Restoring Egypt's Siwa Oasis

Nevine El-Aref , Tuesday 10 Nov 2020

The ancient village of Shali in the Siwa Oasis has been preserved for future generations to learn from and enjoy after two years of conservation work

Siwa Oasis
The Siwa Oasis

The serenity of the Siwa Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert was disturbed last weekend when top officials and foreign ambassadors flocked in to witness the inauguration of the Shali Fortress and village in the Oasis after two years of conservation and development work.

They also explored opportunities for transforming Siwa into an internationally famous hub for sustainable living and travel, notably as a result of work implemented under the Revival of the Shali Fortress and Village in the Siwa Oasis Initiative funded by the European Union and co-financed, designed, and implemented by Environmental Quality International (EQI).

The initiative started in 2018 and involves many elements that together have been instrumental in the economic empowerment of the people of Siwa through heritage preservation. This has been carried out through the restoration, conservation, and adaptation of structures and spaces in the archaeological site, elevating Shali’s standing as one of Siwa’s prime cultural-tourism attractions and building the capacity of local residents to restore their properties using traditional methods.

The work has been designed to revive, restore, and conserve the Shali archaeological site and the partially abandoned settlements surrounding it, all of which are built of kershif, a special kind of construction made of a blend of salt mud, split palm-trunk roofs, and earthen floors. Moreover, the work will stimulate Siwa’s economy by improving its international standing as a leading eco-tourism destination.

Dozens of young girls and boys in their traditional colourful costumes stood before the fortress to welcome guests with a traditional song composed especially for the inauguration event last weekend.

Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany, speaking at the event, described the Shali conservation project as a “dream come true”, adding that on his visit to Siwa in 2018 to open the restored Tatnadi Mosque he had announced the beginning of the conservation project that was designed to revive, restore, and conserve the kershif-built archaeological site and the settlement surrounding it.

“The project will stimulate Siwa’s economy by improving its international standing as an eco-tourism destination. This recognition, which we are indeed at one with, will valorise our cultural and natural heritage and is a good way to reconfigure our common future,” El-Enany said.

Officials and Ambassadors
Children in traditional costumes with top officials and ambassadors

“Siwa is a magical tourist destination offering a blend of eco- and cultural tourism. I am proud of this sustainable approach to heritage preservation that is attracting more tourists and at the same time is benefiting the local community through offering better opportunities for sustainable economic growth.”

For more than nine decades, the ancient village of Shali stood almost empty. Its fortress, houses, and shops, once buzzing with inhabitants, had been abandoned since 1926 in the aftermath of heavy rainstorms that damaged houses made from traditional kershif building materials.

The inhabitants moved to new houses with running water and electricity. A few buildings on the edge of the village were still in use as residences, but the village as a whole was known as the “city of ghosts” until its recent transformation.

THE SHALI VILLAGE: Osama Talaat, head of the Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish Antiquities Sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, said that Shali, which means “the city” in the Siwa language, was an impressive 12th-century village built in the centre of the oasis.

It is surrounded by a solidly built wall that originally had only one entrance, called the “inshal” door, meaning the city’s gate, and on the northern side of the wall there is an ancient mosque. A second gate was opened on the southern side of the wall later close to an oil press, and this was called the “bab athrat”, or new door. A third door was then opened, and this, called “qaddoha”, or the door, was for women only.

The village has two mosques, the Al-Atiq and Tatnadi, which were restored in 2015 and 2018, respectively. The restoration work included the restoration of the pulpits, columns, mihrabs, prayer halls for women, and lanterns used to light the mosques as well as their minarets.

Talaat said that the Tatnadi Mosque was also known as the Sheikha Hosniya Mosque, referring to a Moroccan woman who had visited Shali during a trip to Mecca for the Hajj (pilgrimage) and had offered to build a mosque for the inhabitants of the oasis.

The mosque is called Tatnadi due to an old well it contains, the name meaning “pure water”. It dates to the 12th century, the same period as the village, 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 has a pulpit and columns and once had a minaret made of kershif, but this collapsed in 2004 due to erosion.

The mosque has significant religious, historical, archaeological and social value because it was once the 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.

According to the Arab historian Al-Maqrizi, Shali was originally built as 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 Amazigh (Berber) language, as they still do today, and they had an indigenous script, though this only survives today in Siwan embroidery.

Shali has long 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.

The most striking ancient edifice is the fortress, which was built during the Mameluke period in around 1200 CE to ward off invaders. When Egypt became more secure under the reign of Mohamed Ali Pasha in the 19th century, the inhabitants of Siwa no longer needed to be constrained by the borders of a fortified settlement. Old Shali was steadily abandoned as a result, and the inhabitants established their homes in the more spacious surrounding areas of the oasis.

In the process, they dismantled doors, windows, and other structural elements of their former homes in Shali. This prompted the fortress’s steady deterioration, which was further accelerated by the neglect of these abandoned homes over the years that followed.

