A Stunning Oasis of Calm in Egypt’s Western Desert
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a hint of danger can add to a lovely vacation.
By Heba Saleh
Our caravan of a dozen four-wheel-drive vehicles came to a sudden stop at the crest of a sand dune near Siwa Oasis, and the drivers told us to dismount. The sun had just set, and the sky was full of stars. Our bemused group of about 70 looked down over the edge to spot an elegant scene of candlelit dinner tables arranged on the desert floor, surrounded by burning torches. Drinks were ready at a makeshift bar, to be followed by a meal of smoky aubergine and roast quail. But first we had to negotiate our way down the high slope, feet sinking in the sand, guided only by the light from mobile phones.
Host Mounir Neamatalla, owner of this ecolodge called Adrère Amellal, had invited foreign ambassadors — including diplomats from France, Sweden, Belgium, Singapore and South Korea — with one purpose in mind: to demonstrate that Siwa is safe, even though it is only 90 kilometers from the border with lawless Libya. He wants governments to rethink their warnings to citizens: For example, the U.S. State Department says its citizens should not travel anywhere in Egypt’s Western Desert.
Neamatalla argues that it was “unfair” to deprive the oasis of visitors, just because it is near Libya. It also affects locals who “will have to think of another means of earning a livelihood,” he says. “Without tourism you are handing the people over to another industry; it could be that of contraband or terror.”
Nothing is more exhilarating than roaring up a steep dune in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, balancing on the crest, then sliding down the slope on the other side.
For tourism operators in Egypt, 2018 is shaping up to be the best year since the 2011 revolution, which unleashed a series of major upheavals that scared away visitors. But Siwa, an oasis inhabited by Egypt’s only Berbers — a North African people found in Libya and the other countries of the Maghreb — is still off the beaten track and a long way from tourist centers clustered around the Nile Valley and the Red Sea. There are no scheduled flights; our group flew on a plane hired from an oil services company and landed at a military airport. The road trip from Cairo takes about eight hours.
Adrère Amellal (“White Mountain” in Berber) refers to the massive limestone cliff under which the hotel sits. Built in 2000 with the local kershef — a mix of salt rock and clay — the earth-colored hotel appears to be almost an organic outcrop of its environment. Clusters of buildings, some square, some rounded, stand separately or huddled together, connected by corridors, terraces and staircases. Neamatalla says it’s inspired by Shali, the ancient ruined hilltop village that stands in the middle of the oasis. Asked to name the hotel’s architect, he would only say it was designed by “the spirits that guard the mountain.”
To minimize environmental impact, Adrère Amellal has no electricity and relies on water from one of the 200 springs in the oasis. The springs’ capacity limits the hotel to 50 rooms, but Neamatalla is opposed to digging wells that would speed up the depletion of the underground water reservoir.
Interiors are simple and comfortable, with chairs made of palm leaves and beds and night tables carved out of salt rock. There are no locks or keys on the doors — a feature that enhances the friendly feel of the place. When guests leave their rooms, staff will enter to blow out candles and replace burned ones.
Beyond the hotel, the chief attraction is Shali, a ruined fortress dating back to the 12th century, believed to be built by seven Berber families for protection against raids by Bedouin desert tribes. Other sights include the ancient Temple of the Oracle of Amun, which affords magnificent views over the palms and shimmering lakes of the oasis. Then there is the Great Sand Sea, which extends all the way to Libya. Nothing is more exhilarating than roaring up a steep dune in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, balancing on the crest, then sliding down the slope on the other side.
So will tourists go back to Siwa after this high-profile visit? It may take more than the impressions of diplomats on a fun weekend to sway governments to amend their travel advice, but there were murmurs among the visitors about possibilities. In the meantime, Siwa remains an amazing destination, with few visitors around and all its attractions to sample in peace and quiet.
Heba Saleh was a guest of Adrère Amellal, which has double rooms from $605. The hotel can organize flights; prices depend on group size — 10 people would pay $1,500 each, return. Visitors should check their travel insurance in regard to government warnings.
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