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The Modern Oasis

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.


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