Even a sloth could successfully chase the sun in a desert. But in Egypt, where things always run behind schedule, my quest to arrive before dark at Adrère Amellal, an electricity-free ecolodge in the remote Siwa Oasis, was encumbered by a delayed charter flight from Cairo to an airbase in the Western Desert, not to mention last November’s second-wave international lockdowns. But as a large sandcastle illuminated by flickering lanterns and candles came into view under the spotlight of a full moon, I realized it wasn’t actually the sun I was chasing.
Adrère Amellal was built by Egyptian environmentalist Dr. Mounir Neamatalla in 1998 after his first visit to Siwa, the largest in a chain of fertile oases dotting the otherwise bone-dry desert. Siwa is an oasis of both nature and culture, a Berber community with its own dialect and customs.
Its insularity is not surprising: surrounded by the Great Sand Sea, an Oregon-sized swath of desert, Siwa is home to some of the Sahara’s highest dunes, some formed over hundreds of thousands of years. It sits at the foot of its namesake, the White Mountain, an imposing ancient monolith with a palpable energetic force likened to the vortexes of Sedona.
Blending into the surroundings, the hotel’s buildings are made entirely of organic elements: palm fronds, olive tree timber, and kerchef, a sunbaked sludge of salt, sand, and mud. The latter is a natural insulator against the harsh desert climate and has been used in Siwan construction for millennia—notably in the Shali Fortress in Siwa town, whose recent restoration was also spearheaded by Dr. Neamatalla.
The light at Adrère Amellal is all-natural, too, which is central to its allure for those who travel long distances to absorb its primitive pleasures—including the gallerists, designers and other largely European creatives who had joined me on this five-day private retreat (although some remained tethered to the barely-there cell service, splaying out solar-charged power banks).
Still, going without electricity is easy here. Mornings start with a feast of eggs, tangy farmer’s cheese, aish baladi (Egyptian whole wheat pita), organic sycamore fig preserves, and a savory black olive and rosemary confiture. The rest of each day is spent eschewing the shade: lounging by a spring-fed pool, touring the Temple of the Oracle (where Alexander the Great was declared divine in 332 B.C.), or hiking to the peak of White Mountain—a spot from where Adrère Amellal’s buildings seem to mimic a sundial, its shadows rotating with the hour.
Settling within the dense, hand-packed walls of my Siwan chambers after dark required a candle strategy for optimal illumination. There are no outlets or light switches, but wall niches carved as discreet perches for rolled beeswax candles, the room’s supply replenished with every turndown. I’d mount several of them in front of mirrors to reflect the light, then form a tight row on my room’s mantle where the white walls would amplify the soft glow. The pair of rock salt nightstands hosted a few, too.
Each night, while I dressed for dinner by candlelight, squinting into my suitcase to distinguish between the blacks, grays, and navys I’d packed, Adrère Amellal’s staff were clandestinely setting up dinner in various corners of the hotel—a courtyard, a hilltop, or nook by the pool.
By following a chain of torches and oil lanterns, guests stumbled on candle-lit tables and a mosaic of fragrant dishes—spiced lamb chops, tomatoes stuffed with petit pois—much of it plucked from the oasis’ organic garden. But first, an astronomer’s aperitivo. In this dark-sky sanctuary, a rare swatch of Earth’s ceiling void of light pollution, each night I stared into a Milky Way so strikingly vivid that, for once, the heavens appeared a busier world than our own.
Traveler’s note: Several western governments, including the UK Foreign Office and US State Department, have issued travel warnings to the Western Desert region. When it is permitted to travel here again, PRIOR’s travel team can help arrange a safe journey for you and your group. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul Jebara is a travel and design writer based in New York’s West Village. He’s a third culture kid and polyglot who enjoys off-the-grid destinations, summertime siestas, and filleting whole fish at the dinner table.