Shali Fortress
Shali Fortress

REVIVAL: The Siwa Revival Initiative was created to safeguard the heritage of Siwa and engage its residents in positive actions to ensure a healthy and sustainable local economy, EQI founder Mounir Neamatalla told Al-Ahram Weekly.

He said that in order to respond to the socioeconomic needs of the young population of the oasis, the initiative had been conceived as a platform for the improvement of livelihoods. The reconstruction and restoration of commercial zones and traditional marketplaces known as khoss where small business owners and artisans can display and sell their products had helped to achieve this, he said.

By designing, establishing, and equipping an Earth Architecture Museum in the village to emphasise the distinctive and unique architectural and cultural heritage of the oasis, the initiative had also presented Siwan architecture as an example of Egypt’s architectural legacy, he added.

Neamatalla said the initiative had helped to respond to the urgent healthcare needs of the most vulnerable population segments, notably women and children, by establishing and equipping a maternal and child healthcare centre that provides basic reproductive healthcare services for women and primary healthcare for children.

Emad Farid, a consultant engineer on the conservation project, said that the project had revived the ancient skill of kershif building, which had been disappearing over time. It had continued to train Siwan builders in this traditional building technique and had succeeded in transferring this knowledge and experience to a workforce of 30 experienced Siwan builders to date.

Not only had it revived this dying art, it had also inspired the people of Siwa to protect and preserve this unique aspect of their cultural heritage, Farid said.

The wall surrounding Shali has been completely re-established and is now fully visible from a distance with its contours very apparent to observers. Weak sections of the site have been stabilised and strengthened. All the staircases have been unearthed, cleared of rubble, and are now in use. The Mother and Child Healthcare Centre (MCHC) built under the Initiative has been completed, the main building constructed and furnished with new equipment.

Prior to the project’s commencement, appropriate planning and design was carried out for the commercial zones by the architectural team, which examined and analysed the urban pattern of ancient Shali. This study had resulted in a vision of Shali as a human model for the development of the Siwa Oasis as a whole, where the project was the source of development ideas and where Siwa could become an incubator for heritage, art, and culture, Farid said.

The reconstruction and restoration of two commercial zones had also provided space for about 70 enterprise owners and artisans to display and sell their products, he added.

The construction of the Earth Architecture Museum has been completed and is located in a prime location at the foot of the historical Shali site adjacent to the Albabenshal Heritage Hotel, a landmark of heritage significance. In partnership with Egyptologist and Siwa historian Sergio Volpi, the museum houses a large and valuable library of historical and modern books about Siwa, as well as historical maps and footage of Siwa during World War II, highlighting its significance in history.

Most notably, the museum showcases the documentation of the initiative, including the building techniques and materials used, progress in the work, the stakeholders, and various challenges.

Two peer-training sessions were held as part of capacity-building interventions for the MCHC, in which approximately 70 Siwan young people of both genders received reproductive health-awareness training. Of those, 12 trainees are now capable of being trainers themselves.

Community-engagement activities have included setting up events to inform the community about Siwan cultural heritage. A children’s art activity was organised by the project team and a local Siwan resident who works with underprivileged children. This interactive community-outreach event included children of elementary school age from underprivileged families in Siwa. The idea behind it was to acquaint children with the heritage of Siwa and the value of the restoration work taking place at the Shali Fortress.

It was an art-expression activity where children were encouraged to draw their perceptions of Siwa, the objective being to understand how the younger generation identifies with the heritage of Siwa.

Ramez Azmi, a consultant on the project, said it had 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.

The project has also developed a microfinance system that allows low-income communities to restore and preserve their properties, both old and new, as part of Egypt’s cultural heritage.

DIGITAL DOCUMENTATION: Innovative surveying, recording, and documenting techniques for the entire area of Shali, including its predominantly abandoned archaeological zone and eastern and western settlements, were used to demonstrate how these could be used to transform heritage stewardship.

Digital documentation will enable the site to be explored by expert conservationists, architects, academics, students and the public on a global basis. Through an ongoing series of webinars, the project’s findings are being shared internationally with the engagement of over 60 participants across the world.

These virtual tours of the Shali Fortress are testament to the success of digital solutions for heritage outreach. Despite being so remote, the webinars and virtual tours have brought more visitors to the fortress at a single time than would have been possible in real life. The virtual tours have allowed 62 people so far to experience the beauty of the area guided by local experts, enhancing the authenticity of the experience. Even students in a classroom setting have been able to be part of these tours, stimulating many challenging discussions.

The Siwa Oasis lies on the edge of the Great Sand Sea in Egypt’s Western Desert 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 ancient Egyptian 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. This has two temples dedicated to the god Amun established by kings Ahmose II and Nectanebo II.

The ancient Greeks made the Siwa Oasis more famous, when almost immediately after taking Egypt from the Persians and establishing Alexandria in the fourth century BCE, 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 ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra also visited this oasis to consult the Oracle, as well as perhaps bathe in the spring that now bears her name, in the first century BCE. During the Roman Period, Siwa became a place of banishment, as the Roman 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 Necropolis, which includes a collection of catacombs from 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 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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