Finding Unexpected Refuge in Egypt
When we told friends about our plans to visit Egypt on vacation, they all reacted with polite concern. The country has been run by the military since the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in 2013, and is currently fighting insurgents backed by an Islamic State affiliate in the northern Sinai. While this conflict is relatively contained, there have been occasional attacks on tourists and tourist sites throughout the country—including the October 2015 bombing of a Russian jet over Sharm el-Sheikh, which killed all 224 people on board.
Despite this, my husband and I were excited to see Egypt’s celebrated archeological sites, and, given the recent decline in tourist numbers, thrilled at the prospect of having many of them to ourselves. The convenience of a direct flight from New York to Cairo also had a big part to play. We’d booked our trip several months before the Metrojet bombing; when the attack happened, we contacted colleagues in the region, and anyone else who could offer an informed, on-the-ground assessment of the security situation. The message was uniform: while there had been incidents, they were random, meaning that the chances of anything happening to us were quite low.
When we arrived in Egypt, in mid-December 2015, we were relieved to find that we never felt anything but secure. Our trip began with sightseeing in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, and on the upper Nile, seeing the obligatory pyramids, tombs and temples.
The hard work of the trip behind us, we decided to spend a few days relaxing at Adrère Amellal, a luxury eco-lodge near the oasis of Siwa, in Egypt’s western desert. To get to the resort we had to drive about 600 km from Alexandria in a small Kia, squeezed in alongside our guide and a driver. For the first hour or two, the highway was in good condition. West of Alexandria, the coast is lined with vacation homes belonging to wealthy Egyptians—though at that time of year, they were all boarded up for the low season. Only the native Bedouin people were in evidence, taking care of the properties for their absent owners. At midday, we stopped at a small town south of Marsa Matruh. It was noticeable how few women there were on the streets; the men, meanwhile, lounged in open-air cafes, sucking on hookah pipes.
The further west we got, the tougher the driving conditions became. As we approached the Libyan border, the number of trucks on the road grew, reflecting the heightened dangers of maritime shipping in the region, and the resulting increase in overland trade between Libya and Egypt. The frequency of security checks also increased—evidence of Egyptian concern about al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and other militants sneaking across the border. In the course of the six-hour, 600-km drive to Siwa, we were stopped at five different checkpoints. And these were not perfunctory, quick-look-inside-the-car checkpoints: the police all had rifles, peppered our driver and guide with questions, and examined all our papers thoroughly. Everyone, even large tour buses, came under the same scrutiny.
Before we had even left Alexandria, our itinerary had to be officially registered. As a result, the Egyptian authorities knew who we were and what we were up to pretty much the entire time we were in transit. Even so, we were given two spot-checks on the road to and from Siwa. Khalid, our guide, would get a call on his mobile phone from a member of the local police. Khalid and the policeman would figure out a place to meet—a café or meeting point at the side of the road, for instance—and we’d wait for them. It was an interesting display of “security theater,” and if nothing else, it gave everyone involved a welcome opportunity to stretch. As we drove parallel to the Libyan border, we briefly even had an armored vehicle as an escort.
The last hour of the drive was the hardest. We were all tired, and the roads had deteriorated further. Moreover, we were racing to get to Adrère Amellal before sunset, as it would have been difficult—dangerous, even—to arrive after dark. By design, the hotel has no electricity. And streetlights? Not a chance.
Siwa is an oasis of major historic significance. Queen Cleopatra swam in one of its hot spring pools. Alexander the Great was proclaimed the son of the deity Amun by the Oracle in Siwa. The sites of these legendary events still exist: visitors can swim in Cleopatra’s Bath today, and see the ruins of the Temple of Amun. We spent a day exploring the town, looking around small shops selling appealing local crafts, such as candle holders carved out of salt, and embroidered scarves in the distinctive Siwan colors of red, yellow and orange. The local architecture is typical of oases, with low slung buildings the color of sand molded out of rounded mud bricks. They could have been built yesterday or a hundred years ago, there was no obvious way to tell. Around them grew thousands of palm and olive trees, providing a refreshing green interval in an otherwise beige landscape.
We liked Siwa, but we loved our time in Adrère Amellal, which is tucked away about 15 minutes outside town. Named after the White Mountain it sits beside, the resort overlooks both Lake Siwa and the Great Sand Sea, a 72,000 sq km desert that extends all the way to Libya. The lodge has 40 rooms and suites, all built in traditional Siwan style out of kershef, a local material made from straw and salt rock. Here and there blocks of translucent salt are built into the mud walls to allow the sunlight in. The effect is eccentric, and at times truly magical.
Our room was built into the mountain, so the entryway and bathroom were dominated by a rock formation; elsewhere in the room the walls were more traditional, with built-in cubbyholes for candles (because there’s no electricity at the resort, all rooms are designed to accommodate lots of beeswax candles). We had a terrace overlooking Lake Siwa and the desert, complete with a made-up bed in case we wanted to read outdoors during the day, or stargaze at night. The stars were exceptional. The remoteness of Adrère Amellal, and the total absence of electric lighting, meant there was scarcely any light pollution. I had never seen the constellations as clearly visible.
When we arrived, Mohammed, one of the hotel’s key English-speaking employees, asked what we wanted to do with our free time. Did we want a massage? A mud bath? A dawn hike up the mountain? Did we want to ride horses? Our nightly rate of $800 was all-inclusive, from the food to the mud bath, but we mostly wanted to relax and eat. Much of the food at Adrère Amellal is grown in the on-site organic garden. The chef was excellent, serving us house-made preserves at breakfast—orange, date and almond, even a sycamore jam. Lunch was eaten al fresco, by the pool or beneath a palm tree in the garden. Dinner was somewhere different each night: in a private space beneath the stars, once in the round dining room at the home of the owner, Dr. Mounir Nematalla, and once in a large room that was extravagantly lit with candles.
We’d inquire about meals ahead of time, and were generally told that it was a surprise. We happily submitted to the mystery, and feasted on everything from baked tomatoes stuffed with peas to duck with a delicious date sauce. Most dishes were roasted in cast-iron vessels over an open fire and served with Egyptian wines, which were lovely.
One morning, Mohammad took me for a pre-dawn hike up to the top of Adrère Amellal. As we were exploring the top of the mountain, we realized that the sun had emerged—on the other side of the peak. Mohammad took my camera and sprinted off to the cliff with the best view, while I followed behind him. I run, but he was faster, and he was able to take several beautiful pictures of the sun rising over the desert before I caught up with him. That morning the sun appeared extra-large: the perihelion was imminent, putting the earth a little closer to the sun than usual. There on the mountainside, it was easy to imagine why the ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun god Ra.
We were the only guests at Adrère Amellal during our stay. And while we enjoyed being alone at the oasis, that exquisite isolation reflected the fears of potential visitors. Egypt today, for better or worse, feels like a police state. But if you have a reputable guide, if you follow your itinerary, if that guide does their job and registers your plans appropriately, the greatest risk you face is from a traffic accident.
Egypt remains an extraordinary place to visit, and spots like Siwa demonstrate that the country has far more to offer than just temples and pyramids. Egyptian oases have been places of peace and refuge for thousands of years; for us, the troubled times we live in only made that meaning more poignant.