The Siwan people are mainly descended from the Berbers of North Africa. As a result of this heritage Siwa's character is unlike that of any other Egyptian oasis. The traditions, rites, costumes and language of Siwa are more closely related to those of the coast from Libya to Morocco than Egypt. Nowadays almost everyone in Siwa speaks and writes Arabic but that is a relatively recent change. Ahmed Fakhry, who regularly visited Siwa from the 1930s until his death in the 1970s, wrote that in the past only a few families could speak Arabic and had to act as translators when merchants and visitors came from the east.
Little is known about Siwa during the times of the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms of Egypt. There is no evidence that it was colonized during Pharaonic times until the time of Ramses III (around the time Herodotus was writing). It was Herodotus who first used the term 'oasis' when writing about Siwa. Before this the word was not used. After the Temple of Amun was discovered by the Greeks, foreign visitors became more common. Attracted by the Oracle, they were prepared to brave the treacherous journey across the desert from the coast. What can now be accomplished in a few hours once took days and not all who started out on the trek made it to Siwa.
Alexander the Great's visit to Siwa nearly ended in disaster. Arrian tells of how the caravan ran out of water, got lost and then encountered a rainstorm that almost wrecked the expedition. Various stories note that Alexander was saved by the appearance of two snakes (or crows depending on the version) which led the party to safety. The Oracle declared Alexander was a god and from that time on his name was linked with Siwa.
Even those who made it across the desert were not always welcomed. While from Greek times till the introduction of Islam to Siwa little is known about the history of this isolated oasis, it is known that initially the Siwans resisted all outside influence. The first Moslems to try to enter Siwa failed and legends grew about Siwa being impregnable. However, by the 12th century A.D. Siwa was a Moslem city. Also around that time the new town- the Shali- was built. Life within the walls of the Shali was not always peaceful. Shortly after the Shali was built a new group arrived at Siwa. This was made up of thirty Arabs and Berbers led by a wealthy man who planted palm trees and wanted to settle in Siwa. The original inhabitants, who became known as the Easterners, were unwilling to live with the newcomers- the Westerners- and feuds continued well into the 20th century. Dalrymple Belgrave, in his affectionate account of the 2 years he spent in Siwa from 1920-1921, describes a number of disputes he was called on to deal with. Even today there is a clear division in Siwa between the descendants of the Easterners and Westerners.
Siwans continued to reject outsiders. Early Europeans wishing to enter Siwa were obliged to disguise themselves as Arabs in order to gain access. They faced instant expulsion and possible violence if their deception was discovered. In the 19th century Mohamed Ali worked hard to subdue all the oases. The Siwans resisted furiously but were eventually outnumbered and forced to pay an annual fine. This didn't end matters though as the Siwans often neglected to pay it and Mohamed Ali had to constantly send troops to bring them back in line. In 1830 a government office was established in Siwa to ensure they finally obeyed outside authorities. At this time Siwa was an important stop on slave routes from Libya. Many of the slaves remained in Siwa and their descendants are part of modern day Siwan life.
Although by the 20th century Siwa was seen as relatively safe to visit it wasn't until after WW1 that it started to become a tourist attraction. During the war the Sanusi, a tribe of Moslem Bedouins from the Libyan (Western) Desert, occupied Siwa but were ejected by the British after a fierce gun battle. Dalrymple Belgrave describes the battle in some detail in his book; Siwa, the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon. He also describes the birth of the tourist trade in the Western Desert. He writes of people arriving in Marsa Matruh with no guide, no spares for their car and no way to carry water and wanting to go for a 'joy ride' to Siwa. They were always refused permission to cross the desert and were often surprised!
In WW2, Siwa was occupied first by the British, Australians and New Zealanders and then by the Italians after they successfully bombed the oasis. Until the 1980s, Siwa was a restricted area and there are still some areas that are off limits to all but military personnel. From that time on Siwa has been open and welcoming to tourists.