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 year.
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.
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.