Egypt: The Temple of the Oracle (Temple of Amun)at the Siwa Oasis in Egypt

The Temple of the Oracle (Temple of Amun)
at the Siwa Oasis in Egypt

By Jimmy Dunn

The facade of the Temple of the Oracle Proper in Siwa, Egypt

The Oracle

In the mostly abandoned village of Aghurmi in the Siwa Oasis is a most famous temple of Amun, now more known as the Temple of the Oracle because of Alexander's visit when he conquered Egypt. It is actually one of two temples dedicated to Amun at Siwa, the other being Umm Ubayda. It sits atop a flat rock, and is a spectacular sight. Built during the 26th Dynasty (though the Oracle's origin is reputed to be much, much older), this temple and its Oracle flourished well into the Greek and Roman periods.

There are a number of myths about the founding of this temple. One of them tells of two black priestesses from the Temple of Amun at Thebes (modern Luxor) who were banished to the desert. In this tell, one of them founded the Temple of Dodona in Greece, where she became the voice of the Oracle. The second, after a time in Libya, came to Siwa where she became the Oracle's sibyl.

Ground Plan of the Temple of the Oracle Proper

Another tell maintains that the temple existed as early as 1385 BC, and was built in honor of Ham, the son of Noah, by Danaus the Egyptian, while yet another legend relates the founding of the temple to the Greek god Dionysus. While lost in the Western Desert, Dionysus was perishing of thirst when a man appeared and guided him to the spring at Aghurmi. In gratitude, Dionysus erected the temple.

Oracles, manifestations of the gods, were very revered in the ancient world and their existence in Egypt dates back for beyond the Temple of the Oracle at Siwa. Able to see into the future, they were consulted regularly prior to important decisions. Other important Oracles of the ancient world were located at Persia, Libya, Delphi, Cumae, Samos, Cimmeria, Erythrae, Tibur, Marpessa (on the Hellespont) and at Phrygia. Their abodes were typically close to a natural phenomenon. At Siwa, the temple was located at the spectacular Spring of the Sun. Sibyls, priestesses who spoke the Oracle's message, were believed to be endowed with prophetic powers often called upon to intercede with the gods.

Various ancient sources, including Quintus Curtius and Diodorus, report that the original form of the Oracle at Siwa was the bezel of a ring, which was embellished with gems including the elusive Siwan emeralds. Later, the form became the head of a ram, a symbol of Amun. We are told that, unlike the great complex at Karnak, wealth was not important, and in fact, the Oracle at Siwa strove to maintain its primitive simplicity.

A view of the Temple of the Oracle Proper in Siwa, Egypt, up on its rock

Today, we think of the Oracles most famous visitor as Alexander the Great, but legend says there were others.

The Oracle at Siwa was held in such high favor in Greece that an Athenian galley was commissioned solely to convey envoys to Mersa Matruh, then called Ammonia, where they would begin their desert trek to the oasis. The Greeks probably learned of the Oracle after they invaded the northern coast and established Cyrene (now Libya) in 637 BC. Afterwards, the Oracle was absorbed into Greek religion and associated with Zeus, who became associated with the Egyptian Amun. The Oracle is reputed to have cursed Andromeda and she was tied to a rock to be devoured by a sea-serpent. Perseus is said to have stopped off to visit the Oracle prior to beheading Medusa, and Hercules is though to have visited it before he fought Bursiris.

The Approach to the Temple of the Oracle Proper in Siwa, Egypt, up on its rock (Copyright Alain Guilleux Une promenade en Egypte)

Cambyses, who ruled Egypt between 525 and 522 BC, wanted to destroy the Oracle, but he lost his army somewhere in the vast outreaches of the Western Desert. Pliny tells us that this was because the sacred stone at the temple was touched by sacrilegious hand, which caused a dreaded sand storm to rage.

There is a legend that Pindar, the famous Greek poet who lived between 522 and 443 BC, wrote a poem about the Oracle that was kept under the alter for six centuries.

Prior to Alexander the Great, Cimon, the Athenian general, stood at Cyprus in 449 BC awaiting word from the Oracle before attacking Egypt. It is said that when his emissaries reached the Temple, the Oracle spoke, "Cimon is already with me!". When they returned to Cyprus, the discovered that Cimon had died as they were speaking to the Oracle.

Eubotas, the famous Cyrene athlete also stopped by, perhaps sometime around the year 409 BC. Around the same time, Lysander, the Spartan general, came to Siwa twice to consult with the Oracle.

A photo made during Fakhry's visit showing the back side of the temple just on the edge of the cliff

We are told that Alexander the Great, in 331 BC) consulted the Oracle in order to seek confirmation that he was the son of Zeus (Amun), and therefore a legitimate ruler of both Egypt and other lands that he conquered. When he and his entourage arrived after capturing Egypt, a manifestation of the Oracle was paraded through the city accompanied by eighty priests. After his visit to the Oracle, whenever his image appeared on coins, Alexander was shown with the horns of the ram, symbolic of the god Amun. We know that Alexander consulted the Oracle at least once, and probably more than one time.

After Alexander, Hannibal is reported to have visited the Oracle and the Elians were so deeply influenced by the Oracle that they kept a list of all their questions and answers provided by the Oracle, which they engraved in stone upon a temple wall.

However, by the time of the Romans, the Oracle began a decline. We are told that Cato asked about the freedom of Rome and according to one source the Oracle refused to answer. A second source maintains that Cato had come to challenge the Oracle and break its power, so it was Cato who refused to speak, thus lowering the esteem of the Oracle. By the time that Strabo visited Siwa after the birth of Jesus Christ, he noted that the Oracle was no longer as powerful and was in decline.

