The oasis of Siwa is a small paradise with an overwhelming flora, 590 miles southwest of Alexandria, in the heart of the desert, between a rocky desert in the west, a sand desert in the east and the Qattara Depression in the northeast.
Siwa is situated in a closed basin with the lowest point lying 17m below sea level. It covers an area of 750 square kilometers with a length of 80km in east-west and a width of 25km in north-south direction.
Siwa town itself is fairly young. It lies immediately east of Shali, a typical Sahara mountain fortress, which served the local Berber people as their residence and, at the same time, their defence city. After having been destroyed in an environmental disaster in 1926, it and was gradually abandoned.
The systematic resettlement of the population of Shali to Siwa started in 1944 and
in 1962, Siwa received its town charter.
East of the ruins of the former fortress of Shali is the marketplace of Siwa.
North of this market most of the public facilities are situated such as mosques, city hall, police, bus station, bank, hospital, post office, telephone exchange, tourist information and the cultural centre with a theater.
North and east of this square there are also most of the restaurants, hotels, clinics, pharmacies, mini-marts, internet cafes and a gas station. In the south you find a spacious sports complex.
It is not a very big town. Most of the public transport even nowadays is still done by donkey cart.
The inhabitants of Siwa are Berbers mixed with Bedouins and the descendants of Sudanese slaves. The oasis has altogether about 25 000 inhabitants living in six settlements. The town of Siwa with about 12 000 inhabitants is the economic center of the oasis. The other places are Aghurmi, Abu Shuruf, Kamisa, Balad Al Rum and Bahi Al Din, in descending sequence according to their population.
The language spoken in Siwa is the Berber language Siwi, thus making the oasis a linguistic island, the only place in Egypt where the Berber language is spoken, with an independent cultural development.
Manners and customs of the inhabitants of Siwa which have survived till today seem rather strange even to Egyptians.
This culture is reflected – among others - in a rich and unique variety of craft products such as traditional clothing and silver jewellery, carpets, baskets and other household furniture.
Ever since early Pharaonic times, date palms and olive trees have formed the basis of life of the oasis inhabitants. Today, the estimated number of date palms is 300 000 and of olive trees 70 000.
For local consumption also vegetables are cultivated as well as figs, grapes, apricots, oranges and other agricultural products.
The name of Siwa is derived from the old Egyptian name of “Sekhetam” which means “land of palms”.
The oasis of Siwa has a long and eventful history. Finds of flint from the Neolithic period prove that the oasis was settled very early. At the time of the Pharaohs it was situated in the border area between the Egyptian and the Libyan peoples.
The oldest still existing ruin, the Temple of the Oracle of Amun, goes back to the time of the 26th dynasty of Pharaohs (663 – 525 BC) and was built by King Amosis. The Amun cult had a very strong influence on the people of the Mediterranean region for a long time.
The Persian King Cambyses tried to occupy Siwa and to destroy the temple. This was, however, prevented by the people of Siwa. After this campaign, the importance of the oracle of Siwa increased even more in comparison with other oracles (even the one of Delphi) and was visited regularly by high personalities of the ancient world.
Although the oracle was virtually abolished in 23 BC already, the temple was still in use in 160 AD. The actual end of the oracle operation can be dated back to the 3rd – 4th century AD. In the 6th century the temple was closed down because of the anti-heathen policy of the Roman emperor Justinian.
Christian elements can be found in Siwa from the 4th century on. In the 6th and 7th century, the oasis was subject to heavy military conflicts.
From 640-42 AD Muslim armies conquered Egypt and spread Islam throughout the country, the western desert, however, was spared. Only in the 11th century, Christianity was driven out of Siwa by Islam. Other sources date the definite replacement of Christianity by Islam at the 14th century.
It is due to the ”Siwa manuscript” only, written by a Briton named Brown in 1792, that we know all these details about the oasis of Siwa until that date. This manuscript contains very precise facts and explanations so that there can be no doubt about the historical accuracy. Since Brown’s visit in Siwa in 1792, there are precise records of the oasis.
In 1820 Siwa was incorporated into Egyptian national territory. Since then there were repeated rebellions of the Siwan people, all of which were put down by the Egyptian rulers.
Also during World War I and II, Siwa was repeatedly in the front line of the warring parties (such as Italians, Turks, Germans and British).
From 1911-12, the Italians occupied parts of Libya. They met, however, with heavy resistance from the Sinusi, a tribe who had settled in Siwa for some time. Thus, also Siwa was involved in this conflict.
The conflict escalated when the Sinusi and the Turks declared war on the Italians and the British during World War I.
During World War II, Siwa was the southernmost point in the British line of defence in Libya against the Italians. In July 1942, Italian troups occupied Siwa.
After visit of the German Africa Corps under the leadership of Rommel on the 21st of September, 1942, the Italian troups withdrew already in November of the same year.
The modern development of the oasis of Siwa begins with a visit by the Egyptian President Mubarak in 1996.