During dinner an hour later, I begin to suspect that everything’s going to be okay. The sandstone dining table, in the middle of a cavernous room with a domed 15-foot ceiling, is set with antique silver and French china; to ward off the winter desert chill (temperatures drop into the 30s at night), stone braziers filled with smoldering olive-wood embers have been placed at our feet. There’s no menu, but the meal is easily the best I’ve had in Egypt: roasted chicken with saffron served on traditional clay cookware, and succulent zucchini from the back garden, yellow florets still attached as proof of just-picked freshness.
The owner of the lodge and the man responsible for all of these little details, Egyptian environmentalist Mounir Neamatalla, has joined us for dinner. A genial, blue-eyed Cairo native, Neamatalla, 61, has a Ph.D. from Columbia University and the natural élan of a statesman from some mythical country where everyone can discuss, in four languages, the differences among varieties of artisanal capers. In the mid-Nineties Neamatalla, who runs a consulting firm that specializes in sustainable development, was eager to put the firm’s principles into practice and decided to open his own eco-lodge, Egypt’s first. His initial visit to Siwa was a “revelation,” he recalls, because he found a society still embracing ancient traditions that today seem downright progressive: a holistic, low-impact approach to living and a deep, instinctual respect for nature. “Generally you learn about these things in books,” says Neamatalla. “In Siwa you experience them. It was like living in medieval times.” He spent nine years building the resort on a lakeside plot dotted with palm groves and hot springs.
When I get up to explore Adrère Amellal after sunrise the next morning, I see how completely Neamatalla has achieved his vision. If Fred Flintstone had had a brother with a flair for interior design, he might have created something like this place. The 17 buildings, scattered along a slope beneath a dramatic sandstone mountain, are made with a local mud called kershef, a mixture of rock salt and clay. Hidden among the rooms and suites, which can accommodate 80 guests, are various dining spaces, bars and cavelike lounge areas, minimally decorated with a Berber rug here, a few white canvas cushions there.
More than just a fantasy compound for discerning cavemen, the lodge is a lesson in the wisdom of Siwa’s native building techniques. Solar panels? Nope—too modern. Instead there are tiny square windows framed with local palm logs, and walls made with a translucent alabaster-like rock salt that lets in daylight while keeping out heat and cold. Each night while we’re at dinner, someone sneaks into our frigid bedrooms and slides flannel-covered hot-water bottles between the sheets. (Somehow, these keep the bed warm until morning.) One problem: Every half century or so, Siwa gets soaked with torrential winter rains, and the next time that happens, this hotel, like the rest of the oasis’s traditional mud structures, is likely to melt into the ground. Asked about that prospect, Neamatalla smiles and admits that advance planning is not one of his fortes. “At least it won’t leave much debris behind,” he says.