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Siwa Oasis, Egypt
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Shali, Siwa Oasis

 

Photo by Alfredo De Simone

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The oasis of Siwa is more than the gateway to the Great Sand Sea. This once sleepy frontier town, less than 50 kilometers from the border of Libya, has a rich cultural history. Siwa is home to Egypt's only native Berber population as well as the famed Temple of the Oracle. Alexander the Great traveled here and obtained the confirmation he sought. The priests addressed him as deity and established his right to rule Egypt. Famous for its olives and dates, Siwa was once an important stop on the Caravan Route. But to protect the oasis from hostile invaders the Siwans built the Fortress of Shali in the 12th century and for hundreds of years no one went in. And while Siwa first appeared on an Egyptian map in the 26th dynasty, it was likely settled long before that. Flints found in the area suggest that Siwa was inhabited during the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras when the barren desert was a lush savannah. But before you brave the long trek across the desert from Bahariya or south from Marsa Matruh on Egypt's Mediterranean coast, take note. This difficult to reach destination is no longer solitary. In the peak season tourists and tour buses can give Egypt's most picturesque oasis an amusement park feel. Visit off peak but don't stay home.
Siwa's Berber Culture
Bedouin carpet seller, Siwa Oasis

Bedouin carpet seller, Siwa Oasis

Alfredo De Simone

 
The early Siwans believed in life after death and even worshiped several Egyptian gods such as Osiris, Isis and Amun. Yet this desert oasis is today more North African than Egyptian. The majority of Siwans are Berbers not Egyptians. Their first language is Siwi, a Berber dialect, rather than Arabic. Their food, crafts and customs reflect Berber traditions. So how do you explain a similar mythology but a different cultural history? Siwa was part of Libya for most of its history and was likely unknown to the ancient Egyptians until the 26th Dynasty. The Siwans, like other peoples, were influenced by their neighbors and over time adopted some foreign customs as their own. Siwa's remote location has helped it to retain a strong Berber culture.
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