
(86.9)
25
(77)
20.5
(68.9)
29.32
(84.78)
Daily mean °C (°F) 12.1
(53.8)
14
(57)
17.3
(63.1)
21.9
(71.4)
25.8
(78.4)
29.2
(84.6)
29.9
(85.8)
29.4
(84.9)
27.1
(80.8)
22.8
(73)
17.3
(63.1)
13.2
(55.8)
21.67
(71.01)
Average low °C (°F) 5.6
(42.1)
7.1
(44.8)
10.1
(50.2)
13.7
(56.7)
17.8
(64)
20.4
(68.7)
21.7
(71.1)
21.4
(70.5)
19.5
(67.1)
15.5
(59.9)
10.2
(50.4)
6.5
(43.7)
14.12
(57.42)
Precipitation mm (inches) 2
(0.08)
1
(0.04)
2
(0.08)
1
(0.04)
1
(0.04)
0
(0)
0
(0)
0
(0)
0
(0)
0
(0)
2
(0.08)
1
(0.04)
10
(0.4)
 % humidity 56 50 46 38 34 33 37 41 44 50 56 59 45.33
Source: Climate Charts[24]

Culture[edit]

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 tarmac 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.[27]

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.[28] 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.[29]

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.[30]

Festivals[edit]

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.[31] They also eat palm hearts (agroz).[32]

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.[33] 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.[34] Adults' celebration was limited to the preparation of a large meal.

Relations with other ethnic groups[edit]

Siwis are preferentially endogamous, only rarely marrying non-Siwis.[35] Nonetheless, Bedouin brides command a higher brideprice in Siwa than Siwi ones.[36]

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.[37]

The material for the tarfutet, the distinctive all-enveloping shawl worn by Siwan women is still made in the town of Kirdasa near Cairo.[38]

Controversy on Israeli or Jewish tourists[edit]

In 2010, Siwa viewers complained to Al-Jazeera after Ibrahim Nasreddin, an Egyptian expert on African affairs, claimed on Al Jazeera's File (Al Milaff) program that Israel was forming ties with Siwa residents during the Siyaha Festival.

Partly in response to these complaints,[39] the program's host produced an episode about the history and Berber heritage of Siwa which aired on November 5, 2010. As part of the episode, six Siwa residents, including Bilal Ahmad Bilal Issa, an Egyptian MP (from Siwa), and Omar Abdallah Rajeh, Sheik of the Awlad Musa Tribe, responded to Nasreddin's claims. In their replies (as translated by MEMRI) the interviewees stated that there were no Jews or Israelis in Siwa, at the Siyaha Festival or otherwise, that Jews or Israelis are not welcome in Siwa as tourists and that they reject any relations with Jews/Israelis or even hate them; the reasons given were that they support the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and as such "view them as enemies." Bilal Issa stated that "Siwa residents despise the Israelis" while Sheik Rajeh stated that "Siwa residents will not accept any relations whatsoever with the Jews".[40][41]

Archaeology[edit]

An extremely old hominid footprint was discovered in 2007 at Siwa Oasis. It was claimed by Egyptian scientists to have the possible age of 2-3 million years old, which would make it the oldest fossilized hominid footprint ever found. However, no proof of this conjecture was ever presented.[42][43][44]

Ahmed Fakhry, the famous Egyptian archaeologist, worked at this site.

In 1995 Greek archaeologist Liana Souvaltzi announced she identified one alleged tomb in Siwah with that of Alexander the Great. The claim was put in doubt by the then-general secretary of the Greek Ministry of Culture, George Thomas, who said that it was unclear if the excavated structure is even a tomb, nor its style was Macedonian, whereas the fragments of tablets shown did not support any of the translations provided by Souvaltzi.[45]

In late 2013, an announcement was made regarding the surprise Archaeoastronomy discovery of precise spring and fall Equinox sunrise alignments over the Aghurmi mound/Amun Oracle when viewed from Timasirayn temple in the Western Sahara desert, 12 km away across Lake Siwa. The first public viewing of this event occurred on March 21, 2014 during the spring Equinox. This major discovery now places Timasirayn and Siwa Oasis in the same company as other famous Equinox aligned temples and locations such as Angkor Wat (Cambodia); Tikal (Guatemala); Chichen Itza (El Castillo, Mexico); and the Pyramid of the Sun (Teotihuacan, Mexico).[46]

