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WORLD BYWAYS: Egypt’s Siwa Oasis - A Glimpse at the 13th Century

May 23, 1989


SIWA OASIS, Egypt (AP) _ The temple of the Siwan Oracle, where the superstitious young conqueror Alexander the Great was told he was a god, sits in ruin on its hillside perch.

Shali, a majestic 13th-century fortress that protected Siwans from medieval Bedouin marauders, is a sandcastle of rubble, stripped of its glory by neglect and the oasis’ infrequent but devastating desert rains.

The village silversmith is gone, along with most of the elaborate jewelry he crafted - gigantic bangles that jingled from the oasis’ richly costumed women.

Berber and Sudanese heritage have blended into Siwan life, along with other tongues and cultures carried over Saharan sands to form its roots and distinct language.

So much made Siwa, only 85 miles from Libya, unique in Egypt, and much of that is gone.

But much is left.

As it has for a thousand years, life in Siwa begins before dawn with the muezzim calling Moslems to prayer from minarets of mosques scattered through the oasis’ date palms and olive groves.

Then a donkey serenade begins. Hundreds bray, echoing through the palms, followed by a chorus of roosters.

Early-morning markets open to the cloppety-clop of donkeys pulling kerussahs, family carts driven by caftan-wearing men or boys. Wives and mothers covered head-to-toe in flowing blue embroidered shawls called milayah sit behind with smaller children.

Covered kerussahs provide the local taxi service, sharing bumpy roadways with military trucks and, with increasing frequency, tourist buses from Cairo.

Camels never made it big in Siwa. Donkeys are cheaper.

Until the early 1980s, virtually all sounds and sights in Siwa would have been familiar to Siwans centuries earlier. But four years ago a highway became the oasis’ umbilical cord to Egypt and the Arabic language.

The three-hour, 190-mile drive from Mersa Matrouh on the western Egyptian coast covers generally the same desert route over which, 2,000 years ago, people from around the Mediterranean - Alexander among them - trekked for more than a week seeking the wisdom of the famed desert oracle.

More recently, buyers for chic boutiques in Cairo and Europe have traveled it, taking with them the best jewelry and handicrafts.

Siwans have been put on parade for an ever-growing number of often scantily dressed visitors.

Television invaded Siwa in 1986, and more than 1,000 sets were sold the first week. Like their fellow Egyptians, Siwans go to bed chatting about the latest plot twists of Falcon Crest or Knots Landing.

Young Siwans, now heading in increasing numbers for higher education in Cairo and Alexandria, have far fewer traditions to remember but many more influences to contemplate.

But for Siwa’s 10,000 inhabitants, the infusion and confusion hasn’t been all bad.

A year-old U.S. aid project gives them clean water for the first time. Extracted from salty subterranean pools, the desalinated water costs 5 piasters (just over 2 cents) a jerrycan, which even the poor can afford, instead of 75 piasters (30 cents) when water was trucked from outside.

Electricity supplies remain uncertain and sporadic, but Czechoslavakian generators are being installed that promise a constant power supply.

One aid project is working to save Siwa’s soul.

More than a year ago, Marc Perron, then Canada’s ambassador to Egypt, asked Siwan officials what his country could do for their changing oasis. Help us save our heritage, they said.

″Everybody talked for years about how to save Siwa, that its cultural heritage must be saved, but nobody did anything about it,″ said Heba el- Kholy, fund coordinator at the Canadian Embassy in Cairo.

The Canadian project aimed to build a traditional Siwan house in the old way, using mudbrick and palm trunks and to teach young women old skills.

Now nearing completion, the two-story house going up in the village garden will become a museum dedicated to Siwan culture and a reservoir for handicrafts.

Six miles away, in a poor desert village, Khadiga Ismail Sami has spent the last year teaching five cheerful girls, aged 11 to 15, to embroider bridal scarves in the Siwan way. Siwan girls, who marry about age 14, must have an extensive bridal trousseau, including seven elaborate wedding dresses.

Mrs. Sami is among nine women team leaders, each passing along her sewing or basket-making artistry to five girls.

The Canadian project has supplied each of Mrs. Sami’s apprentices material for bridal scarves, which can take several months to complete.

Once finished, she has the option of keeping them or selling them back to the project for 5 Egyptian pounds (about $2) each.

″A bride has to have these scarves for her wedding,″ Mrs. Sami said. ″If she has to buy them ready-made, she will have to pay 75 pounds ($30) for one scarf.″

Miss el-Kholy, the Canadian co-ordinator, said she considers both efforts a first step in saving Siwa’s unique traditions.

″Young girls today prefer watching television to making handicrafts,″ she said. ″But once we begin selling the products, and the women can see the results, I believe the traditions won’t die.″

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