Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Siwa: The rise and fall of kings

Al-Ahram Weekly photographer visits Egypt’s Siwa Oasis and recounts its ancient history

Siwa: The rise and fall of kings

It’s a long ride to Siwa, but I always say it’s worth the time spent on the road. This oasis of grandeur and magnificence in the Western Desert is a perpetual source of inspiration for a photographer like myself. It’s true that the Siwa Oasis is approximately 700km west of Cairo, but the journey is easier if you take a break in the Marsa Matrouh rest house on the way.

Arriving in Siwa this time round, my guide Yehia received me on his tricycle, what the oasis inhabitants call a tok-tok, to take me to an ecolodge built of karshif. This elegant-looking material is made of salt rock from the White Mountain near the Great Siwa Lake. It is very solid and keeps in the heat in winter, and together with palm fronds it is the material out of which traditional Siwan houses are built.

Siwa: The rise and fall of kings

However, today only two men, both over 70 years of age, know the secret of building with karshif, and this is why newer Siwan buildings are made of white stone and cement — very ugly in comparison to the traditional karshif houses.

I went to visit Hagg Hamza, one of the two men who are experts in building with karshif. He told me that less of the material was being taken from the mountain today, and its price had also soared. This was why builders were not learning to build with karshif anymore, he said, resorting instead to white stone and cement.

Siwa: The rise and fall of kings

Hagg Hamza’s son added that karshif houses needed to be inhabited all the time so that the floors were continuously put under pressure and the groundwater did not separate the house from the ground. “We can’t use karshif to build houses more than a few storeys high, so we use cement and bricks instead,” he said.

While we were chatting, Hagg Hamza was busy restoring a wall with karshif. Using none of the familiar engineering tools, he said he had the experience needed to build without using a spirit level. There is an old mosque in the centre of the oasis that Hagg Hamza claims he built on his own without using such tools. His son nodded in agreement.

Sipping delicious aromatic Siwan tea with Hagg Hamza, I couldn’t help but fear the disappearance of Siwa’s legacy of distinctive karshif buildings. I recalled the devastation of the village built by the architect Hassan Fathi near Luxor when urban development killed off the heritage the village had long preserved. However, in Siwa the government has made sure that all its official buildings, even the police station, are made of karshif. Maybe Siwa still has a chance after all.

Siwa: The rise and fall of kings

Top of my list of visits in Siwa was the Temple of Amun, which is dedicated to the Oracle of this ancient Egyptian god. Legend has it that Cambyses II, who ruled Egypt in 525 BCE, sent a 50,000-strong army to kill the Oracle and destroy the temple. The army was halfway across the Western Desert when a massive sandstorm blew up and buried all the soldiers.

Many expeditions have since attempted to find the Lost Army of Cambyses. These have included that of Count Laszlo Almasy, on which the successful film The English Patient was based. In 1983, a six-month search for the remains of the soldiers was sponsored by Harvard University along with the National Geographic Society and the Egyptian Geological Survey and Mining Authority. Costing $250,000 at the time, the expedition discovered 500 graves, some of them containing bone fragments.

However, studies of the fragments revealed that they dated back to 1500 BCE, or approximately 1,000 years before the journey of Cambyses’s army across the Western Desert.

But the fascinating history of the Temple of Amun doesn’t end there, for it is said that Alexander the Great trusted the opinions of the Siwa Oracle, which was also held in high favour in Greece at the time. In 331 BCE, Alexander consulted the Oracle at Siwa in order to seek confirmation that he was the son of Amun — Zeus in ancient Greek mythology — and therefore the legitimate ruler of both Egypt and the other lands he had conquered.

No one knows what the Oracle told Alexander exactly, but the history books tell us that her words together with “divine interventions” like heavy rain were “the answer to what his heart desired”.

Along with his army, Alexander then made it to Memphis, the ancient capital of Aneb-Hetch 20km south of today’s Giza, and soon afterwards a manifestation of the Oracle was paraded through the city accompanied by 80 priests. After his visit to the Oracle, whenever Alexander’s image appeared on coins he was shown with the horns of a ram, a symbol of the god Amun.

Siwa: The rise and fall of kings

To this writer, the enthralling history of the Temple of Amun could still be felt in the oasis. It is a humbling experience, but the Temple of Amun is not the only place in Siwa where olden times can seem to come to life.

On the way to the ancient site of Mount Shali, I visited an old friend, Vasilis Angelicopolos, who lives in an elegant villa overlooking one of Siwa’s salt lakes and whose Siwan friends have given him the name of Billy. After watching the magnificent sunset over the lake, we headed to one of the oasis’ main attractions: the citadel in downtown Siwa.

The citadel lies amid the ruins of old houses in the ancient settlement of Shali.Its story is as follows: during the Middle Ages, the Siwans suffered from attacks by Berber and Arab Bedouins. In 1203 CE, they left their old village of Aghurmi and settled in a new fortified village for greater security. This they called Shali, meaning “the city” in Siwan.

Siwa: The rise and fall of kings

However, in 1926 heavy rain for three successive days caused many of the old houses to collapse. There was a high concentration of salt in the bricks made of karshif, and the rain made many of the Siwan houses unsafe. The residents then moved down the hill and built their houses around it, leaving a beautiful mural behind them that can be seen from several kilometres away.

“The citadel was built by 40 men from Siwa’s seven tribes. Now the tribes number 12,” Mohamed Omran, head of public relations at the oasis, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Touring in the vicinity surrounding Shali on a tok-tok, I couldn’t help but notice the ugliness of the houses built of cement and bricks in comparison to the beautiful units made of karshif. The houses in Shali are no longer inhabited because it is difficult to connect them to utilities as they stand on high ground.

Amid the beauty of the oasis, there was thus evidence of a sorry state of affairs. And this in an oasis that once saw the rise and fall of kings and kingdoms.

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