The Siwan House
Traditional Siwan houses are very economical,
as all the building materials are culled from our own gardens
or from the salt lakes. Houses are built with karsheef, a
stone made of a mixture of clay, salt and fine sand that forms
at the shores of the salt lakes. When bonded with clay,
karsheef walls become a single, solid unit and are quite
sturdy. Ceilings and doors are made of palm wood, and mud and
olive leaves help strengthen the roof against the rain.
Most houses have two floors and a roof top terrace, where we
sleep in the summer or sit in the evening for dinners and
chats in the open air. The second floor has bedrooms, a
sitting room and a kitchen. The first floor usually has one
room called the winter room, or “gharfit nshtee.” It’s a
very warm room because it’s small, down below and has small
windows. On the cold winter evenings, the whole family sits
around a heath called “al kor” – a plate of glowing hot
olive wood coals placed in the middle of the room.
Behind the house is the home bakery, or “stah.” A canopy
of palm fronds or reeds provides some shade, otherwise the
area is open to allow the smoke from the clay oven to escape.
The clay oven, or “tabunna,” is used for baking bread and
is fueled with palm branches. Most homes also have two
“amunsees,” smaller clay ovens used for regular cooking,
although now most people use butane stovetops.
This house doesn’t cost the Siwan, just his personal labor
in the garden. This house is suitable for him year round.
It’s almost completely perfect in all seasons, but there is
one problem. Although the karsheef stones are strong and dry,
and insulate against the heat and cold, and wards off flies
and insects – unfortunately it cannot withstand strong rain,
which rarely comes to Siwa, but destroy houses. It destroys
them completely, as in 1930, 1970 and 1985. Also, the problem
the with the palm tree wood – termites. The cellulose of the
palm wood is the preferred food of the white ant. These ants
grow in some houses, which makes many people to leave these
houses because it was the reason of them falling down. It
makes them start to build modern houses from white stone,
changing the view of Siwa Oasis, which we love to