EGYPT: NOMAD’S LAND

GUARDIAN Siwa Oasis has always been difficult to get to. A Persian army of 50,000 men perished while trying to reach this tiny speck in Egypt’s Great Sand Sea. Admittedly that was 500 BC, but the brutal landscape has remained pretty much the same ever since.

Perhaps the biggest change occurred 20 years ago when a permanent asphalt road connecting Siwa to the outside world was built. That says a lot about the town’s extraordinary isolation. Clinging to the edge of the Qattara Depression just shy of the Libyan border, it’s enveloped for hundreds of miles by desert. For centuries only caravans passed through, leaving Siwans in their exceptional seclusion to evolve a distinct identity, cultural heritage and Berber language (Siwi) all of their own.

Siwa is still hard to reach by modern standards. A cab from Cairo takes the best part of 10 hours and comes at a price (I paid $400 US return) – the bus journey is considerably cheaper but can take much longer. However you travel, the 21st-century sprawls inexorably beside the road for the first 100 miles: giant billboards exhort you to buy anything from hair gel to real estate.

This lonely advertising seems utterly surreal deep in the desert wastes. After sun down another type of strangeness quickly gripped me; the monotonous trance induced by mile after endless mile of road disappearing into night.

I thought I’d be pleased to arrive at Adrère Amellal eco lodge; but I was surprised by its disturbing magic instead. The moon lit what appeared to be a ghost town in an eerily silver light. Had I not known I was staying here I’d have believed it deserted, dead maybe. Not a single light shone, the windows were blind and the heavy silence was unnerving.

A man padded out of the moon shadows, courteously showed me my candlelit room and vanished. Knackered, I slugged on a bottle of duty-free vodders, crept into bed and blew the candles out feeling, it must be said, nonplussed.

Morning was revelatory. My doubts dissolved in dazzling sunshine that revealed the real deal; a warren of traditional village houses that hugged the base of a high rock face; the eco-lodge’s name-sake. Adrère Amellal is Siwi for White Mountain, although that’s a little inflationary, Mont Blanc it is not. It is however a marvellous layer-cake of a cliff that looms above the stew of buildings below.

Unlike a more traditional hotel, it doesn’t have a reception or obviously fixed public areas. This flexible environment takes a moment to get used to. Some spaces are used in winter, others in summer. Dinner and lunch are moveable feasts and could be anywhere around the grounds.

I must have looked lost, I certainly didn’t know where I was going until a voice called out from an elevated room and enquired if I wanted breakfast. There are moments when you catch a person’s eye and know instantly you’re in lust; likewise there are moments when it’s possible to fall for the inanimate. The latter happened to me then; I developed a crush on Adrère Amellal.

I soon found myself yabbering to a newly hitched gay couple from America over a breakfast of delicious local breads, eggs and beans, although the olive jam is an acquired taste. Apparently it wasn’t uncommon for Siwan men to have single-sex marriages until as late as the 1940s, that’s certainly not the case now. I enthused about my new architectural passion.

Judging by the dreamy look in their eyes, they too had succumbed to Adrère’s charms, or maybe they were glazed and desperate to escape from the garrulous singleton.

The simple local building materials here have remained unchanged for centuries: it’s just mud and salt. But the traditional techniques of construction, kershef, rock salt plastered with mud were nearly lost forever before Adrère Amellal revived them. The results are spectacular.

Perched on the side of Lake Siwa, an immense shimmering salt lake, the buildings are all but invisible from a distance and merge perfectly into the environment – an inverted mirage if you like. Doors and furniture are made from olivewood and electricity has been banned – hence the beeswax candles. Using them to light the cell-like loo at night feels like an orthodox experience.

Geometric blocks of light, shade and architecture create stunning vistas and windows that lead into the oasis. There’s real beauty in the simplicity and crudeness – think Kelly Hoppen does the Flintstones – and an obsession with salt that borders on bonkers.

I spotted salt tables, salt chairs, salt bedside tables and beds, windows, wall tiles, even an entire building. The windows cast beautiful gold diffused light. Of course this might be a problem if you have a sodium intolerance and it’d be a disaster if it ever rained.

