This is Part 2 in a series on the dress and adornment from the Siwa Oasis, an isolated settlement in Egypt, close to the Libyan border at the edge of the Western Desert. Inhabited by sedentary descendants of the nomadic Amazigh, or Berbers, Siwa is the only pocket of Amazigh so far east in North Africa, all other nomadic people in Egypt are Bedouin. The people and traditions of the Siwa Oasis are often linked more to those of North Africa rather than to Egypt. The series is inspired by these items in the Zay Initiative’s Collection: a heavily embroidered traditional bridal tunic, called asherah nuauk (ZI500491 EGYPT), and two coloured woollen braids, called gutan (ZI500491a EGYPT), that are detachable decoration for the bridal costume. Read Part 1 here.
The history of Siwa’s international influence and exchange
Due to the isolated location of the Siwa Oasis, the customs of the inhabitants have remained separate from the main Egyptian culture for centuries. They were not fully integrated into modern Egypt until a road connecting them to the Mediterranean coast at Marsa Matruh was paved in the 1980s. At that time, efforts were made to assimilate the Siwans into the greater Egyptian culture, and Arabic became the official language. Yet, a distinct Siwan identity remains strong and Siwi, a Tamazight (Berber) tongue, is still spoken today.
Regardless of the isolated location, the oasis has not been immune from outside influence. Since ancient times, Siwa was an important stop on the trade routes and outsiders have been drawn to the oasis since antiquity. Possibly the most famous of its notable visitors was Alexander the Great. In 332/331 BCE he journeyed over the desert with the specific purpose to visit the Oracle Temple of Amun-Ra and was allegedly informed by the Oracle that he was indeed the son of Amun, the Pharaonic god associated with the Roman god Zeus. It is often speculated that Alexander the Great’s final resting place is in Siwa.
Under the British occupation of Egypt (1882-1922), Siwa was a popular tourist attraction for the colonialists. They would travel via rail and coach for a nine-day tour, or via a camel safari that would take a month. After World War II, tourism stopped, as access to the oasis was restricted. In that time efforts were made to politically incorporate Siwa into modern Egypt, but it was not until the asphalt road was completed in 1984 that restrictions were lifted and once again tourism and travel returned to the Oasis.
The central location along the trade routes stretching from South East Asia across the African continent meant that cultures and traditions were both brought to and carried from the trading post. Indeed, there are even inhabitants of sub-Saharan African origin, who were brought to Siwa during the slave trafficking days when Siwa was one of the markets along the trans-Saharan slave route through Kufra in Libya. Thus, the unique culture of Siwa was not created in a vacuum. North African nomads, descendants of Sub-Saharan slaves, traders, and tourists from antiquity to modern-day, have all had some impact on what we know as the traditional Siwan culture.
While Siwan jewellery and dress are quite different from anywhere else in Egypt, including the other oases of the Western Desert, it is often reminiscent of that seen in Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, and (somewhat surprisingly) Yemen.
After examining some of the items from Yemen in the Zay Initiative’s Collection, it is clear that the T-shape of the Siwan tunic bears striking resemblances to some of the dresses from Yemen. In contrast, most Egyptian garments in recent history, both from other oases and along the Nile valley, are typically A-line with narrow sleeves. Yet, as Sharira Mehrez discussed in her recent webinar, the wide T-shape found in Siwa is traditional to Egypt, dating back to Pharaonic times. It was not until the 19th Century that the narrow A-line shape was adopted throughout most of Egypt due to Western influences.
It is unclear where exactly the T-shape first originated, but trade routes spread not only ideas and values around the world, but also adornments and artefacts. The use of cowrie shells and nacre buttons in Siwan adornment is another example of the distribution of items across trade routes. Siwa’s prominent location linking the coast to the desert interior has resulted in a unique culture that both influenced and was influenced by the outside world.
Influenced influences: Fashion in the globalised world
From my personal experience living in Cairo and regularly shopping for clothing and handicrafts in both tourist shops and boutiques aimed towards Cairenes, I would argue that the traditional (and not so traditional) embroidery from Siwa is one of the most distinctive and popular styles represented in Egypt. Siwan traditional embroidery is highly recognisable and has become fashionable to adorn modern clothing in Cairo, with brands like Jozee Boutique and Nevin Altmann, and even abroad.
