Siwa Oasis became a protectorate in 2002 as per Prime Ministerial decree number 1219, although nowadays visitors would have a hard time noticing any overt measures meant to be in place to ensure that the environment in the area is in fact protected. Such measures are much needed since Siwa is particularly rich environmentally and in cultural history.
Siwa houses a distinguished set of touristic attractions, some of which include Amoun’s temple, the Dead Mountain in Aldakrour area, which has some ancient tombs. There is also the Deheba area, which includes tombs engraved in the rocks from the Greco-Roman era, and the remains of Shali Fortress in the city center.
The biological variety of Siwa, on the other hand, is characterized by the existence of more than 40 species of wild plants, including medical and pastoral. Some of them have significant genetic origins. Moreover, there are around 28 species of wild mammals, some of which are threatened with extinction, such as the hyena, the Egyptian deer, the white deer and the red fox, in addition to 32 types of reptiles and around 164 species of birds.
Located 800km from Cairo, Siwa is one of five oases lying on the outskirts of Egypt’s Western Desert. The total area of the oasis is approximately 7800 square kilometers and it is between 11 and 22 meters below sea-level. Within this oasis there are three areas designated as protectorates: one on the east side, one in the center, including the town of Siwa itself, and another in the west.
The oasis has many springs–estimated to have totaled 450 springs throughout history–many of which have since dried up. These springs enable local inhabitants to irrigate their crops. Beyond areas that are irrigated, the soil is a mixture of sand and salt, making it highly infertile.
It is believed that the town of Siwa was founded in the beginning of the 13th century. It was first located near Amoun’s temple, but its inhabitants were forced to move to higher terrain and build a fortress to be able to protect themselves against the incursions of wandering tribes. This fortified town became known as Shali (meaning “home” or “town”), and its remains can be found in the current city center known as Midan al-Souk.
The name Siwa was given to the oasis late in history, sometime in the 17th century. The name Siwa is believed to be a Berber word, used to describe the oasis’ inhabitants, the “Swa” or “Ti-Swa” people. During ancient times, it was known as the oasis of Amoun or Jupiter-Amun, and during the time of the Arabs, it was called Santariyah.
According to Mohamed Omran of the Native Siwans Association for Tourism Services and Environmental Protection, “the original inhabitants of this oasis constitute a branch of the Berber group from the tribes of Zanatah, who then mixed with Arabs from different tribes.” The current population is about 25,000. “Most of them live in the town itself; others live in small villages located near springs such as Khamisa, Abu Shuruf and Al-Zaytun,” noted Omran.
Siwans have a language of their own, taken from North African dialects mixed with some German, which is not written but only spoken and has survived for centuries.
Since ancient times, residents of the area have learnt how to adapt to their environment. One area in which this is evident is in the original architecture found throughout the oasis. Original Siwan architecture entailed building with palm trunks and a compressed clay containing large amounts of salt known as “kersheef.” The palm trunks are used to support both the walls and the ceiling. The immense thickness of the walls makes the houses cool in summer and warm in winter, thus making it particularly suitable for the extreme weather characteristic of the desert.
Siwans have also learnt how to adapt to their environment by relying economically on the local produce, which is dominated by dates and olive crops. From Ancient times, Siwa has been particularly renowned for both of these. There are approximately 240,000 palm trees in Siwa, with at least five different varieties. The clusters of palm trees one encounters throughout the area are breathtaking in their beauty. The wealth of the entire community is derived from the sale of dates, so they strive to ensure that the crop is always good.
There are also approximately 25,000 olive trees in Siwa. The best olive gardens are located in Khamisah. Vegetables and other kinds of fruit are produced for local consumption only, and what can’t be planted because of the terrain is brought in from Alexandria.
During public holidays, Siwa is bustling with tourists. Though great for the local economy, the fact that an increasing number of tourists are left unregulated is having a negative impact on the local environment. The irony seems to be in that, since Siwa was declared a protectorate, it has become more popular, making it more prone to environmental degradation due to excessive visitors.
As pointed out by Ibrahim Omar Baghi, of the Protectorate Office in Siwa, “Siwa is an open area; you cannot control the area. Our role is only to supervise in case something happens.” Such an arrangement, unfortunately, has proven problematic, since they don't have the capacity to intervene until damage has actually been done.
A case in point is the excessive number of visitors given permission to visit protected areas, such as Bir Wahed. The Protectorate Office in Siwa is not the authority designated with providing permits to visitors wanting to enter the protectorate areas. According to Baghi, this responsibility falls on the Border Guards, “because the entire area is considered a military zone. For income generation purposes, they grant more permits, and therefore no one who requests one is turned down.”
In light of this, it is quite common now to find these areas bustling with jeeps carrying large tourist groups headed out to the lakes found within these protectorates.
Another example of environmentally un-friendly practices is the fact that current construction no longer follows traditional design. Rather, modern building materials–such as steel and cement–have become standard. This not only serves to drastically change the landscape, but also creates an extremely uncomfortable form of housing given local weather conditions.
According to Baghi, this transition was forced onto the Siwans.
“Since most of the land is controlled by the army, we no longer have access to the ‘kersheef,’ thus making it very expensive because it is rare in the market,” he said. “So it is cheaper to build with modern materials even if not ideal.” Moreover, it is no longer feasible to use palm trees for construction since these represent a source of income. And with the rapid population growth they are experiencing, it would mean an ever-increasing demand to cut down palm trees.
But there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Recently, an environmental awareness program was launched whereby school children are introduced to the notion of protectorates and the regulations that need to be implemented to ensure the environment is protected.
This article is part of Al-Masry Al-Youm’s weekly “Protectorates not Protected” series, in which Egypt’s protectorates will be covered with the aim of determining the degree to which they are in fact environmentally “protected.”
Originally published by Egyptindependent.com here.