Siwa Oasis, Egypt: Visiting an Ancient Oracle
By Robin Graham
The Land of Palms
I won’t describe the views on either side of the road between Marsah and the oasis, because there aren’t any; just mile after endless mile of perfectly flat, featureless desert.
After hours on the straight road a kind of sensory deprivation is induced, an uneasy feeling of disorientation and of having been separated from the familiar and the safe.
By the time we pull up to the lodge, we will have been on the road for at least nine hours; five from Cairo to Marsah Matruh on Egypt’s Meditteranean coast and from there four hours south west, into the Sahara.
A bus service is available but we have been impatient and hired a driver. It will shave at least a half hour off the journey and is cheap at around thirty-five euros for this last three hundred-kilometer stretch.
Conscious that Siwa is already more connected to the outside world than it once was, especially since the completion of an asphalt road, the one we’re on, in the mid-eighties, we are also aware that Siwans have internet connections, and mobile phones, and plans to accommodate commercial flights at a nearby airport.
We have, however, bought wholeheartedly into the romance of this remote desert settlement, known in ancient Egypt as the Land of Palms, and home for centuries to the legendary Oracle of Amon, visited by Alexander the Great to seek legitimacy for his rule over Egypt.
A term like “harsh terrain” comes into its own here. You wouldn’t want to be lost. There are no landmarks or points of reference till you reach the half-way mark and a roadside cafeteria so isolated it has its own mosque.
A Group of Men in the Other Direction
Here we encounter a group of men traveling in the other direction. Our driver informs us in broken English that they are Siwans and speaking Siwi, their own Berber language and incomprehensible to him, a Bedouin inhabitant of Marsah, Siwa’s closest neighbor on this side of the Libyan border.
Night is falling as the road dips and descends into the oasis. It’s the day after Christmas and we catch our first glimpse, between buildings, of the crumbling Shali, the ancient fortress where Siwans once lived.
Midnight at the Spring
A few days later we are at Ayn al-Gubah, the Spring of Juba, a few kilometers from town. It’s New Year’s Eve and there is a gathering; fires are lit and goats roast over them on spits. A circle of Siwans play drums and pipes. One of them dances. The music is Berber and percussive, a folk music with a distinct, repetitive pattern.
We are deep in the date gardens of the oasis here and apart from a solitary streetlamp nearby, the only light comes from the fires. This is Amon territory, a temple erected in his honor mere steps away, and beyond that the Oracle itself, perched on the hill of Aghurmi. Alexander and his entourage cannot have failed to linger by this pool.
New Year means little to Siwans; most of us are visitors here. A well-heeled Englishman appalls K with his professions of spiritual affinity for the place, and we talk to a Dutch American couple who will leave for the Nile and Egypt “proper” in the morning.
It’s almost midnight and I dip my hand in the water; it’s hot to the touch. The spring is circular and hemmed in by a low wall. From time to time bubbles rise through clear water from its depths. This would presumably have contributed to the Greek historian Herodotus’ incorrect belief that the spring boiled at night and cooled in the heat of the day.
In fact the warm temperature is constant, but feels different to a cold hand at midnight than to a hot one in the afternoon. It’s also known as Ayn al-Hammam, the Spring of the Bath, but is referred to more often these days as Cleopatra’s Bath, a conceit of the local tourist board.
We are surrounded on all sides by date palms; where the spring makes a clearing in the groves the sky forms a starlit canopy. Some of the visitors are dancing around the fire suggestively, in a way I would have thought inappropriate in this conservative place.
Secrets of the Oasis
Siwa Shali, at the hub of the oasis, was the fortified home of Siwan families, and only they slept within its walls. Outside, in the date palm gardens, lived the Zaggalah.
They were men employed by wealthy Siwans to tend the gardens, and it was not permitted for them to marry before the age of forty. They constituted a separate social class in Siwan society, and for the Zaggalah, who would rarely see a woman, homosexuality was commonplace. Even formal marriages between man and boy were accepted.
King Fu’ad of Egypt, when he visited the oasis in 1928, wasted no time in pronouncing such behavior forbidden, the practice continuing in secrecy till as recently as the second world war until passing into history.
The Zaggalah were not all that was singular about Siwan life and custom. While their preferences and pleasures may have appeared at odds with Islamic mores, the role of women in the oasis has been notable for, if anything, an intensification of those mores.
Spend a week in Siwa, or a month, or a year; you may never see a Siwan woman’s face. Married women here rarely leave their home, except to visit relatives, and when they do, never alone. They wrap themselves entirely in the traditional Tarfottet, a blue embroidered garment made in the Nile Valley exclusively for the women of this oasis, that covers them head to foot.
