Dominating the marketplace are the crumbling ruins of a 12thcentury fortress known as Shali. Siwans built it for protection from the hostile Bedouin tribes who periodically raided the oasis. The walls and houses are constructed not from mudbrick but Karsheef, a stone made of sun-baked clay, salt and fine sand which is dug from the edges of the salt lakes.
Built atop a limestone hill, the fortress was quite solid and commanded a view of the open desert as well as the thousands of palm and olive trees that spill forth. The original fortress had three gates: the first, for the “Adjuat” or notables; the second, for the women; and the third for the general public.
Inside the fortress walls was a thriving village complete with streets and a well large enough to satisfy its 700 inhabitants. Strangers were not allowed to enter the village, and the fortress was closed after dark as a safeguard against invaders.
After Mohammed Ali’s conquest of Siwa in 1840, the inhabitants slowly trickled down from the hill and into the surrounding area, building the villages that continue to grow today.
Severe rainstorms in 1930, 1970 and 1985 destroyed many houses, forcing out most of the remaining inhabitants and convincing them to abandon Karsheef for cement and white stone. As a result, the face of Siwa is changing forever.