African Studies Siwa Oasis
Valentina Serreli, Valentina Schiattarella
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0223


The Siwa Oasis is located in Egypt’s Western Desert and lies about 50 kilometers east of the Libyan border and 300 kilometers south of the Mediterranean coast. The oasis has been renowned since ancient times for the presence of a temple, built during the Twenty-Sixth Pharaonic Dynasty (664–525 BCE), which hosted the oracle of the god Ammon and allegedly attracted the visit of Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. Apart from scattered descriptions, little is known about the history of Siwa in the Middle Ages. Archaeological and linguistic research has, however, yielded useful insights on the history of the oasis, on the movements of its inhabitants, and on their contacts with the wider world, while information about life in the oasis between the 18th and the 20th centuries can be found in numerous travel accounts composed mainly by European officials, geographers, and travelers and in a few anthropological studies. Siwa was formally brought under Egyptian control in 1820 by Muhammad Ali, but it remained strongly attached to Benghazi. During the 19th century, the Sanussiyya, an Islamic sufi order with headquarters in the neighboring oasis of Al-Jaghbub, acquired considerable political power, and it played an important role in the effective incorporation of Siwa into Egypt during the 19th and the 20th centuries. Today, Siwa and the smaller oasis of El-Gara, which lies about 100 km to the northeast, form a municipality within the Governorate of Marsa Matruh, with over 31,000 inhabitants (2019 official census by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics). The municipality hosts the easternmost Berber-speaking community, whose language, called Siwi, shares many linguistic features with the languages of Sokna and El Fogaha in Libya, partially also with the Zenati group, and which has been heavily influenced by Arabic. While the majority of the population of Siwa is Berber, the oasis is also home to a Bedouin community related to the Awlad Ali, the Shahibaat, as well as to a growing number of other Egyptian settlers. Currently the entire population of the oasis speaks Arabic as either a first or a second language. For centuries, the economy of the oasis relied almost exclusively on its natural and agricultural resources, specifically on its abundant spring water and date palms as well as the fine fruits from the latter, which are central to the life of the community. More recently, however, tourism and its corollary activities have gained considerable importance in Siwa’s economy, and they have contributed to redistributing wealth within the community and reshaping the landscape of the oasis. We would like to thank Sergio Volpi, the founder of the association Le Royaumes des Deux Déserts and the Black Lions Library in Siwa for sharing with us the copies of some works not available otherwise. We also thank the anonymous reviewer for suggesting works that we had initially overlooked and for other valuable comments and remarks.

General Overview

Much has been written to provide a general overview on the history, people, and customs of the Siwa Oasis. The works reviewed in this section combine a description of the geographical features of the oasis, which describe the specificities of its ecosystem and all the activities and practices linked to it, with information on its history and ancient heritage. Space is also dedicated to the presentation of the local population’s way of life and traditions. These works also mention particular local customs, such as the fact that homosexual unions were reportedly permitted in the past, which to our knowledge are not treated in more specific publications. As far as religion is concerned, two religious orders have historically been present in Siwa, the Madaniyya and the Sanusiyya; the important presence of the Sanusiyya brotherhood in Siwa in the 19th and early 20th centuries is discussed by a number of authors, in works reviewed here and in other sections. For reasons of space, this section reviews works devoted only to Siwa, excluding works that deal with Siwa within a broader framework, such as research focusing on all the oases of the Western Desert or those that provide a general introduction and useful information for people who intend to visit the oasis. The European travelers who visited Siwa between the 18th century and the first decades of the 20th left us reports and accounts of the oasis that often also include such general overviews. While these are discussed in more depth in the section Travel Accounts, it is worth mentioning here Stanley 1912, which offers a general outline of the oasis that is not written in the form of a travel account, and Wākid 1949, which provides a good overview in Arabic. Fakhry 1973 remains the most comprehensive book-length overview of Siwa, while Stein and Rusch 1978 includes useful information about emerging socioeconomic changes with regard to both the Berber and the Bedouin communities. Shorter overviews of the oasis, its people, and its languages in the form of encyclopedia entries are provided in Leguil 1998 and, more recently, Serreli, et al. 2019. Meier-Hilbert and Schnurer 2002 gives an outline of the extant research on Siwa from the 18th century to the present day.

