One will find few differences between today’s structures and those of eons before located in the Western Desert’s Siwa Oasis. In this fertile shrine in the middle of an endless expanse of sand, far away from modern Egypt, the resort Adrere Amellal offers a luxury that is hard to come by – complete isolation. There is no need to check your 4×4 for a flux capacitor – you have not gone back in time. Yet a reminder seems more than necessary when an evening arrival at Siwa produces passage and walkways strewn with hundreds of hand-lit lamps, the only light you’ll see at Siwa besides the burning daylight on the sands. No phones, no Internet and a staff of indigenous Siwis dressed in white robes with headdresses certainly allude to former days, yet this is the present; this is the charm of the luxe-eco resort that has even Prince Charles coming to see what lies in Egypt beyond the pyramids. But it wasn’t Adrere owner Dr. Mounir Neamatalla that made the Siwa Oasis a popular destination, it was the Greeks who first discovered the area and promptly popularized it with establishment of the Oracle of Amun. Alexander the Great even made the long journey to Siwa shortly after reclaiming Egypt from the Persians, a trip that nearly cost him his life. However, upon arrival at the Oasis and the Oracle of Amun, Alexander was pronounced a god, an endorsement required for legitimate rule of the country.
The modern-day trek from Cairo is much easier now; and Siwa, still alive with ancient architecture and lush palm tree clumps, is now home to Adrere Amellal. A Conde Nast Hot List property, the Adrere is characteristic of an authentic collection of primitive buildings, scattered like a village of pebbles beneath an escarpment the Berbers call “white mountain.” It’s an Egypt that few Americans have ever heard of, and fewer still that have welcomed the eight hour desert drive from Cairo. Certainly no buses have or ever will make the long journey, forcing access to the area to be quite limited. Yet the isolation of Siwa has proved quite beneficial, making the Adrere Amellal a resort known only to the most discerning of travelers and a mecca for those in search of spiritual edification.
Another draw of the Oasis to the experience-seeking sojourner is that of the undisturbed indigenous “Siwis,” a people that seem out of place in Egypt given their North African heritage. Since nearly 700BC, the Berbers here have been able to maintain willfull isolation, even speaking their own language although under Egyptian rule since the 1820’s. The Oasis is now home to approximately 20,000 Siwis who live minimalistic and simple lives in contrast to the Westernization that has taken place elsewhere: men and women surviving off date and olive farms and selling handicrafts in traditional markets. Their culture remains stringent in its customs – men doing all the food shopping as household providers, while women rarely leave the homes. Siwis will even keep male and female animals separate around the farms so that women will not fall subject to any “unsightly mating.” These rare traditions, while they seem to be what make the Berber way of life a precious gem, are also in grave danger in the virulent climate of modernization.
Neamatalla describes Siwa’s fragility like this: “It’s a tiny dot in the Sahara that for centuries was totally excluded from the rest of Egypt, and the rest of humanity. So Siwa will be making a grave mistake if it begins inviting tourism that’s not to scale. If you have thirty or forty people walking out of a bus in this small oasis, that’s an act of aggression.” It is for this reason that Neamatalla has made it his life’s goal to make as light a footprint as possible. Just one look at the blend of Adrere into the background of the Oasis and you’ll realize he’s done pretty well to achieve it. A hike to the top of “white mountain” feels spiritual in every sense, like the ascension of Moses to the top of Mount Sinai. Below is the slow pace of Berber life, nestled among the nearly 300,000 palm trees and the giant salt lake of the Oasis. From here you can see shops and squares full of donkey carts and market stands, old buildings, and the ancient Oracle. There’s also the 17 buildings of the Adrere Amellal, each one with its own personality and wonder, created to invite nature in. Hand-built by a mostly Siwan crew, the surround is neutral sandstone and kershef – a mud mixture of sand, salt, clay and straw – and is an ingenious blend of unfinished matter and streamlined interior design. The time-tested architecture is truly a marvel of the Berber engineering genius as each building ensures a proper balance of lighting and circulation as translucent rock salt windows invite light but repel heat and cold. There’s no trace of electricity to be found here; and even the use of cell phones in common areas is prohibited. It’s just another one of the ways that Neamatalla can provide a staunch protection for the Berber way of life. Oil lamps and beeswax candles illuminate the grounds and rooms – when extinguished, stars shine like countless pin pricks through the inky night canvas, easily visible through open-air domed ceilings. Each of the 40 rooms is furnished with pieces made by Siwan artisans.
The minimalist décor boasts neatly-woven linens and delicate crafts, all created by hand or formed by the earth. Curious lightless sconces, really million-year-old desert fossils, artfully dot the walls throughout the resort.
Further subtracting from any imposition the Adrere may have at Siwa is Neamatalla’s policy of employing Siwan staff to run the resort. The Siwis have always been known for their care and hospitality towards one another, and are quick to offer it towards the few “outsiders” that come to Siwa. Your Berber hosts blend in and out of the background, as if part of the scenery. They appear at dinner with stone bowls of hot ashes to protect against the chilly desert nights; they reappear before bed time to slip hot, flannel-covered water bottles between the sheets for extra warmth.
When not accompanied by your hosts, you’re likely to wander the resort through all of the passageways that link the resort together for easy transition between secluded rooms and communal areas. Dinner may be served on the dunes, on one of many terraces or in the 15-foot-tall domed dining room, depending on the winds. Wherever the location, the meal of poultry and meats from local farmers and fresh fruits and vegetables from the onsite garden grace your wicker table. Locally-harvested dates are made into jams for breakfast and serve as sweeteners for each meal.
Desert recreation is plentiful. A day trip through the cupcake-like swirls of the Great Sand Sea to the shores of Lake Shiata yields glimpses of flamingos, jackals and gazelles. Younger guests – and the young at heart – will thrill while sledding or sand boarding down 200-foot dunes. Towering over the nearby town of Siwa are the ruins of a 13th-century fortress, its palm trunk ceiling still intact, and the Mountain of the Dead, a series of caves dug into the mount that entomb throngs of Egyptian noblemen. Another local site is the shell of a village, standing abandoned since it was decimated by floods. Torrential rains wreak havoc on the region roughly every 50 years but Neamatalla is unfazed by the possibility of his eco-luxe opus someday washing away: he muses, “At least it won’t leave much debris behind.”
Adrere Amellal is an oasis in the truest sense – a remote escape from daily anxieties. When traveling with Ker & Downey guests have the confidence to literally unplug from the modern world and quietly admire a land forgotten by time.