For more than nine decades, the Siwa Oasis village of Shali has stood almost empty. Houses that were once buzzing with inhabitants have been abandoned since 1926 in the aftermath of a heavy rainstorm that damaged houses made from the traditional building material of kershif, or salt mud with split palm-trunk roofs and earthern floors.
The inhabitants moved to new and more comfortable houses with running water and electricity. Few buildings on the edge of the village are still in use as residences, and the village as a whole is known as the “city of ghosts”.
Shali is an impressive 13th-century village in the centre of the oasis. According to the Arab historian Al-Maqrizi, it was originally built to be a secure place for oasis inhabitants, protecting them from attacks by Bedouin tribes. The village was a fortified town with three gates, and according to Al-Maqrizi there were some 600 people in the larger oasis, which appears to have retained its unofficial status as a kind of independent state.
The inhabitants spoke their own Berber language, as they still do today, but they wrote it down in Arabic script, with an indigenous script, long forgotten, only surviving in Siwan embroidery. Arab sources spoke of strange creatures in the oasis, and one describes in detail “savage donkeys” that are unmistakably zebras. There were also ostriches and other animals that have now disappeared.
Shali has always enthralled explorers, historians and photographers even after its deterioration in 1926. The maze of huddled buildings originally towered 60 metres above the oasis, taking advantage of its surrounding hill, while its highest buildings once reached five-storeys high and housed hundreds of people. There is an old mosque called Tatnady with a chimney-shaped minaret located on top of the panoramic view.
Promises to revive the village came to fruition earlier this week when Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany and Minister of Tourism Rania Al-Mashat, along with 14 foreign ambassadors to Cairo, flocked to the oasis on the invitation of Mounir Neamatallah, director of the Environment Quality International (EQI), to open Shali’s old mosque to the public after restoration and announce the beginning of a conservation project scheduled to be completed in 2020.
Gamal Mustafa, head of the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish Sector of the ministry, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Tatnady Mosque was also known as the Sheikha Hosniya Mosque referring to a Moroccan woman who visited Shali during her trip to Mecca for the Hajj (pilgrimage) and offered to build a mosque for the inhabitants.
The mosque has the name Tatnady due to an old well it contains, with the name meaning “pure water”. It dates back to the 13th century, the same period as the village was built, and is 300 square metres in area with two entrance gates on its eastern and western sides. Its inner design is divided into three sections and still bears its original shape and designs. It had a pulpit, columns and minaret made of kershif, but regretfully the latter collapsed in 2004 due to erosion.
The mosque, Mustafa said, has significant religious, historical, archaeological and social values because it was once the only centre in the oasis through which news of wedding ceremonies and funerals was announced. It also served to represent the unity of the eastern and western people of the oasis.
El-Enany and Al-Mashat and ambassadors at Siwa
Restoration work on the mosque started in 2017 and included the restoration of the pulpit, columns, mihrab, prayer hall for women and lanterns used to light the mosque as well as its minarets.
During his tour, El-Enany welcomed the attendees, especially the ambassadors, who he said were always keen to attend archaeological events to support Egypt’s tourism industry and show that Egypt is safe.
He showed them the ministry’s agenda to inaugurate several sites in the Dakhla Oasis after restoration, as well as for the celebration of the solar alignment at the Abu Simbel Temples to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the salvage operation after the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
Al-Mashat said the event was useful promotion for the oasis and that the ministry would start a new campaign to promote it and its rich architectural heritage and springs abroad.
Emad Farid, consultant engineer on the conservation project, told the Weekly that the restoration project for the mosque had been carried out by EQI under the supervision of the Ministry of Antiquities and with funds provided by the British Council.
He said that the restoration was the first step in more ambitious conservation work in the Shali village scheduled to be completed in 2020. The restoration project as a whole was funded by the European Union, he said, and aimed to restore the village to its former beauty as well as its distinguished architecture.
It also aimed to stimulate the local economy through improving the oasis as a leading eco-tourism destination, he said.
Ramez Azmi, a consultant on the project, said it aimed to consolidate the sustainable development of the local Siwa community through the installation, restoration and use of buildings and spaces at the archaeological site. The idea was to develop Shali as one of the main attractions for cultural tourism in Siwa and to build the capacity of local residents to restore their properties using traditional construction methods, he said.
The project has developed a “microfinance” system that allows low-income communities to restore and preserve their properties, both old and new, and it aims to establish a museum of earthern architecture, part of Egypt’s cultural heritage.
The Siwa Oasis lies on the edge of the Great Sand Sea 50km from the Libyan border. Outcrops of honey-coloured sandstone and crisp white chalk fringe the plateau, which is enhanced with lush palm groves and five huge lakes.
This Garden-of-Eden appearance, is deceptive, however, as the verdant palms are short and squat and the soil is too salty for many plants except for reeds and olives. The oasis was occupied during the Paleolithic and Neolithic Periods, and during the Old Kingdom it was a part of Tehenu, the “Olive Land” that may have extended as far east as Mareotis near Alexandria.
At the beginning of the ancient Egyptian 26th Dynasty Siwa became part of the Egyptian empire. It was then that the Gabal Al-Mawta Necropolis in the oasis was established, which was also used during the Roman Period. It has two temples dedicated to the god Amun established by kings Ahmose II and Nectanebo II.
The ancient Greeks made the Siwa Oasis more widely famous, when almost immediately after taking Egypt from the Persians and establishing Alexandria, Alexander the Great headed for the oasis to consult the famous Oracle of Amun. Upon his arrival, he was pronounced a god, an endorsement required for the legitimate rule of the country.
The Egyptian queen Cleopatra also visited this oasis to consult the Oracle, as well as perhaps bathe in the spring that now bears her name. During the Roman Period, Siwa became a place of banishment, as the emperor Augustus sent political prisoners there.
During the Christian Period, the Temple of the Oracle was transformed into a church of the Virgin Mary, and the Byzantines used it as the diocese of the Libyan eparchy. Islam came to the oasis in the early eighth century CE and took hold in 1150.
In addition to the Shali village and the Temple of the Oracle, the Siwa Oasis has several tourist attractions, among them the fresh water lake of Bir Wahid, the Shiatta Salt Lake, and the hot springs of Fatnas and Cleopatra, as well as the Gabal Al-Mawta which includes a collection of catacombs of the 26th Dynasty and Ptolemaic and Roman times.
There is also the tomb of Si Amun, the unfinished tomb of Mesu-Isis with its beautiful depiction of cobras in red and blue above the entrance, and a tomb of the crocodile god Sobek.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Siwa village to be preserved