  • Fakhry, Ahmed. Siwa Oasis. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1973.

    A comprehensive overview of Siwa by the Egyptian archeologist Fakhry, the major authority of his time both on Siwan antiquities and on culture and life in the oasis. This is the third book Fakhry devoted to Siwa (see Fakhry 1944 [cited under History]), and it includes an updated introduction and seven chapters that provide detailed information on the oasis, its population and customs, its history, and its archaeological sites.

  • Leguil, Alphonse. “Sīwa.” In Encyclopédie de l’Islam. Vol. 9. Edited by Clifford E. Bosworth, E. J. van Donzel, G. Lecomte, and W. P. Heinrichs, 715–718. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998:

    An encyclopedia entry with some notes on the location and history of the oasis. A large section is dedicated to the Siwi language, based on data that the author collected during his field trip in 1985 (analyzed in more detail in Leguil 1986a and Leguil 1986b [cited under Siwi Language and Linguistics]) and on previous research, such as Vycichl 2005 (cited under Siwi Language and Linguistics), which was published posthumously.

  • Meier-Hilbert, Gerhard, and Jos Schnurer, eds. Friedrich Konrad Hornemann in Siwa: 200 Jahre Afrikaforschung. Hildesheim, Germany: Universitätsbibliothek, 2002.

    The proceedings of a symposium “Hornemann in Siwa” held 1–3 November 2001 in Hildesheim dedicated to the journey undertaken by Hornemann in 1798. He was the second European and the first German to visit Siwa. The contributions provide information on the history of research on the oasis from a number of perspectives: history and archaeology, culture, society and language, and geography and economy as well as providing a good overview of the state of the art, especially concerning German publications.

  • Serreli, Valentina, Karl Prasse, Kamal Naït-Zerrad, and Valentina Schiattarella. “Siwa.” In Encyclopédie Berbère. Vol. 43, 7457–7476. Louvain, Belgium: Peeters, 2019:

    Four entries of the Encyclopédie Berbère devoted to Siwa. Valentina Serreli, “Siwa: Histoire et société : Sociolinguistique” (S65) is an overview of the history, society, and sociolinguistics of contemporary Siwa. Karl Prasse, “Siwa: Langue” (S66a) outlines the main features of the Siwi language, and Kamal Naït-Zerrad, “Siwa: Langue (compléments)” (S66b) complements the latter with an up-to-date bibliography. Valentina, Schiattarella, “Siwa: Littérature” (S67) describes the oral literary tradition of Siwa.

  • Stanley, C. V. B. “The Oasis of Siwa.” Journal of the Royal African Society 11.43 (1912): 290–324.

    A thirty-five-page-long overview paper on Siwa. In Part 1 the author describes the natural resources of the oasis, the main towns of Siwa and Aghurmi, the most widespread diseases, and the lifestyle and superstitions of the Siwans, while in Part 2 the author gives an account of the history of Siwa based on local tradition.

  • Stein, Lothar, and Walter Rusch. Die Oase Siwa: Unter Berbern und Beduinen der Libyschen Wüste. Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus Verlag, 1978.

    An overview of life in Siwa and El-Gara in the 1970s, complemented by more than 200 pictures. Following a general historical and geographical outline, the authors discuss the socioeconomic developments that resulted in the weakening of a subsistence-oriented system and then provide anthropological information on the community. One chapter is devoted to the Bedouin tribe of the Shahibaat inhabiting the westernmost villages of Siwa.

  • Wākid, Abd-al-Laṭīf. واحة امون: بحث شامل لواحة سيوة [Wāḥat Āmūn: baḥt šāmil li-wāḥat Sīwa]. Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al-Muqtaṭaf wa al-Muqaṭṭam, 1949.

    A good overview on Siwa written in Arabic and titled “Amun Oasis: A complete study of the Siwa Oasis”. It starts with a historical sketch up to World War II, with details on the local political system and the presence of external powers at different times, followed by chapters on the population of the oasis and its social and cultural specificities, and by a vocabulary of Siwi words with their Arabic translation.

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