Dr Mounir Neamatallah and his Cairo based company Environmental Quality International (EQI) created the lodge as part of a bigger scheme. Since 1997 EQI has invested heavily in four main local objectives: eco-lodging, traditional artisanship, organic agriculture and renewable energy, in an effort to preserve both Siwan tradition and the fragile eco-system.

The initiatives are already having an impact. Most of the local population are smallholders who haven’t always found the best deals for their produce. EQI champions the use of organic farming methods and pre-purchases their crops at a fair market price as well as providing micro-finance schemes.

They’re currently experimenting with a bio-feeder to create a natural source of cooking gas and organic fertiliser and have set up a large olive factory, built in the ubiquitous kershef.

But it’s their work with local women that needs special mention. Women are all but invisible to outsiders in Siwa; they live in a strictly conservative society, even by Egyptian standards. Gradually EQI are encouraging their economic self-sufficiency and empowerment through a Women’s Artisanship Initiative. You can buy their exquisite embroideries in the lodge.

I wanted to see the projects in action. Unable to visit the women’s scheme, I looked elsewhere and discovered my farming etiquette is lacking. I went to see a shepherd and his flock back at the bio-feeder and created a stampede in the process after leaving the barn door open. Three dozen animals made a frantic bid for freedom in a hail of dust and grit. The shepherd spent the next ten minutes wiping tears from his face; he’d not laughed so much for ages.

Red-faced, I sought sanctuary in the simple luxury of a spring-fed Roman pool – as you do. There aren’t many hotels on the planet that can lay claim to one of these, let alone two. Extraordinary turquoise blue waters bubble up from the seemingly bottomless wells then trickles into a series of stone cisterns and on into the palm shaded gardens. It’s magical.

So good that Alexander the Great might have dipped his toe into one of these pools when he visited, not that he’d come to chill, he’d got an oracle to consult. Incredibly, the temple that houses Siwa’s Oracle of Amun still exists along with Cleopatra’s Bath, another of those extraordinary Roman plunge pools; it’s that kind of place.

Other royals have come too. The Prince of Wales (yep Charles) has stayed at Adrère Amellal. What a relief to discover our future king gets a kick out of something that’s not gilded to the gunnels.

Royal endorsements might ring fiscal alarm bells. You’d be right to be to pick up on them; a holiday here isn’t cheap but it still doesn’t cost a Sultan’s fortune. The best news is that EQI have two other places to stay that are a lot cheaper and are equally beautiful. Shali Lodge and Albabenshal Heritage Hotel are both situated in the old part of Siwa town.

Of the two, it was Albabenshal that entranced me. It’s built in the ruins of the Shali Fortress, a superb 13th-Century building that remained all but impregnable until 1926.  Then the unimaginable happened; 3 days of rain all but destroyed it.

Days at Adrère Amellal drift lazily into one another; it’s part of the magic of the place. Likewise guests morph imperceptibly in and out too; although I wasn’t there when the hotel was full, it’s difficult to imagine that it would ever feel cramped or busy. If it did then you’d take for the dunes.

A late afternoon trip into the shallows of the Great Sand Sea should be compulsory. As the sun begins to dip the dunes become luminous, looking laser-cut, cruel and perfect. We stopped briefly for tea, sandwiched between a roiling sunset and the endless desert. I found the experience quite overpowering, feeling wonderment and a sense of my frailty and inconsequence. My stomach broke the reverie; I wanted supper.

Dinner was in one of the fabulous cubby holes dotted around the hotel grounds away from other guests. They create the fantasy that this might be a private house or dinner party. And for me it was; I met a wonderful group of people from Bolivia, Norway, Egypt and the States and we partied late into the night over fierce red wine and some really good vegetarian based cuisine.

But EQI’s success is, perversely, double edged. Others have seen what they are so stylishly doing and have opened less ecologically friendly and socially aware places as a result. Imitation may well be the most sincere form of flattery, but it soon plays havoc on local resources.

At present, the 10 hour journey from Cairo is still a deterrent to those who don’t truly want to visit, but rumour has it that an airport is planned. Let’s pray it never happens as the results would be nothing less than catastrophic; what’s left of this engaging culture and beautiful and magical oasis would be gone forever.

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