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Saharan Town Enters Modern Era : Ancient Egypt Oasis Blooms Again

June 25, 1989|MIMI MANN | Associated Press

SIWA OASIS, Egypt — 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 elaborately crafted jewelry--gigantic bangles that jingled from the oasis' richly costumed women.

Distinct Language

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

Much of Siwa is gone. But much is left.

As it has for a thousand years, life in Siwa--about 75 miles from Libya in northern Egypt--begins before dawn with the muezzim calling Muslims 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 cloppity-clop of donkeys pulling kerussahs, or family carts, driven by caftan-wearing men or boys. The women--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.

New Highway

Until the early 1980s, virtually all sounds and sights in Siwa would have been familiar to Siwans of earlier centuries. 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.

Television invaded Siwa in 1986, and more than 1,000 sets were sold the first week.

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.

Clean Water

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 Czechoslovakian generators are being installed that promise a constant power supply.

And 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. The answer: save the Siwan heritage.

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

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

Now nearing completion, the two-story house 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 girls, aged 11 to 15, to embroider bridal scarfs in the Siwan way. Siwan girls, who marry about age 14, must have an extensive bridal trousseau, including seven elaborate wedding dresses.

Passing On Skills

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 Sami's apprentices material for bridal scarfs, which can take 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 scarfs for her wedding," Sami said. "If she has to buy them ready-made, she will have to pay 75 pounds ($30) for one scarf."

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