Preserving Siwa’s urban story

Amira Noshokaty , Sunday 31 Jul 2022

Last Wednesday, under the auspices of the Egyptian Minister of Culture Inas Abdel-Dayem, the National Organisation for Urban Harmony (NOUH) headed by Mohamed Abu Seida, celebrated the launch of its latest publication titled “Siwa: An Urban Story.”

Photos amira noshokaty

This is the third publication in the Memory of the City series, launched by NOUH in order to safeguard the intangible and tangible heritage of Egyptian historic districts. The first book was on Zamalek and the second was on Garden City.

The unique book was written and sketched by Professor of Architecture Hatem El-Taweel, who studied Siwa for decades and started sketching the urban fabric of the unique oasis ever since the 1980s. The discussion was moderated by renowned Professor of Architecture Soheir Hawas and was attended by key figures of urban architecture in Egypt.

During the event, the NOUH also unveiled its initiative to safeguard the unique nature and architecture of Siwa oasis and the collaborative efforts with the Siwan community lead by Sheikh Omar Abdallah, a member of the heritage committee in NOUH and representative of Siwa oasis.

The book, which has captured the essence of the oasis, was referred to as “graceful,” “an official reference,” “a call for romanticism” and a “cultural landscape” because of the way it was written. Set against a background of almost 140 handmade sketches that illustrate the oasis, the book skillfully reveals the intangible and tangible heritage in the simplest forms to attract a regular reader and allows them to visualise the oasis that has stood the test of time.

Siwa The land of Palm Trees

“Siwa,” reads the book, “was first known as Sekht Am, meaning ‘the land of palm trees.’ It was known as Santarieh during the 15th century as per the historian Al Maqrizi and Arab writers.” Known to be one of the oasis of the western desert, it was not till the 17th century that it was known as Siwa, as it was referred to among the seven other oasis of Egypt.  But for the Greeks and Romans it was known as Jupiter Amoun in affiliation with the Oracle of Amoun in the oasis.

Legends and Epics of Siwa

Known for their generosity and kindness, the people of Siwa have lived a prosperous life despite its simplicity, for the oasis have long been the scene of epics and cultural events. Dating back to the stone age, this spot of land has always been inhabited, yet it was first documented in 1935 BC, during the reign of King Sesotris when he first launched a trade treaty between Siwa and Kharga oasis. The ancient Egyptians had many tombs in the oasis, and had a temple for Amoun deity and the famous Oracle of Amoun built in 550 BC. This would become the spot where Alexander the Great was proclaimed the Son of Amoun.

Siwa also witnessed the end of the great Cambyses army. According to the historical tale, Cambyses, the Achaemenid king, wanted to raid Siwa to negate the prophesy of Amoun priests that predicted the perishing of Cambyses somewhere near, Egypt. The story is quite ironic because due to the harsh nature of the desert and its storms, Cambyses’ army of 50,000 warriors was lost never to be found. The Romans lived in Siwa until 641 CE.

Siwa’s Indigenous Architecture

The ancient oasis of Siwa is located in the northwest of Egypt some 300 kilometres south of the coastal city of Marsa Matrouh. It comprises several small villages that are scattered in what is known as the Siwa depression. Agromi, and Shali were the oldest villages there and they were all formed on a hillside, made out of Karshif, which is the mixture between the salt and clay, right from the environment. This mixture and the fact that the houses are literally made out of Siwa Salt, makes the houses natural places for relaxation and positivity. Like all old towns, they had several routes, pathways and doors but the most obvious one is the wooden gate right next to the minaret.

The book cleverly puts sketches of the Siwa hand weave motifs in shades of orange, red, green and black, next to those of the indigenous urban design of Siwa revealing a striking similarity, highlighting the mutual impact between the tangible and intangible elements of such rich cultural heritage.

It was not till the reign of Mohamed Ali, when Egyptian police forces were summoned to protect the Siwa villagers from Barbar raids on their dates and olives, that Siwa came into contact with modernity. Since then modernity has left its mark on the architecture of the oasis. This has an alienating effect when compared to the harmony and eco-friendly architecture of the old city.

This change is what triggered the initiative by NOUH to safeguard the unique nature and architecture of Siwa oasis and join efforts with the Siwan community lead by Sheikh Omar Abdallah. “We want to live in the 21st century but we also want to preserve the urban fabric of Siwa because of its immense value as it reflects our intangible heritage that is great value in itself one that we should all respect and cherish,” explained Abu Seida.

The book is free to download from the official Page of Memory of the City by NOUH



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