The Modern Oasis
Published: June 2009
By Richard Alleman
There, in the distance, rising from the sweltering Egyptian sand. A mirage?No, it's Adrère Amellal, a breathtaking resort where luxury doesn't come at the environment's expense
I'm starting to hallucinate. After leaving Cairo, we've driven for more than six hours on uniformly flat roads. I keep spotting misty lakes, rolling surf, and, at one point, even a herd of charging buffalo in the distance. But these visions dissolve and reappear in an endlessly frustrating pattern of false promises. The seemingly interminable drive is currently the only way to reach my destination: Adrère Amellal, an ecolodge that is one of Egypt's most talked-about new resorts, a 21st-century caravansary said to be as stylish as it is sensitive to the environment.
It's been a long day. It started when Ahmed, my Egyptian driver, picked me up at my Cairo hotel at 9 a.m. Though the first hour of the drive wasn't riveting, it did provide some good visuals: the awesome Pyramids of Giza on the city's southwestern outskirts, fronted by green, flooded fields; a veritable outdoor art installation of boldly painted billboards along the highway leading north to Alexandria. But once we turned off west toward El Alamein, we were hard-pressed for scenery until we hit the Day-Glo blue of the Mediterranean (and even it, alas, is often spoiled by tracts of cookie-cutter vacation villages).
If I were a World War II buff, I might have asked Ahmed to drive through the various cemeteries commemorating the fierce battle that took place at El Alamein in 1942, but instead we pushed on. Outside Marsa Matruh, we left the coast and dipped down onto a two-lane road that is the gateway to Egypt's vast Western Desert. Some 2,300 years ago, Alexander the Great followed this same route to find one of the ancient world's most famous oracles, in the oasis settlement of Siwa. Traveling by camel from Alexandria, it took the general and his entourage eight days to reach Siwa, so how can I mind the one day it's taking us?
Finally, at about 5 p.m., things start to change. Fast. Those miniature mountains and canyons are not mirages. And—can it be?—we're actually going up a hill, our first incline of the day. Then, on the other side, the payoff: a wide green world of palm and olive groves, broken only by shimmering lakes and lagoons. The Siwa Oasis, at last.
We veer off the asphalt in the direction of an ivory-and-ocher peak known as Adrère Amellal (white mountain) in the local Berber dialect. As we get closer, I can make out a weird complex of interconnecting mud-brick structures rising at its base. With an enormous lake in the foreground, the scene looks like the set for an Indiana Jones film.
Disembarking from our vehicle, I thank Ahmed for his flawless driving and follow a smiling, turbaned man across the sand, through some tunnels, and up several flights of stairs. We stop at a small chamber whose mud walls are punctuated by tiny square windows. Rustically minimal, the room has only a plump white-linen-covered mattress on a palm-log frame, a couple of Bedouin throw rugs, and a dozen or so candles to provide light at night. Adrère Amellal has no electricity. My room has no phone, no television, no remote glued to the palm-reed bedside table. In fact, it has no amenities at all, other than a clear cake of glycerin soap and some linen-covered water bottles. The stone bathroom does have hot water, thanks to a small butane water heater, which my guide, Salama, proudly points out (solar heat will be added next year).
"You are tired?Perhaps you want to take nap?" Salama suggests. "Or swim?"
"The lake?" I ask, nodding to the glittering water not far from my door.
"If you wish—but pool is better."
The pool is hidden in an ancient grove of date palm and olive trees that also shelters the ecolodge's organic produce gardens. Built around a gurgling spring that dates back to the Romans, it is a chic stone affair, surrounded by palms, oleanders, and locally crafted palm-reed deck chairs and chaise longues. I'm glad I followed Salama's advice: The water is cool, and I quickly forget the stress of the road.
Back in my room, I nod off, and wake up to the last of the Saharan sunset. The views outside are positively biblical: palms and reeds framing mud huts and stables, backed by low mountains. Across the courtyard, a few guests are assembling at a terrace bar. Lighting some candles, I prepare to meet and greet. (I can handle showering and dressing by candlelight, but shaving is another story. Five o'clock shadow will rule from here on.)
