For a remote and isolated Saharan oasis, the history of Siwa is long and illustrious. From Ancient Egypt’s 26th Dynasty until the end of the Roman period the Siwa Oasis was known as the Oasis of Amon (Ammon), home to the ancient Oracle of Amon, which, in its day, was as venerated as the Oracle at Delphi. Pilgrims from all over the classical world traveled to Siwa to seek the Oracle’s divine counsel.
The Oracle was a not only a spiritual beacon, but a political voice and target. In 524 B.C.E. King Cambyses of Persia, son of Cyrus the Great and conqueror of Egypt, dispatched from Luxor an army of 50,000 men to destroy the Siwan Oracle who had predicted the failure of his African conquests. The entire army vanished without a trace, buried in the sea of sand, and no sign of it has been found to this day.
Numerous notable figures from antiquity bolstered, in one way or another, the Oracle’s prominence. The Greek poet Pindar sent to Siwa a hymn of praise carved on a stone stele that has unfortunately since been lost. Lysander, the great general, tried to bribe the Oracle to support his attempt to be crowned king of Sparta. The historian and geographer Herodotus (c 484-425 B.C.E.) left a detailed description of the Oasis of Amon, mentioning that it was ruled by a local king named Etearchus, and that, in the reign of Amasis, King Croesus of Lydia tested the Oracle while planning to wage war against Cyrus, king of Persia.
Of course, the most famous visitor to Siwa was undoubtedly Alexander the Great. Pharaoh of Egypt after defeating the Persian Darius in the battle of Issus in 333 B.C.E., in 331 he set sail from his newly founded city of Alexandria, reached Marsa Matruh, and marched toward Siwa along the desert route that is still used today.
Each of the pharaohs of Egypt's 28th Dynasty traveled to Siwa to be acknowledged at the Temple as the son of Amon-Re, the supreme god; each, thereafter, was depicted as wearing the ram's horns of Amon on his head.
Whether motivated by political ambition, religious devotion or a combination of the two, Alexander braved a cruel 9-day journey over the desolate Sahara on route to Siwa. According to his personal historian Callisthenes, Alexander's party exhausted its water supply, was saved in a downpour, then lost their way in a sandstorm before being led by two crows to the Temple of the Oracle – all together, an auspicious journey for the pharaoh-apparent.
What Alexander heard at the Temple of the Oracle he never disclosed, but his actions spoke clearly. After conquering Egypt he marched off to Asia Minor to continue his Persian campaign, and he began representing himself in coins and emblems wearing the ram horns of Amon. Sadly, he never returned to Egypt; he died in India in 323 B.C.E.
As Torben Larsen writes, “The next thousand years in Siwa's history were difficult ones. Social and economic unrest followed the dissolution of Roman political power. Bedouin tribes raided the scattered settlements of the oasis and disrupted what little commerce the Siwans had. Around the year 1200 the population was reduced to 40 able-bodied men, perhaps 200 people in all. Then the whole population moved from the low ground near the Temple of the Oracle to the Shali citadel. There the Siwans remained secure as the population grew steadily, as more land was cultivated and as surplus crops were exported from the oasis.
“By the 19th century the first European visitors, never welcomed by the population, described the whole hill as a vast beehive of buildings. In 1820, Siwa came under outside rule for the first time when it was conquered by the troops of Muhammed Ali, the Ottoman pasha of Egypt. With central rule, the defensive needs of the town were reduced and for the first time since 1200 it was permitted to build houses outside the fortification of the town – though most people were reluctant to do so. A fierce rainstorm in 1926 demolished many houses, however, and made others unsafe, forcing people to leave. The ancient town is now almost in ruins, though its honeycomb nature is still clearly discernible.”
In 1985 a road between Marsa Matruh and Siwa was constructed, opening the oasis to the outside world. Electricity, television, concrete buildings and tourism soon followed, along with a renewed outside interest in Siwan culture and heritage.
Larsen, Torben B., “Siwa: Oasis Extraordinary,” Saudi Aramco World 39, no. 5 (Sept./Oct. 1988): 207.
“Dialogue with Amon,” Al Ahram Weekly, 8 - 14 April 2004, sec. Heritage.