Font of knowledge: the Black Lions Library of Siwa Oasis

Carved stone sign for Black Lions Library
This charming stone sign for the Black Lions Library is actually located inside the library compound, and is not visible from the street.

We’ve been spending time in the Black Lions Library over the past couple of weeks. It’s a real treasure: a quiet, relaxing little library, with a good collection of books about Siwa Oasis in various languages. You can also find books on other Egyptian topics: history, archaeology and the geography of this vast and varied country.

Black Lions is not a lending library, but you can sit and read for as long as you like. Alan has been reading “Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians” by Edward Lane, published in 1836, while I’ve been reading “Oasis: Siwa from the Inside, Traditions, Customs and Magic.” Written by Fathi Malim, it’s the only book about Siwa Oasis written by a Siwan person.

Though it was published in 2000 (after three years of writing), a lot of “Oasis” still seems relevant and accurate. This is our second stay in Siwa (the first was in early 2018; I’ve listed the blog posts from that stay below), and I feel I’m learning a lot more about the oasis this time around. Some of my new and extended knowledge comes from conversations with our friends and acquaintances who live here, both Siwan and not; some of it is coming from this book.

Today we went into Black Lions to read again, but we ended up chatting with Gbril El-Senosy, who works at the library, and Sergio Volpi, who started it and manages it. Gbril is a Siwan who knows an enormous amount about the history and culture of his homeland, and Sergio is an Italian who’s lived for decades here in Siwa.

Today Gbril asked if we’d seen the videos the library has – copies of film shot in the oasis over the past 100-plus years. We hadn’t, and were fascinated with what Gbril and Sergio had to share. One film, shot in 1926, is footage from an excursion around the oasis taken by the Austrian ambassador to Egypt at the time, his wife and a Belgian baroness who was a travel and ethnography enthusiast. Other footage was shot by the Italian and German armies during WWII. The oldest footage dates from 1917.

What’s so fascinating about these old films is both how much has changed in Siwa – and how little. While people’s clothing – especially children’s clothing – has changed, people’s faces have not changed so much. And surprisingly, there are still plenty of old kershif (see notes below) buildings in Siwa today. In fact, some parts of the Shali – the old Siwan fortified town that was abandoned after a heavy rain in the 1920s – shown in the old films are still around today, and completely recognizable.  

Of course a great deal has changed, too. Siwa’s town center today is not just a few kershif buildings and a mosque; it’s filled with modern white-brick buildings, blue three-wheeled tuktuks, trucks, cars, and giant tour buses filled with visitors from Cairo and Alexandria. Grocery stores boast refrigerators filled with juice boxes and yogurt drinks, freezers are loaded with packaged meat, vegetables, pizza and ice cream. Embroidered Siwan shawls hang from the awnings of souvenir shops while their next-door neighbors display plastic buckets, nylon rope, shovels and hoes and other tools so necessary to an agricultural society where much work is still done by hand.

We emerged from the library’s cool dark interior into the bright mid-morning sunlight. It was time to do our shopping, so we made a circuit around the tiny Siwa town center: vegetables and fruit, local olive oil and honey, yogurt. Last of all was the just-baked bread, so hot I had to pick it up quickly by the fingertips and pack it into our bag.

Notes

Kershif is a mixture of mud, rocks, blocks of salt and other material (animal bones, for example) that’s the traditional building material of Siwa.

If you want to see some of the old films about Siwa, go to the Black Lions Library Facebook page.

Here are the 2018 blog posts about Siwa:

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