One of six oases in the vast Western Desert, Siwa is a peaceful haven with palm-fringed salt-water lakes, and the famous Oracle of the Temple of Amun once visited by Alexander the Great. The town is dramatically crowned by 13th-century fortress ruins of Shali, best climbed at sunrise or sunset mainly due to the fierce sun. Siwa is also a good base to make excursions into the desert by jeep.
Siwa Oasis is in western Egypt near the border to Libya, it is some 560km kilometers from Cairo, at an depression of 18 metres below sea level. The oasis is 82 km long and has a width varying between 2 and 20 km. The people are Berbers, and have their own language. To Siwa, there are 3 larger salt lakes, Birket Maraqi, Birket Siwa, and Birket Zaytun. Tourism has gradually given employment for some Siwans . It has beautiful oasis gardens, bathing possibilities and pharaonic temples too. The fortress Shali is pretty much ruined to give a true image of old times.
Siwa is the westernmost of the five major oases of Egypt and can be reached by car from Baharia or from Marsa Matruh, on the Mediterranean coast. In comparison with the other oases, the most striking feature of the Siwan landscape is the presence of several salt lakes, that diminish in size during the summer. The salt also impregnates the soil, creating a big problem. Mud bricks have been used for centuries to build entire village fortresses, and are called "qasr" in Arabic, such as Shali in Siwa, Qasr in Farafra, Qasr Dakhla in Dakhla and Qasr Kharga in Kharga. In recent times, all of them have suffered mainly from the rain rather than any human devastation. Shali, in particular, has now been reduced to an impressive and dangerous ruin due to the high content of salt in its mud bricks.
Then, abruptly, you reach the edge of the scarp; at your feet lies the depression that is Siwa, averaging some 20 meters (65 feet) below sea level: a sea of green palms, a mosaic of lakes, an expanse of irrigated fields. After 300 kilometers of desert it seems a mirage.
Siwa owes its existence to an abundance of permanent fresh-water springs that permit intensive cultivation. Yet the very abundance of the water is also a serious impediment to agriculture, for without proper drainage salt would accumulate in the soil as it has in the many lakes. Siwa would still be green without human intervention, but not with crops. The land would be covered with coarse grasses and various salt-resistant desert plants, with palm groves only in favored places.
The most illustrious visitor to Siwa was undoubtedly Alexander the Great. He was acclaimed pharaoh of Egypt after defeating the Persian Darius in the battle of Issus in 333 BC. In 331 he set sail from his newly-founded city of Alexandria, reached Mersa Matruh, and marched toward Siwa along the desert route that is still used today.
Though we do not know for certain, Alexander's purpose in making the journey may have been a piece of political image-making. Each of the pharaohs of Egypt's 28th Dynasty had traveled to Siwa to be acknowledged at the temple there as the son of Amon-Ra, the supreme god; each, thereafter, was depicted as wearing the ram's horns of Amon on his head. Alexander wanted the same declaration of divine power to legitimize his conquest of Egypt and put himself on the same footing as the pharaohs.
The overland journey was, according to the historian Callisthenes, a dangerous one. Alexander's party exhausted its water supply, but divine intervention produced a sudden downpour. A sandstorm caused them to lose their way, but divine intervention, Callisthenes says, sent two crows to lead them safely to Siwa. It was necessary for historians to show that kings had divine protection, so we cannot be sure that these episodes actually took place, but they were widely reported and believed at the time, and their value was all the greater because of the contrast with the fate of Cambyses' 50,000 men.
As might be expected, conquering Alexander was received with enthusiasm at Siwa, and with pomp and ceremony to match. Dancers, musicians, priests and worshipers circled in procession in the forecourt of the temple, and thereafter Alexander requested a private session with the oracle. He was greatly pleased with the results, according to a letter to his mother, though we know neither his questions nor the oracle's answers - yet Alexander, too, was thereafter depicted on coins wearing ram's horns, and referred to with reverence as "Alexander of the Two Horns." His visit was the high point of Siwa's history.
The temple of the oracle where Alexander was received can still be seen on the hill of Aghurmi, the old capital of Siwa. It is not a great temple by the standards of the Nile Valley and it is not in good repair, but for an oasis which probably never had more than 10,000 inhabitants it is a landmark, and a symbol of fame, power and wealth quite disproportionate to such a remote spot.
there was also a second Temple of Amon in Siwa that almost survived into the 20th century. It was blown up with gunpowder in 1897 so that its stone could be reused for the construction of a police station and a private manor.
With the coming of Roman times, oracles went out of fashion, and so did the Egyptian gods, whom the Greeks had more or less integrated into their own mythology. Auguries and the reading of animal entrails were more the Roman style. When the traveler and historian Strabo visited Egypt in 23 BC he could note that the oracle of Amon had lost almost all importance, though doubtless the god was still worshiped locally till the advent of Islam.