Siwah Oasis

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 50 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Inside Siwah
Love in a Warm Climate
Magical Marriages – Newlyweds Tell Their Incredible Stories

The Story
Diodorus dedicates Chapter 50 of his narrative to a description of Siwah oasis. It is ‘fifty furlongs in length and breadth’ and has ‘a moderate climate’. There are many springs and various types of tree, including those kinds that are ‘valued for their fruit’.

Citing an unnamed source (or sources), Diodorus says that Siwah’s sanctuary was built by Danaüs the Egyptian and that it is (as you’d expect) sacred to Ammon.

Different peoples live at Siwah: Ethiopians in the south and west, Libyans to the north, nomads and Nasamonians in the interior.

These peoples live in villages. In the middle of the oasis is a fortress, which is protected by three walls. The innermost part contains ‘the palace of the ancient rulers’. The middle section is where ‘the women’s court, the dwellings of the children, women, and relatives, and the guardrooms of the scouts’ can be found. Also here is the sanctuary of Ammon and the sacred spring. The king’s guards have their barracks in the outer section of the fortress. The guardrooms of his bodyguard are also located here.

Diodorus reports that there is a second temple dedicated to Ammon at Siwah. Nearby is a spring, known as the Spring of the Sun. Diodorus pauses for a moment to tell us a rather extraordinary fact about this spring. At daybreak, its waters are warm. As the sun rises, rather than heat up, the water actually cools until – at the sun’s peak – ‘it reaches its extreme degree of cold’. In the afternoon, as the sun dips, the water heats up until midnight when it is at its hottest. As the night progresses, the heat of the water decreases again.

This story is not unique to Diodorus. It appears in Herodotus. What are we to make of it? We’ll find out in a moment.

The chapter concludes with an description of a statue of Ammon. It ‘is encrusted with emeralds and other precious stones’. Eighty priests carry it about ‘upon a golden boat’. The priests do not follow a planned route but go where Ammon tells them. They are followed by a ‘multitude of girls and women’ who sing paeans and praise Ammon.

This is the first chapter I have covered where nothing actually happens. As I wasn’t sure how interesting writing (or reading) edited highlights of Diodorus’ description of Siwah would be, I thought it would be nice to include an up-to-date view of Siwah. To that end, I opened up a copy of Justin Marozzi’s The Man Who Invented History. In the early 2000s, Marozzi decided to take a walk in the footsteps of Herodotus. This book is his account of his journey. Marozzi has a couple of very interesting things to say about Siwah. They involve homosexuality and magic.

Marozzi states that ‘Siwa has a reputation as a bastion of illicit homosexuality’. This came about because of the rule that the city’s zaggalah (lit. ‘club-bearers’ – Young men at the bottom of Siwah’s social order who guarded the city at night from Bedouin raids), who were prohibited from marrying before the age of 40, were also prohibited from entering the city lest they fall in love with a (married) woman.

‘With time on their hands, no girls to party with and nowhere to go, the zaggalah had to make their own fun’. For some, that meant liaisons with other men – and boys. These love affairs became so part of zaggalah culture that they led to what Marozzi calls ‘gay marriage contracts’ being drawn up.

The practice continued until 1928 when the Egyptian king, Farouk, visited the oasis and berated the elders for permitting it. As a result of this, the contracts were outlawed.

At this point, I am not clear whether Marozzi says next that homosexuality or the drawing up of gay marriage contracts continued until the 50s. Perhaps it is the latter, as he also quotes GayEgypt as saying Siwah is ‘one of the best cruising places in the world’. I have not been able to find this quotation on GayEgypt’s blog. It does, however, appear on Rainbow Egypt‘s website. Perhaps the former were quoting the latter somewhere. To read about Siwah’s gay history, scroll down the page – ignoring as you go the writer’s speculations on Alexander and his burial place – and make sure you take heed of the closing comment,

If invited to dinner you should read Shane Money’s useful advice in his book “Useless Sexual Trivia” in which he warns readers that traditional belief holds that if a Siwan man mixes semen in your food you will find him irresistible.

You’ve been warned.

King Farouk’s admonition to the Siwan elders was born of his Islamic faith. As with homosexuality so with magic. Despite this, Siwans have ‘an enduring belief’ in it. For how much longer? Marozzi’s source notes that it is less popular today, due to people being better educated.

Nevertheless, come the moment, people still turn to magic to cure their ills. Or rather, cause problems for others. Marozzi mentions various curses: to stop girls marrying other men, to stop couples from having children, even to prevent the consummation of a marriage by turning the husband’s penis into a vagina.

The ‘most common spells’ aim to ‘bring about divorce, illness, infertility and love’. But they are not all-powerful. Marozzi learns that the poor newlywed husband can preserve his manhood by sprinkling holy water from Mecca around the bedroom before bedtime. Rather vexingly, his wife has to wear a ‘hijab veil to protect her from Satan’.

Marozzi also mentions the Spring of the Sun. Incredibly, he finds it just as Diodorus and Herodotus describe it. How can this be so? It’s simple. The feeling that the water is changing temperature is not derived from the water itself but the changing temperature of the air. Never dismiss a tall story. It may just tell the truth from a different perspective.

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