The Siwa Oasis is located between the Qattara Depression and the Egyptian Sand Sea in the Libyan Desert, approximately 50 km east of the Libyan border, and some 560 km from Cairo.
About 80 km in length and 20 km wide, it is one of Egypt’s most isolated settlements, home to about 23,000 people, the majority of whom are ethnic Berbers who speak a distinct language known as Siwi. Agriculture is the main activity, primarily the growing of dates and olives.
Although the oasis is known to have been settled since at least the 10th millennium BC, there is no evidence of any connection with ancient Egypt until the 26th Dynasty, when a necropolis was established. Greek settlers at Cyrene made contact with the oasis around the same time (7th century BC), and soon the oracle of Amen became famous; the oracle is said to have confirmed Alexander the Great as both a divine personnage and the legitimate Pharaoh of Egypt during a visit made prior to his campaign of conquest in Persia. According to legend, Emperor Cambyses of Persia vowed to destroy the Oracle of Amen, who has favored his arch enemy Alexander the Great. Having conquered Egypt, Cambyses sent a 50,000 man army to Siwa, only to be buried in its entirety by a fierce sandstorm. The Romans later used Siwa as a place of banishment. Evidence of Christianity at Siwa is dubious, but in 708 the Siwans resisted an Islamic army, and probably did not convert until 12th century. A report of 1203 mentions only seven families totalling 40 men living at the oasis, but later the population grew to 600.
The first European to visit in modern times was W. G. Browne, who came in 1792 to see the ancient temple of the oracle. The oasis was officially added to Egypt by Muhammad Ali of Egypt in 1819, but his rule was tenuous and marked by several revolts.
Siwa was the site of some fighting during World War I and World War II. The British Army’s Long Range Desert Group was based here, but also Rommel’s Afrika Korps took possession three times. German soldiers went skinny dipping in the lake of the oracle, which was considered a sacrilege. Soon after, the Germans were defeated.
The ancient fortress of Siwa, built of natural rock salt, mud brick and palm logs and known as the Shali Ghali (“Shali” for city, and “Ghali”, dear), although now mostly abandoned, remains a prominent feature, towering five storeys above the modern town. Other local historic sites of interest include the remains of the oracle temple, Gebel al Mawta (the Mountain of the Dead) a Roman-era necropolis featuring dozens of rock-cut tombs and “Cleopatra’s Bath” a natural sulphur spring. Another attraction is Fatnas Island, a palm-fringed peninsula located on the edge of a freshwater lake. The lake has largely been drained in recent years due to intensive agricultural usage – a major problem affecting the entire oasis – and the “island” is now surrounded largely by mud flats. It remains a popular with tourists on visits coinciding with sunset.
By bus – Buses in and out of Siwa arrive / depart from the West Delta bus station located on the main square of Siwa Town. Buses servicing the route to Marsa Matruh and on to Alexandria leave thrice daily at 7am, 5pm and 10pm. Booking ahead is well advised.
By taxi – No official shared / service taxi station exists in Siwa, but those sheruts making the journey for Marsa Matruh leave from in front of Abdu’s Restaurant, across from the Yousef Hotel. Most departures occur early in the evening, but ask around to confirm this on the day. Budget on LE 20 at least.
• Siwa Town and the Shali
• Temple of the Oracle – situated on the hill of Aghurmi, about 4 km east of Siwa Town
• Temple of Amen (also known as the Temple of Umm Ubaydah) – some 200 m further along the track from the Temple of the Oracle, this structure is almost completely destroyed, owing to its dynamiting in 1896 by an Ottoman governor eager to acquire building material. An inscribed wall represents all that remains to be seen. Based on earlier drawings by pioneer explorers, however, scholars have deduced that the temple was erected by the pharaoh Nectanebo of the 30th Dynasty.
• Cleopatra’s Bath – a natural spring feeds this rock pool, a popular swimming hole for locals and visitors alike
• Gebel el-Mawta (the Mountain of the Dead), tombs open when the guardians are present, daily 7am-2pm (Fridays 7am-12noon), baksheesh expected – located about 1 km north of the centre of Siwa Town, this hill features a large number of rock cut tombs, mostly dating back to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods (3rd century BCE – 2nd century CE)