Gallery[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "Siwa", Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007 
  2. ^ Bard, Kathryn A.; Shubert, Steven Blake, eds. (1999), Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, Routledge (UK), ISBN 978-0-415-18589-9, ISBN 0-415-18589-0 
  3. ^ Arnold, Dieter; Strudwick, Helen; Strudwick, Nigel, eds. (2003), The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture, I B Tauris, ISBN 978-1-86064-465-8, ISBN 1-86064-465-1 
  4. ^ Basset, René (1890), Le dialecte de Syouah, Paris: Ernest Leroux, p. 3 
  5. ^ Ilahiane, Hsain (2006), "Siwa Oasis", Historical dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen), Historical dictionaries of peoples and cultures 5, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc, p. 111, ISBN 978-0-8108-5452-9 
  6. ^ Margaret Mary Vale, 2011, Sand and Silver: Jewellery, Costume and Life in Siwa Oasis, London:Kelim
  7. ^ http://thesourceinthesahara.com.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  8. ^ "Elevation data by NASA's SRTM". .jpl.nasa.gov. 2009-06-17. doi:10.1029/2005RG000183. Retrieved 2012-06-30. 
  9. ^ Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache, ed. Adolf Erman, Hermann Grapow. Vol. IV, p.230; Vol. VI, p.141
  10. ^ Herodotus, Histories, iv (on-line text).
  11. ^ Alexander the Great, Robin Lane Fox, Allen Lane 1973/ Penguin 1986-2004, pp 200-218
  12. ^ "Grammatical Contact In The Sahara". Retrieved 2012-06-30. 
  13. ^ "Siwa Oasis". Byebyenet.com. Retrieved 2012-06-30. 
  14. ^ Steindorff, George (1904). Durch die Libysche Wuste Zur Amonoase. Leipsig: Velohgen and Klasing. p. 111. 
  15. ^ Allah, Abd (1917). "Siwan Customs". Harvard African Studies 7. 
  16. ^ Cline, Walter (1936, p 43). Notes on the People of Siwa. Menasha, Wisconsin, USA: George Banta Publishing Co. 
  17. ^ De Porok, Count Byron (1936 p 64). In Quest of Lost Worlds. New York: Dutton. 
  18. ^ Maugham, Robin (1950 p80). Journey to Siwa. London: Chapman and Hall. 
  19. ^ Fakhry, Ahmed (1973). Siwa Oasis. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press. pp. 41–43. 
  20. ^ Malim, Fathi (2001). Oasis Siwa from the Inside. Siwa. 
  21. ^ "Siwan anthropologist sparks controversy". Cultural Survival. Retrieved November 14, 2002. 
  22. ^ Dumairy, A. (2005). Siwa Past and Present. Alexandria. 
  23. ^ "Climate Siwa - Climate graph, Temperature graph, Climate table (altitude: −15m)". Climate-Data.org. Retrieved 19 October 2013. 
  24. ^ "Siwa, Egypt: Climate, Global Warming, and Daylight Charts and Data". Climate Charts. Retrieved 19 October 2013. 
  25. ^ "Weather for Siwa Oasis, Egypt - Climate". Storm247.com. Retrieved 19 October 2013. 
  26. ^ "Weather for Markaz Siwa, Egypt - Climate". Storm247.com. Retrieved 19 October 2013. 
  27. ^ Margaret Mary Vale, 2011, Sand and Silver, 71, 79-83.
  28. ^ Margaret Mary Vale, 2011, Sand and Silver, xiv, 32, 79-81, 87-99, 101-7.
  29. ^ Margaret Mary Vale, 2011, Sand and Silver, 61-70.
  30. ^ Margaret Mary Vale, 2011, Sand and Silver
  31. ^ Ahmed Fakhry. 1973. Siwa Oasis, Cairo: AUC, p. 64
  32. ^ Fathi Malim. 2001. Oasis Siwa: from the Inside. Traditions, customs, and magic. Al Katan / Dar al Kutub. p. 34
  33. ^ Malim 2001:29
  34. ^ Fakhry 1973:67
  35. ^ Fathi Malim. 2001. Oasis Siwa: from the Inside. Traditions, customs, and magic. Al Katan / Dar al Kutub. pp. 38, 54
  36. ^ ibid, p. 54
  37. ^ Donald Powell Cole, Soraya Altorki. 1998. Bedouin, settlers, and holiday-makers: Egypt's changing northwest coast. Cairo: AUC. p. 143
  38. ^ Margaret Mary Vale, 2011, Sand and Silver, p. 44
  39. ^ "أما ثالث الأسباب فهي أن أهل سيوة اعترضوا على حلقة سابقة من برنامج الملف لأن أحد الضيوف تحدث عن علاقة وطيدة بين الإسرائيليين وهذه المناطق في الواحة المصرية" (ie: "the third reason is that some people of Siwa protested about a previous episode because one of the guests spoke of a strong relationship between Israelis and these parts of the Egyptian oases" The File: The Egyptian Oasis of Siwa: Hidden Heritage, Al Jazeera, 5/11/2010
  40. ^ Egyptian Berbers Defend Themselves against Accusations of Being Jew-Lovers: We Can Smell if a Tourist Is Jewish, MEMRI, Clip No. 2686 (transcript), November 5, 2010
  41. ^ #2686 - Egyptian Berbers Defend Themselves against Accusations of Being Jew-Lovers: We Can Smell if a Tourist Is Jewish, MEMRI, Clip No. 2686 (video), Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar), November 5, 2010.
  42. ^ Reuters: Human footprint may be oldest ever found August 20, 2007.
  43. ^ "Egypt footprint 'could be oldest'". BBC News. August 21, 2007. 
  44. ^ "Oldest Human Footprints With Modern Anatomy Found". News.nationalgeographic.com. 2010-10-28. Retrieved 2012-06-30. 
  45. ^ "No evidence seen of Alexander's tomb, Greeks say". The Baltimore Sun. February 6, 1995. Retrieved 1 November 2013. 
  46. ^ url=http://thesourceinthesahara.com

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]