Originally, the arrival of machine-made goods to the oasis led to a decline in the production of traditional handicrafts, but with the increase in the tourist industry Siwans once again began to produce goods specifically to sell to the visitors. In the early 2000s, Egyptian entrepreneur Laila Neamatallah opened an atelier located in the Siwa Oasis, named ‘Siwa Creations,’ to help Siwan women and girls sell their embroideries and earn an independent income. Over the years, the company has hired hundreds of Siwan woman to stitch their traditional embroidery for exclusive haute couture designers in Europe, such as the Italian fashion houses of Ermanno Scervino and Nia Ferrante. The demands of the international fashion industry have influenced both the motifs and the colours used in Siwan embroidery. Neamatallah, the founder of ‘Siwa Creations’ states that,
“[t]raditionally Siwa women use only five basic colours: red, green, black, orange and yellow, which remind them of the dates and olives Siwa has been famous for throughout history. I brought in new colours. We dye our yarn and create our own colours. I follow fashion trends very closely, so we are able to create a highly fashionable hand-made product inspired by Siwan traditional embroidery.” (Laila Neamatallah, Arab News, 6th July 2006, quoted by TRC Leiden)
The company has empowered women by providing them with autonomous income. Most of the women who work in these factories are young and unmarried, and the increase in their wealth has the potential to lead to better marriage prospects or their independence if they so wish. Yet there has also been criticised for such projects which are seen as changing traditional handicrafts to meet the needs of the Western fashion industry. In this way, there are both pros and cons to the popularity of Siwan traditional embroidery.
More problematic is a recent case with Parisian fashion house Chloé. In 2016, British singer Adele wore a Chloé dress during her performance at the Glastonbury Festival. This black, heavily embellished dress appears to be inspired by the traditional embroidery and beadwork of Siwa. The fashion house described the dress as inspired by the 1970s, taking over 200 hours to complete. Their statement caused some controversy in Egypt by not mentioning that it was a copy of the traditional black Siwan wedding dress, called asherah hawak azdhaf, as was widely believed by Egyptians. The dress wowed Western audiences and once again, during quarantine in 2020, Adele donned her ‘Siwan’ dress for her fans on Instagram (after a few ciders, as she claimed).
Does the next look from Chloe’s fall 2016/2017 runway look familiar? The fashion house described this dress as an original design. Siwa was never mentioned as a place of inspiration and these pieces were not embroidered by the Siwans themselves.
This opens all sorts of discussions on cultural appropriation which we will not go into at this time for the sake of brevity. Yet I will state that I feel there is a huge difference between what companies such as Jozee Botique, Nevin Altmann, and Siwa Creations (in collaboration with Italian fashion houses) are doing as opposed to the actions of Chloé fashion house. By the former employing local Siwan women and accrediting the designs to the traditional culture in which they were created, there is transparent appreciation leading to a level of empowerment, versus the clear appropriation of the latter. There is certainly room for further discussion on this topic.
Changes in the wedding ceremony
As the asherah nuauk in the Zay Initiative’s Collection that initiated this discussion, is a white bridal dress, we cannot end this blog post without mentioning the changes in the Siwan wedding ceremony that came along with modernisation.
Before the 1980s, and as recently as the early 2000s, Siwan brides wore seven different wedding costumes during the elaborate week-long celebration. The white dress was only worn on one of these days, the other dresses were black, green, red, and striped. Yet with the desire for modernity and with the influence of Western culture, white wedding dresses became the most desired. Instead of importing Western-style white wedding dresses, most modern Siwan brides try to blend modernity with tradition. In this way, the white asherah nuauk has become the most widely worn Siwan wedding costume. Brides now have a much more modest trousseau than before (see blog post #1), and indeed the ceremony itself is no longer a week long. The bride’s outfits are usually limited to one asherah nuauk, a pair of embroidered srawelin khatem trousers, and one or two embellished troket headscarves. In comparison, not so long ago, a Siwan bride would have as many as 30 trokets, along with the seven different coloured dresses.
Siwan women’s choice for everyday clothing has also changed due to outside influences in recent years. Many now choose to wear the black Islamic face veil instead of covering with the tarfutet, a large blue scarf that must be held closed over the face. In comparison, the niqab is seen as more practical as it frees the wearer’s hands while providing modesty. For everyday wear around the home, only the older generations still wear the traditional striped T-shaped tunics. Most now prefer the ready-made gallabiyah that is ubiquitous across Egypt.
It is clear that from antiquity, despite the isolated location, the unique culture and traditions of the Siwa Oasis have always been influenced by the outside world. Yet, in the past, the pace of change was slow, whereas now the impact of modernity is rapid. It is important to remember that nothing exists in a vacuum and one cannot expect any tradition to come without influence. Even the people in a remote desert settlement on the Egyptian and Libyan border can be ‘influenced influencers.’
Part 3 in this series will explore the connection between Pharaonic Egypt and Siwan adornment.
Further Reading – Print:
- Fahmy, Azza 2007. Enchanted Jewelry of Egypt. American University in Cairo Press, Egypt.
- Fakhry, Ahmed. 1973. The Oases of Egypt, volume one: Siwa Oasis. American University in Cairo Press, Egypt.
- Malim, Fathi 2001. Siwa: from the inside. Traditions, customs, & magic. Al Kaatan, Egypt.
- Qurashi, Wafaa Abd Elradi 2020. “An Innovative vision for re-designing traditional Siwa clothes,” International Design Journal: Vol. 10.4.
- Vale, Margaret 2015. Siwa: Jewelry, Costume, and life in an Egyptian oasis. American University in Cairo Press, Egypt.
- Vivian, Cassandra 2000. The Western Desert of Egypt. American University in Cairo Press, Egypt.
Further Reading – Online: