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It is believed to have been occupied as early as Paleolithic and Neolithic times, and some believe it was the capital of an ancient kingdom that may have included Qara, Arashieh and Bahrein. During Egypt's Old Kingdom, it was a part of Tehenu, the Olive Land that may have extended as far east as Mareotis.
Aside from that, the Siwa Oasis has little in common with the other Western Oases. The Siwan people are mostly Berbers, the true Western Desert indigenous people, who once roamed the North African coast between Tunisia and Morocco. They have their own culture and customs and, as well as speaking Arabic, speak their own Berber (Amazigh) language. Women still wear traditional costumes and silver jewellery.
It lies near the Libyan frontier, 350 miles (560 km) west-southwest of Cairo. The oasis is 6 miles (10 km) long by 4–5 miles (6–8 km) wide and has about 200 springs. Two rock outcrops provide the sites of the old walled settlements of Siwa and Aghūrmī, which are veritable fortresses. The oasis is inhabited by Berber-speaking Sudanic peoples who live in mud-brick houses at the foot of their former strongholds. Ten miles (16 km) northeast is the small oasis of Al-Zaytūn (Zeitun), and westward a chain of little oases and small salty pools extends for about 50 miles (80 km). Siwa Oasis is extremely fertile and supports thousands of date palms and olive trees. The export of dates and olive oil provide the chief source of income, supplemented by basketry.
The only structures denoting the worship of Amun in Siwa are the Temple of the Oracle and Temple of Umm Ebeida.
The ancient fortress of Siwa, known as the Shali Ghadi, was built about 800 years ago and is made of kershif (salt and mud-brick) and palm logs. These dwellings were inhabited up until 1926, before folks moved on to more conventional structures.Located in Siwa's Aghurni is the famous temple of Amun, also known as the Temple of the Oracle.
The construction of Shali, an ancient fortress built in the XII century in Siwa, an oasis of the western Egyptian desert. The architecture is characterised by the use of salt blocks, taken from the nearby salty lakes. The blocks are utilised in the masonry with an abundant mud mortar very rich in salt.
From the little information that we have, the only god that we know was worshipped was the god Ammon. Although Arrian writes that Alexander was recreating the same journey that Persues and Heracles had travelled to consult the oracle, it is unknown whether they were worshipped there.
Ammon was a god who has roots in both Libya and Egypt. Ammon at Siwa was made famous by Alexander the Great and his visit to the Oracle, and from this time onwards it is most likely that Ammon became part of the Hellenistic world. The Hellenistic empire is characterised by its metropolitan nature which ideas to be exchanged and adapted across the known-world. Therefore, instead of being an Egyptian or Libyan deity he became an amalgamation of these deities. The ram horns being symbolic of Amon to evoke his power and strength.
Fig. 4 - Zeus Amun from Karnak Temple
Fig. 5 - Head of Zeus Amun with rams horns
Amon’s popularity was widespread, not only in Libya and Egypt but also worshipped in the Greek colony of Cyrenaica on the North African coast, Sparta and Thebes. Pindar especially propagated his cult by being the first to dedicate an ode to the god and one of the first gods to erect a statue to the god.
“and one day Apollo, in his gold-filled house,
will admonish him by oracle,
when at length he enters the Pythian shrine,
to lead a host of men in ships
to the rich precinct of Zeus Ammon by the Nile.”
Pindar, Pythian 4
In Pythian 4 Pindar reveals that Ammon had become synchronised with Zeus as both were considered to be ‘King of the gods’ in their respected pantheons. Amon begins to take on more classical characteristics in his artistic depictions, whereby in ancient Egyptian art he was represented as blue skinned with a phallus to highlight his fertile, life-giving properties and instead is depicted anthropomorphically with goats horns peaking through his hair.
Later visitors to the Temple of Siaw included the Athenian commander Cimon, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great, and the Carthaginian leader Hannibal. This therefore highlights that the god Ammon had become incorporated in Classical religion, as well as in politics.
The consultants of the oracle would offer sacrifices to the god and gifts to the priests before the consultation would take place. The god took the form of a “navel (stone) fastened in a mass of emeralds and other gems” and would be carried on a golden boat, with silver cups hanging from both sides, by eighty priests who walk around randomly wherever the god leads them, followed by women and girls singing hymns and hymn praising the god. The path the boat took would then be interpreted by the priests and would provide the answer to the question asked of the oracle.
Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander:
What is worshipped as the god does not have the same form that artificers have commonly given to the deities; its appearance is very like that of a navel fastened in a mass of emeralds and other gems. When an oracle is sought, the priests carry this in a golden boat with many silver cups hanging from both sides of the boat; matrons and maidens follow, singing in the native manner a kind of rude song, by which they believe Jupiter is propitiated and led to give a trustworthy response. (4. 23-25)
Then, after sacrifice had been offered, gifts were given both to the priests and to the god, and the king’s friends also were allowed to consult Jupiter. They asked nothing more than whether the god authorized them to pay divine honours to their king. The prophets replied that this also would be acceptable to Jupiter. (4. 28-29)
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History:
The image of the god is encrusted with emeralds and other precious stones, and answers those who consult the oracle in a quite peculiar fashion. It is carried about upon a golden boat by eighty priests, and these, with the god on their shoulders, go without their own volition wherever the god directs their path. A multitude of girls and women follows them singing hymns as they go and praising the god in a traditional hymn. (50. 6)
During the Late Period of Egyptian history Siwa was considered too far away and too isolated to be a considered part of the Egyptian kingdom. The sanctuary and city itself if situated in the heart of a desert which makes many attempts to reach the city difficult and according to some accounts futile. However, this does not mean that there have not been many attempts to exert indirect control over the city and sanctuary. It is almost certain that during the Nineteenth Dynasty, there was a fort position towards the north of Siwa, at Umm el-Rakham near the coast. This provides insight into the importance of Siwa to the native Egyptian Pharaohs, they clearly saw that the Siwa had a significant amount of value, enough for them to spend a significant amount of money building and employing a fort close by. However, even their attempts to exert indirect control over the region failed and after the fall of the New Kingdom, Siwa remained completely independent.
