Siwa is the westernmost of the five major oases of Egypt and can be reached by car from Baharia or from Marsa Matruh, on the Mediterranean coast. It has15,000 inhabitants and lies in the interior of the country, near the border to Libya, at a depression of 18 metres below sea level. In comparison with the other oases, the most striking feature of the Siwan landscape is the
presence of several salt lakes, that diminish insize during the summer. The salt also impregnates the soil, creating a big problem. Mud bricks have been used for centuries to build entire village fortresses, such as Shali in Siwa, Qasr in Farafra, Qasr Dakhla in Dakhla and Qasr Kharga in Kharga. In recent times, all of them have suffered mainly from the rain rather than any human devastation. Shali, in particular, has now been reduced to an impressive and dangerous ruin due to the high content of salt in its mud bricks.
The oasis is 82 km long and has a width varying between 2 and 20 km. The economical base of the oasis is agriculture of which dates and olives are the principal produce. There are 300,000 date palms and 70,000 olive trees. The agriculture is fed by natural springs as well as a couple of artificial ones. In the recent decades, Siwa has suffered more and more from
increasing salification of the soil. The people are Berbers, and have their own language next to Arabic
They have preserved their traditions, culture, and language, known as Siwi, a variation of Tamazight. The language is also still spoken along the coastal zone west of Alexandria, but Siwa holds most of its speakers in Egypt. Their existence as a linguistic group is not marked in many demographic books
Siwa is surrounded by a number of minor oases. The small Qara Oasis, where Alexander is said to have camped on his way to Siwa, is very isolated and hosts only a small population. El-Harag, Baharein, Sitra and Nuwemisa are today abandoned, but groups of uninscribed rock-cut tombs suggest that the area was inhabited probably during Roman times. El-Harag lies in
vast and impressive depression where the rocks have wonderful colours and the landscape changes continuously, while the other three consist of small lakes surrounded by vegetation and set among rock outcrops and sand dunes.
In the 7th century BCE, the Oracle Temple of Amon was constructed. Siwa appears in Herodotus’ history of the Persian invasion of Egypt. After conquering the Nile Valley in 525 B.C., the Persian King Cambyses dispatched his troops to destroy the Siwan Oracle, for they dared to predict his death during his campaign. The entire army, Herodotus reports, was lost in
a sandstorm on its way to the oasis. When Alexander arrived in Egypt, after having
founded Alexandria, he headed to Siwa to consult the Oracle. After a dangerous trip, he finally reached the oasis and his effort was rewarded by the Oracle, who pronounced him a god.
After that, Alexander resumed his unstoppable conquest of the Middle East but when he died, his body was apparently returned to Egypt for burial either in Alexandria or Siwa. His tomb has never been found. During the Greco-Roman period, Siwa, like most of the other oases, flourished and reached its densest population. The inhabitants of that time were builders, farmers, herders and
traders. The Romans, who called Siwa Ammonium, established trade routes connecting the oasis with the Mediterranean. They dug wells and secured other roads to
the neighboring oases of Qara, Arag, Watia, Bahrein and Baharia. Traversed even today, these caravan routes pass by wells that have long since been dried and through oases that are no longer fertile.
When the Arabs came to Africa, they avoided the oases and their harsh way of life. For centuries Siwa was forgotten and only appeared in the monographs of some Arab geographers who described it as a poor desert settlement with salt fields and wild beasts. During this stretched history, the Siwans were left to face their
destiny amid the wilderness, completely isolated from and neglected by the flourishing civilization along the Nile. In1203 AD, the town of Shali was founded. In1792, after about 2,000 years of relative isolation, the first European visitor arrived to Siwa.
North-east of Siwa there is the vast Qattara depression, over one hundred metres below sea level, covered by salt. The region from Siwa to the Mediterranean coast was the scene of more than one battle during World War II, and the area of el-Alamein hosts memorials and war cemeteries for the thousands of British, German, Italian, Greek and South African soldiers who died or disappeared there.
To the tourist, Siwa offers a wide range of beautiful traditional products: baskets made of palm fronds and decorated with coloured threads, embroidered fabrics and dresses, and the famous and highly prized Siwan silver jewelry, including elaborate necklaces with pendants of various shapes, large incised bracelets and rings, and heavy earrings with chains and bells - being too heavy to be worn as earrings, they are left hanging on both sides of the head suspended from a leather strip. There is a lot to see in Siwa, but probably one of the most famous sites is Aghurmi, where the remains of the ancient Temple of the Oracle of Amun are found. The temple was built during the XXVI Dynasty of the Egyptian kings and the Oracle became one of the most important of the Greek world.