Time for Tales from Castaway Siwa

By: Norhan Mahmoud, Maydaa Abo El-Nadar

CAIRO, MAR.3 (SEE)- Thousands of miles away from Cairo’s hustle-and-bustle, an intermingle community of Amazigh and Bedouins reside in Egypt’s hidden gem: Siwa, an agriculture-thriving oasis.

One can never let go of the vivid memories experienced around remote Siwa, 17-meters below the sea level, especially when it comes to its uniquely preserved heritage and soul-refreshing vibes.

Siwa captured the hearts of all those who attended Lina Osama’s exhibition at the Art Corner Gallery in Zamalek, as their eyes were set on her expressive paintings depicting life in that marvellous region.

A man known as Sheikh Omar Rageh, a tribal chief, used to take everyone on a journey through time and space with interesting recounts from his roots.

Sheikh Omar habitually participates in activities that portray Amazigh’s lifestyle. He once said, “In Algeria, I was delighted to attend the Amazigh Film Festival that took place in the city of Tizi Ouzou. Several students stopped me to ask about Siwa, as they were curious to know about it.”

Most importantly, Amazigh are an indigenous ethnicity inhabiting Northern Africa encountered in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Northern Mali, Northern Niger, and Western Egypt.

They live in between the Atlantic Ocean and Siwa Oasis, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Niger River in Western Africa. They make up 60% of Morocco’s population and 30% of Algeria, 11% of Tunisia and barely 3% of Libya’s.

And, as with the case of many ethnic groups, there are Amazigh living abroad, including the ones living in Spain and France.

“In Siwa, they are around 30,000 persons and I cannot say they are pure Amazigh as we are a mix of Amazigh and Arab Bedouins,” said Sheikh Omar.

“When Northern Africa suffered serious drought, some Amazigh tribes immigrated to Siwa to continue practising their agricultural activity.

Afterwards, the remaining Amazigh did everything to protect themselves, including building an Amazigh citadel and a city gate that used to be opened at the sunrise and closed at the sunset.

“As Amazigh accept the neighbourhood’s concept, Bedouins then came and lived alongside with them. So Siwa’s inhabitants are a mix of Amazigh and Bedouins. They speak a dialect of the Amazigh language.

Siwa’s existing society embraces a dual culture influenced by the diverse customs and traditions of both the Amazigh and Bedouins. Their lifestyle exceptionally reflects their own vision of life.

Historically, Siwa has survived numerous invasions as reigns of different monarchs had their eyes on its interconnected community.

“Amun’s priests were living there and they enjoyed a prestigious status amongst Siwa’s people, a fact that pushed the king Cambyses to send his army to destroy the priests,” explained Sheikh Omar.

However, the army perished in the Oasis’ sand, bearing in mind that Siwa is protected by the sand dunes located in its southern part.

One other story is that of Alexander the Great, whose sharp discernment aided his shrewd schemes to overpower the area.

“Alexander kind of made a secret excursion, announced to some of his friends, and Siwa’s people only knew about his presence when he was almost in the middle of the Oasis.

“He planned to strengthen his relationship with the priests, so upon his arrival, they warmly received him and celebrated his presence in a hall, currently known as the Alexander’s Coronation where he was crowned as Amun’s son.

Later, the Roman civilization prevailed and Christianity entered Siwa.

As for Islam’s presence in Siwa, much of the credit goes to the old road that linked the East and the West, through which pilgrims to Mecca from Morocco were passing by.

“Old tales suggest that at the time of Amr Ibn Al-As, who led the Muslim conquest to Egypt in 640, arrived, there were no inhabitants in Siwa.

Up till now, archaeologists and geologists come across treasures that tell the oasis’s history since prehistoric eras. One verity is that amidst the Ottoman Empire, Siwa was a self-governed area.

“Currently we are around 11 tribes and each one has its own Sheikh. The tribe is divided into houses that are represented by men called the Wise. The group of wise men forms the Council of the Wise who assist the Sheikh and help him in making decisions.

A Siwaian tribe unites between 1500-2500 persons and the Wises of each tribe vary between 10-20 elders. It is obvious that Siwa has a rich heritage.

To get an idea about Siwa’s rich heritage, Sheikh Omar recommends people to visit the Siwa House, established by the Canadian Embassy. The institution depicts the area’s old traditional life and precious collectables.

Preserving Siwa’s nonmaterial heritage is of great concern to its dwellers.

Whilst people were thinking about establishing an assembly to preserve their heritage, an Italian association was working on conserving a certain type of architecture in the Moroccan city of Tangier.

The Italian association then created a project called “Siwa & Tangier, Cultural Heritage for a Better Life” that is funded by the European Union. Siwa’s Association for the Society’s Development and the Environment’s Protection adopted part of the project.

“The project was initiated by 17 juveniles touring the Oasis, recording tales from people who were 60-year-old and above. Besides, friendly brainstorming hearings between these juveniles and the elder people took place.

The outcome of their efforts was presented to the Center for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage, affiliated to Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

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