For all their public modesty, Siwan women have long been famed for the finery of their costume and jewellery, the display of which is confined to private time and space. In Siwa, differences between what was and what is, between private and public, can be complex and contradictory.
The Sea that used to be an Ocean
I want to see the sea of sand. We take a 4×4 and a driver, Yussuf, out for the day. Just a few miles south of town we find ourselves in the midst of the parallel dunes, some of them as high as fifty meters.
This close to the oasis we are never quite alone; other 4×4’s bring visitors from town to Bir Wahed, around twenty kilometers south where there are hot and cold springs. It certainly isn’t crowded though; from a height you can see deep into the desert, nothing but dunes interspersed with rocky crags from the Qattara Depression to the Sudan.
At Bir Wahed, run-off from the hot spring is used to irrigate a small garden. The garden has brought birds, so we can sit here in the hot water, high dunes on all sides and listen to them sing.
Further south we find solitude as fossilized marine shells and life forms crunch underfoot. We should probably avoid stepping on them but they are everywhere. This place definitely isn’t what it used to be. It used to be an ocean.
We stop on the way back to Siwa and hike up to the crest of a dune to see the sun set. At close quarters the sand is as beguiling as it is in the distance.
Patterns are all around, the ephemeral results of wind and time. Some of them weren’t here yesterday and will be gone tomorrow. Others took longer, with all the time in the world out here undisturbed to take improbable shape at leisure.
The temple of the Oracle of Amon is set precariously on a cliff, at the edge of an inselberg – a rock hill – which is also home to the abandoned fortified village of Aghurmi. Extensive works have been undertaken to prevent, or at least postpone, its toppling.
From here you can look across a lush expanse of palms at the more substantial Siwa Shali, itself on a height about four kilometers away; like two islands on a green sea.
The location would have provided the necessary impact; in terms of scale the temple is unimpressive, enclosed by the remains of Aghurmi which, like Siwa Shali, has crumbled over time. The village was finally abandoned in the early twentieth century, after prolonged rainfall had caused the mud-mortared structures, built from broken bits of ancient temple, to collapse.
The floor plan of the temple reveals a hidden passage and a chamber in which it would have been possible for a priest to conceal himself in order to simulate the voice of the oracle. Whatever was said to Alexander here, he took it with him to his grave eight years later.
It’s our first morning in the oasis and we make a beeline, after a breakfast on the roof of bread, white cheese, omelette and olive jam, to the Shali.
The fortress towers above the center of Siwa town, around its base the bustling town square and market with its grocers, butchers, eateries and coffee shops; also a busy trade in handicrafts, a mobile telecom outlet, a flashy furniture showroom.
In the evenings particularly the square is a delight. Smoke and the aroma of barbecued meat season the air as does the scent of dark arab coffee, the sheesha, donkey dung, dates and diesel from the pickups and scooters that keep us on our toes.
It is here that the distinction between Siwan culture and that of Cairo and the Nile Valley is at its most striking. Vendors leave the visitor to his own devices and haggling, if it happens at all, is a laid-back, almost reluctant affair; just as I feel acclimatised to the high octane negotiations so essential in Cairo I find myself here, berating some perfectly amiable Siwan who hadn’t the slightest intention of discussing the price of the thing.
This morning we enter the Shali through al-Bab Inshal, its original gate, passing the Gama Atiq, an ancient mosque that is still used for prayer.
Much of the kershef (a mixture of salt rock and mud) structure has fallen in on itself, and in addition to damage caused by the forces of nature, many of the palm wood beams that would have held buildings together have been recycled by Siwans for new homes elsewhere.
We find ourselves drawn to the highest point and its views. From here we can look across the swathe of the old town towards the shali’s other summit. The following evening we will climb it to look back here, at the Shali’s tallest point, while the setting sun bathes it in red light.
In a ruinous state, the old town is neverthless beautiful. A sense-assaulting expanse of the past, it is physical evidence on a large scale of inexorable time and change in Siwa. Whatever this once was, it has been eroded both by weather and by the shifting sands of human need and aspiration.
Dotted around the ruins, particularly on the margins at the foot of the hill, new houses are appearing, built from kershef in the old style. Some of them put up, no doubt, to accommodate tourism but in harmony with the Shali itself.
The prospect of a resurrected Shali is exhilarating. A place not consumed by visitors but restored by them; it is a glimpse of a hopeful future for this magical place, but precarious, like Amon’s teetering temple.
is a freelance writer and photographer living in Dublin, Ireland. He has travelled extensively in Europe, Africa, the US and the Middle East. He and his fiancee, K, divide their time between Dublin, Bavaria, and southern Spain.
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