The group gathered around a long, low table is soon joined by Mounir Neamatalla, a dapper fiftyish gentleman in a blue button-down shirt, white trousers, and desert boots. He is our host, and for the past 20 years he has headed a Cairo company that consults on low-impact economic and social development projects throughout Egypt, north Africa and the Middle East. The Adrère Amellal ecolodge is his baby, his obsession, the place where he is bent on proving that ecology and luxury are not mutually exclusive concepts.
In 1997, Neamatalla bought 150 acres on and around Adrère. Then he spent several years working with local craftsmen and builders—employing as many as 120 people at a time—clearing the area, reintroducing indigenous trees and plants, and bringing back the ancient Siwan technique of building with kershef, a mixture of salt rock and clay that not only sparkles but also insulates from both heat and cold.
"I don't want people to think of this as a hotel. It is an oasis—a place for travelers who want to learn and to teach," says Neamatalla. "All my life I've been racing against time without direction or purpose. Patience is a valuable lesson I've learned from the Siwans. Like artists, they take joy in the work itself, the creation—they're not thinking about the result. The important mission is to be at peace with oneself. Not enough people know that—I have to share it."
I TAKE A SEAT ON THE EMPTY VERANDA THE following morning—am I early for breakfast?But in a moment, Salama materializes, bringing coffee, orange juice, just-out-of-the-oven pita bread, liquidy goat's cheese, olives, and marmalades made from recipes passed down by Mounir's grandmother. As if this weren't enough, he tempts me with fuul (mashed fava beans) and a date omelette so yellow that I suspect food coloring.
"Healthy chickens here," Salama explains, pouring more juice from a cut-glass decanter.
"Beautiful," I say of the vessel.
"Everything here is beautiful," Salama remarks unequivocally.
After a post-breakfast swim, I amble out to the parking area to meet Ahmed. I've arranged for him to drive me, along with fellow guests Mahmoud and Joanna, into the town of Siwa, some 10 miles away. Popular with backpackers, Siwa is a sandy assortment of white cement houses and funky cafés. Bicycles and donkey carts are the main means of transport. Most of the men wear blue djellabas, while the few women on the streets are heavily veiled. Mahmoud, an Oxford-educated Anglo-Egyptian lawyer, says Siwa's palmy back streets remind him of the Egypt he knew as a child. We find an enchanting little museum called the House of Siwa, in a restored Berber dwelling; Greco-Roman frescoes and mummies in the rock tombs on the nearby Mountain of the Dead; and Cleopatra's Bath, a huge bubbling hot springs where the famous siren supposedly swam. Today, engaged couples bathe here as part of a prenuptial purification ritual.
Siwa's most striking landmark is Shali, an abandoned, five-story fortress village, built entirely of kershef, that rises in the town center like some long-lost Gaudí apartment complex. Founded in 1203, Shali was partially destroyed in 1926 by a three-day rainstorm that washed away most of its mud-salt walls. When we gingerly climb to the top of the brittle, stalagmite-like ruins, we're treated to a sensational view of the old town meeting the new.
In ancient times, Siwa's greatest attraction was the oracle of Amun. A must on the oracle circuit, Siwa's Temple of Amun received the Persian king Cambyses, the Greek poet Pindar, and Alexander the Great. The temple is just a few miles from town, and today it's a jumble of stones, columns, and recently added bricks, all begging for a proper restoration (which is said to be in the works). Steep stairs and a secret tunnel lead to the inner sanctum, where Amun spoke through the temple's priests.
As we leave the temple, we notice that the wind has picked up and a strange smoglike mist is starting to blanket the landscape—a sandstorm. Hearing thunder, we curtail our Siwa tour and head back to the ecolodge. The lake is now boiling with whitecaps, and lunch, usually served in the palm grove by the pool, has been moved to the breakfast veranda. After a speedy meal, we all retire to our respective quarters, covering our eyes with our hands to protect them from sand gusts. I batten down the little windows in my room and wait. The wind is howling now—a hurricane sound—but there is no rain. I eventually drift off to sleep. Mother Nature always has the last word.