The Temple

The Temple Entrance

The ruins of the Temple of the Oracle still exits, but for how long is questionable. The rock upon which it sits is cracking, and from time to time parts of it, sometimes large pieces, slide down. Fissures are seen on all side and we know that in ancient times, the rock was much larger. There is considerable evidence of treasure hunters at work in the temple area. Nevertheless, the Temple remains fairly well-preserved, all considered.

The temple is reached by climbing a well-marked path up the side of the rock it surmounts. The temple does not occupy the entire area. It sites within the village that was abandoned for the most part in 1926 after a heavy rainstorm. Until very recently, at least some families actually lived in the temple.

The entrance is through the village gate. The ruins of an old mosque stand over the gate, its minaret still dominating the skyline. In front of the mosque is the ancient well with several niches that may lead to storage areas or subterranean passages. The temple is in the northwest corner of this area. Its walls abut the cliff at the edge of the rock and are in danger of falling into the precipice below.

A good overall view of the courtyard and the Temple of the Oracle Proper in Siwa, Egypt

The area in front of the temple was cleared of its mudbrick houses by Ahmed Fakhry in 1970. The court in which the processions of the god took place stretches in front of the temple proper, but only the foundations of its northern and eastern walls still exist. The court is only a small distance from the edge of the rock, and therefore we have to suppose either that this area of the rock at its edge was filled in during ancient times, or that visitors had to climb a staircase if, as we might expect, the entrance of the court was in the axis of the temple. However, it is possible that the entrance to the court was on the east side and that it was reached as it is today by climbing the slope.

The facade of the temple is easily distinguished. It stands about eight meters high. the entrance has a cornice measuring 2.22 meters wide, with no inscriptions. Later builders, apparently during the Ptolemaic period, attempted to make it look like a Greek temple, adding a wall in front on which they build a half-column of the fluted Doric type to each side of the entrance.

A good view of the shattered cliff upon which the Temple sits (Copyright Alain Guilleux Une promenade en Egypte)

The facade leads to an interior of two large halls and a sanctuary with an entrance on the main axis. The first hall measures 7.74 by 4.95 meters. Its entrance is not precisely in the middle of the wall. The western side is slightly longer. there are two niches in the southern wall, one in each of the two corners. At floor level in the west wall there is an entrance to a crypt. The second court is almost the same size as the first, but built a little higher. There are three entrances int he north wall of the second court, of which the middle and larger one leads to the sanctuary. The small entrance to the right of it, only 80 centimeters wide, leads to a narrow corridor which might have been used as an annex for storing the temple equipment or to assist in delivering the oracles. In the left wall of the corridor are three niches about 66 centimeters higher than the floor, and near the ceiling are two apertures for light. Fakhry wondered whether this might have been a secret area from which the priests could speak the words of the Oracle.

Only the sanctuary has walls that are inscribed. The sanctuary measure 3.3 meters wide by 6.1 meters deep. Like the other rooms, it was once roofed over, and we even find near the top of the east and west walls tone projections on which the rafters rested. Unfortunately, the walls have been badly damaged by treasure hunters.

A good view from above the temple

The inscriptions being at the two sides of the entrance to this chamber, and continue on the side walls, though it seems that the back wall may never have been inscribed. To the right of the entrance is the figure of King Amasis, in whose reign the temple was built and decorated, though his head and body have been chiseled out. The crown of the North upon his head was left intact. The king's name is written inside a cartouche in front of him. He offers rounded vases of wine to eight deities who stand facing him in a row, preceded by Amun, who are represented on the east wall. Other gods on the wall include Amun's consort, Amenre, Mut, Khonsu and Mahesa. The last deity is a female who wears the double crown, but her inscription is completely destroyed. The accompanying text reads, "I give life to the Chief of the desert-dwellers, Sutekh-irdes".

To the left of the entrance of the sanctuary is depicted a governor of Siwa, completely destroyed except for the feather which was stuck in his hair and denotes his Libyan origin. While under Egyptian control, Herodotus tells us that its governors were called kings, perhaps because of its isolation. Hence, He is represented on the opposite side of the chamber, in the same position as the king of Egypt, and like him, he makes offerings to eight gods. The inscription tells us that this was Sutekh-irdes, who was "Chief of the Desert-dwellers". Among the eight deities on this wall are Amenre, Mut, Dedun-Amun, the goddess Tefnut, Harsaphis, with a human body and ram's head, Nut, Thoth, depicted with the head of an ibis, and Hebenu of the Two Lands, Nehem'awa, the consort of Thoth. Behind the last deity, the wall is blank, because at one point a door here lead to the adjacent chamber. It was walled up at a later date.

Overall view of all of the antiquities surrounding the Temple of the Oracle at Siwa in Egypt

There was at least one chamber on the roof the temple. The staircase that led to the terrace roof was at the west side of the corner which fell down when this part of the rock slid off.

There is a narrow corridor at the right (east side of the sanctuary) that leads around behind the back wall. Another large chamber is on the west side of the temple. The temple has apparently never been properly excavated, and without such work, it cannot be determined whether other parts of the temple are still hidden under the surrounding debris. Remains of walls southwest of the court are visible, and we can distinguish the outlines of some chambers built of stone. There are also stone walls among the remains of the falling houses at the east side of the temple, but without proper study, we do not know if any of these constructs are a part of the temple proper.

Photo Credits:

Some photos copyright Alain Guilleux Une promenade en Egypte


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Siwa Oasis Fakhry, Ahmed 2004 American University of Cairo Press ISBN 977 424 123 1
Western Desert of Egypt, The Vivian, Cassandra 2000 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 527 X

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011