It wasn’t until the domestication of the dromedary that Siwa finally became a fully integrated part of Egypt, as it made desert travel easier for travelers to reach the sanctuary. An example of this can be tracked through the oasis' exportation of salt.
The shrine of Swia was built by pharaoh Amasis (r.570-526). It was intended to be a political act meant to help gain support from the Libyan tribes which had played a critical role during Amasis' accession. A similar motive may have been behind the second temple, built by Nectanebo II (r. 359/358-342/341).
In the fifth century, Herodotus of Halicarnassus wrote in his Histories that Croesus, the Lydian king (560-546) had set up sacrifices to the god Eygptian Ammon. If Herodotus's account is right then it would suggest further that the Egyptian attempt to gain Lydia as an ally had been successful and that by this time the cult had spread outside Egypt.
It is believed that some of the very first Greeks to visit the shrine were people from Cyrenaica, who knew the site through caravan trade. It should be noted that it was this influx of a new culture where the shrine first made the move from Ammon to Zeus Ammon.
Fig. 6 - Coin from Cyrene, showing Zeus-Ammon. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (Austria)
This coin from Cyrene is particularly important because it shows the incorporation of the egyptian gods and the Greek gods, forming the Zeus- Ammon hybrid. This highlights that from as early as Nectanebo II, the greek/ eqyptian religious identity had begun to from, and had spread throughout the Greek world, at least reaching as far as Cyrene
The spread of this cult to the Greek world was especially propagated and encouraged by the poet Pindar (522-445), who was the first Greek to dedicate an ode to the god and he erected a statue to the god. Later important classical visitors included the Athenian commander Cimon, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great, and the Carthaginian leader Hannibal.
Alexander the Great traveled to the sanctuary in 331 BC. He wanted to use the status and authority of the santatury to help secure his right to be king of the world.
At this point Alexander was seized with a longing to visit Ammon in Libya; his intention was to consult the god, as the oracle of Ammon was reputed to be truthful and it was said that Perseus and Heracles had consulted it. (Arrian 3.3.1)
He achieved this by getting the Oracle to proclaim that he was actually the son of Zeus. This was important because it not only helped gain him sovereignty over Egypt, who traditionally only accepted rulers which were in some way semi-divine, but helped inspire his army to push on further. They were no longer the army of their king but the army of their God.
Alexander admired the site and consulted the god, and having received, as he put it, the answer which his heart desired he returned to Egypt by the same road, as Aristobulus says, though according to Ptolemy he followed a straight road to Memphis. (Arrian 3.4.5)
Alexander’s trip to Siwa was also significant in helping him set out his authority in the East. As a result of him paying attention to an honouring Eastern religion, it made him more acceptable to the peoples of persia. Upon his arrival in Memphis Alexandre sacrificed the Apis bull and furthermore he began to dress in the clothes and style traditionally adopted by Persian royalty. Through the adoption of religion and tradition Alexander began to set the foundations for his potentially successful rule over Egypt and the East. This is arguably where the sanctuary reached the height of its power and importance.
During the Roman Period, the oracle and sanctuary had faded in popularity and importance. However, inscriptions which date back as late as Trajan (98-117) can still be found at the temple. This suggests that even though the Siwa had faded in current significance Roman emperors still honored its cultural and historical significance.
Architecturally, there have been many tombs found with Roman elements incorporated into it. This suggests that there were Romans living there with a substantial amount of wealth in the first and second centuries CE. Another mud-brick building found has often been believed to be a Roman fort or a church, and we know of a sixth-century Christian leader named Ammoneki. After Islam arrived, the ancient oracle was converted into a mosque.
Select Site Bibliography
Fig. 1 - Site plan of the sanctuary (https://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/templeoforacle.htm)
Fig. 2 - Entrance to the oracle (https://www.livius.org/pictures/egypt/siwa/siwa-oracle/)
Fig. 3 - View of the sanctuary (https://www.livius.org/pictures/egypt/siwa/siwa-oracle-1/)
Fig. 4 - Zeus Amun from Karnak Temple (https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Amun)
Fig. 5 - Head of Zeus Amun with rams horns (http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2011/antiquities-n08810/lot.12.html)
Fig. 6 - Coin from Cyrene, showing Zeus-Ammon. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (Austria) (https://www.flickr.com/photos/78128495@N00/4473338997/ )
Pindar, Pythian 4, trans. S. J. Willett (2001) from Perseus Digital Library (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0223)
Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander, trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1946)
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, trans. C. H. Oldfather (London: William Heinemann, Ltd. 1989)
Arrian, Anabasis, trans. P. A. Brunt (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1976)
Lendering, J. (2010) Livius, Oracle of Ammon (https://www.livius.org/articles/place/ammon-siwa/photos/oracle-of-ammon/)
Dunn, J. The Temple of the Oracle (Temple of Amun) at the Siwa Oasis in Egypt (https://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/templeoforacle.htm)
1- Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander 4. 23-25.
The Sanctuary of Zeus Amun at Siwa is situated in in the Siwan Oasis in Egypt near the border of modern day Libya. The sanctuary was remote and it is said that Alexander the Great treked through the desert for days in order to reach it.
You might even want to embed a map to show it within the context of other archaeological sites from vici.org, like below. To find out how to do this, see the further instructions page.
Fig. 1 - Site plan of the sanctuary
Fig. 2 - Entrance to the oracle
Fig. 3 - View of the sanctuary