In Berber, the name "Siwa" means "prey bird and protector of sun god Amon-Ra." It is derived from the name of the indigenous inhabitants, Tiswan, who speak Tassiwit, a dialect related to Berber spoken in the Sahara and North Africa. Siwa is one of the most arid oases in western Egypt near the border of Libya at a depression of 18 meters below sea level, and it is 300 kilometers southwest of the Mediterranean port city of Marsa Matruh. The oasis is 82 kilometers long and has a width ranging between 2 and 20 kilometers. The oasis was occupied since Paleolithic and Neolithic times. It was first mentioned more than 2,500 years ago in the records of the pharaohs of the Middle and New Kingdoms (2050-1800 B.C. and 1570-1090 B.C.).
   In its historical development, Siwa was an important center of Egyptian culture. A temple was built there to honor the ram-headed sun god Amon-Ra, and it housed a divine oracle whose fame, by about 700 B.C., was widespread in the eastern Mediterranean. The temple of the oracle where Alexander was received can still be seen on the hill of Aghurmi, the old capital of Siwa. King Cambyses of Persia, son of Cyrus the Great and conqueror of Egypt, held a grudge against the oracle, probably because it had predicted that his conquests in Africa would soon falter-as indeed they did. In 524 B.C., Cambyses dispatched from Luxor an army of 50,000 men to destroy the Siwan oracle-a dispersion of forces that he could ill afford on his way to capture Ethiopia. The entire army vanished without a trace, buried in the seas of sand between Siwa and the inner-Egyptian oases, and no sign of it has been found even to this day.
   While the Amun oasis was isolated to resist conversion to Islam, it did acquire a new name. The Arabs called it Santariya after the groves of acacia trees. The Santariyans fought off all attempts to bring them under central control. In the mid-19th century, the history of the oasis and its families was compiled in a scholarly document called the Siwan Manuscript, which was held by one family and updated until the 1960s. The manuscript was written by Abu Musallim, a qadi, or judge, who had been trained at the al-Azhar University in Cairo. The Siwan people are mostly Berbers, the indigenous people who once roamed the North African coast between Tunisia and Morocco. They inhabited the area as early as 10,000 B.C., first moving toward the coast but later inland as conquering powers pushed them to take refuge in the desert. Most of the information on Siwa available to us today comes from the Siwan Manuscript, begun more than one hundred years ago. It includes a summary of information from medieval Arab chroniclers as well as the oral traditions of Siwa itself.
   The population of the oasis is about 35,000, most of whom reside in the town of Siwa. Siwans still retain their own Berber dialect, which is related to Berber as spoken in the Sahara and North Africa. Siwa's economy is based on irrigated crops, date palms and olive trees, and livestock. There are at least 250,000 palm trees and at least 30,000 olive trees in the oasis. Most other Mediterranean fruits and vegetables are also grown, as are large quantities of alfalfa for the livestock and for export. In 1986, a daily bus service began on the new road between Siwa and Marsa Matruh, and oil exploration and army encampments have led to the infusion of many outsiders. The area is also famous for its springs, of which there are approximately 1,000. The water is sweet and is said to have medicinal properties. The oasis is also a major desert tourism destination.

Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen) . . 2014.

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