At around 7 p.m., the storm still has not passed, and I hear a knock on my door. It's a staff member with a large flashlight, come to help me find my way to dinner, which will be indoors this evening. Thinking this means the veranda, I am amazed when I'm shown to a series of cavelike salons deep within the lodge. A dozen new arrivals are on the scene. Most are fashionable Egyptians: a female filmmaker, an industrialist, a jewelry designer, and even, I later learn, a member of the royal family deposed in 1952 by the Nasser revolution. The women are clad in glamorous designer caftans and ethnic jewelry. The talk—mainly of the rigors of the drive during the sandstorm—flits from Arabic to French to English, often all in the same sentence.
Dinner is announced, and we're led through secret corridors and chambers—all candlelit—into a magnificent rotunda with back-lit windows that mimic alabaster but are actually slabs of salt rock. The meal is the best so far: fat asparagus with Parmesan cheese, lamb chops, a marvelous pumpkin soufflé. When we finish our feast, the storm is over, the stars are blazing, and the lake is flat again.
"The desert, tomorrow?" I ask Neamatalla, before heading back to my room. He looks out across his gloriously calm domain and nods, with a smile.
THE NEXT DAY, OUR GROUP SETS OFF ON A TREK into the Great Sand Sea, as the Sahara lying beyond Siwa is known. It's said to be one of the least explored deserts in the world. Our leader is Abdullah Baghi, a handsome 46-year-old Siwan, who graduated from the university at Alexandria. Currently superintendent of the area's 28 schools, Baghi is also head of the Siwa Heritage Conservation Committee, which maintains the museum there. His highest accomplishment—for which he has been recognized by the United Nations—has been to organize the local craftspeople, to help them sell their goods to the outside world at fair market prices. In addition to all this, he heads up the ecolodge's excursions.
"Each time I go into the desert, I enjoy it like it's the first time," Baghi tells me as we climb into his Land Rover. "Many people fear the desert—some are even afraid of the word. But when they see it, they fall in love with it. Of course, you have to deal with it very carefully; you can't control it. The desert is the desert."
As we race across the dunes, the experience of flying up and down powdery peaks and valleys is totally exhilarating—somewhere between skiing and barnstorming another planet. But it's not all sand. We stop for a swim in a pristine lake, fighting off sand fleas on the banks, and explore a crusty plain where we discover fossilized shells, sand dollars, sharks' teeth, and coral from a geological age when the Great Sand Sea was part of a greater Mediterranean.
Our last stop is the best, the top of a towering dune overlooking a spectacular bowl that, if it were snow, any skier would kill to cruise. All it takes is a glance exchanged between us: soon our entire party is bodysurfing down the slope. Getting back up is a nightmare—a case of two steps backward for every one forward. Eventually, I figure out that crawling on all fours, basic-training-style, is the only way to make any progress. I have sand everywhere: in my shoes, my pockets, my underwear, my mouth! "The English Patient," Baghi dubs me when I collapse at the top.
During our frolic, Baghi has built a small fire of olive wood and is preparing mint tea. The sun starts to set, casting long gentle shadows across this weird, almost alpine landscape. We take our tea and find a spot to watch the sky as it glows purple, gold, then fades. Baghi puts out the fire, covering the embers with sand, and we climb into our vehicles. Soon the wind will erase our footprints and tire tracks. I'm reminded of a line from of Arabic poetry: "The camel spits, dogs bark, and the caravan passes." Or, as Baghi said earlier: "The desert is the desert."
Adrère Amellal Siwa, Egypt; 20-2/736-7879, fax 20-2/735-5489; firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're flying to Cairo from the United States, plan on spending at least one night in the Egyptian capital before setting off on the long drive to Siwa (a good eight hours). It's possible to drive yourself in a rental car, but I recommend that you let the ecolodge arrange for a car and driver—$85 a day—who will not only get you there and back, but will be on call for sightseeing during your stay.
The rate at Adrère Amellal is $400 a night, double. That covers meals, cocktails, and daily excursions into the desert. Guests prepay for their entire stay at the lodge's Cairo office before hitting the road. The lodge can also arrange for rooms at the Nile Hilton in Cairo at a special rate of $80.
Note to the wired traveler: While Adrère Amellal is marvelously stylish, the standard amenities aren't available. There really is no electricity, which means no telephones, fax machines, or data ports. In fact, I didn't see anyone pull out a cell phone during my entire stay. Leave the laptop at home.