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A Massive Restoration Project in Saudi Arabia Opens Doors to an Ancient Civilization


In the Old Town of AlUla, Egyptian architect Shahira Fahmy sensitively transforms 30 traditional homes across more than 10,000 sqm into an authentic hospitality experience that brings alive the neighborhood’s 800-year-old past.

By Smita Patil

29 April 2024

Dar Tantora The House Hotel transforms 30 traditional homes into an authentic and immersive hospitality experience | Image by Shoayb Khattab; Courtesy of Shahira Fahmy Architects

With the recently completed Dar Tantora The House Hotel in AlUla, Saudi Arabia, Egyptian architect and researcher Shahira Fahmy sets an incredible precedent for culturally sensitive restoration of heritage buildings and settlements. 

The Old Town of AlUla, an ancient oasis city set against the backdrop of breathtaking sandstone mountains about 22 kilometers from Hegra, the kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, was once home to a thriving Nabataean settlement along the historic incense trade route. The 800-year-old market city comprised hundreds of interconnected homes (locally known as dar), public buildings, winding streets, and covered alleys, built entirely in mud brick and stone. 

The 800-year-old oasis city comprises hundreds of interconnected homes (dar) built entirely in mud brick and stone | Image Courtesy of Amanderson2 through Flickr; CC BY 2.0

Fahmy was approached by the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) to transform 30 such homes in the Old Town into an eco-resort as part of the Saudi government-backed Journey Through Time master plan outlined for the sustainable and responsible development of the region. In addition to the guest rooms and suites, the hotel’s amenities include an infinity pool, a gym, a yoga and meditation studio, a spa and a restaurant. 

Restored mud-brick and mud-plastered walls at the hotel’s infinity pool frame incredible views of the surrounding oasis valley | Image by Maxime Seltenrijch; Courtesy of Shahira Fahmy Architects

The project spans more than 10,000 square meters, approximately 11 percent of the area of AlUla Old Town, but there were bigger challenges than scale. “It was a huge responsibility navigating such an environment with its rich layers of histories, reimagining the social, religious and cultural constructs embedded in this labyrinth of ruins,” says Fahmy, whose experience of surveying and mapping the old city of Cairo at the beginning of her career had sensitized her to the interconnected relationship between architecture and living patterns.

The interconnected alleyways of the AlUla Old Town are preserved and adorned with regionally crafted artworks to evoke a true sense of place | Image Courtesy of Dar Tantora The House Hotel

Restoring an Ancient Way of Life

The restoration process, too, entailed a detailed mapping exercise. Building on RCU’s extensive research on the region, everything in the historic settlement — materials, topography, structural systems, painting techniques, architectural detailing of design elements like window frames and doors, and traditional ways of living — was studied and recorded to create a solid base for the new interventions. 

“One of the most audible voices in this project is the materiality,” says Fahmy. “Hand-made mud bricks, local stones which for structural reasons were mostly used on the ground floor, palm leaves woven like carpets to form the ceiling, restoring and recreating old pigments — throughout the project, we ensured that what we were doing was in keeping with the specificity of the place and how people would have once built and lived here.” The ancient irrigation and ventilation systems of the settlement were also expertly restored, minimizing energy consumption while elevating the authenticity of the experience.

Like in traditional dwellings, the hotel suites are designed to host social gatherings at the ground floor | Image by Shoayb Khattab; Courtesy of Shahira Fahmy Architects

In traditional homes, the ground floor was reserved for public and semi-public functions, such as working and meeting friends and family, while the upper floor hosted private spaces such as bedrooms, bathrooms, and terraces. This zoning concept is carried forward in the design of the hotel’s facilities too. 

Bringing Authenticity via Local Collaborations 

Fahmy collaborated with local archaeologists, artists, artisans, and craftspeople to create a truly authentic experience that transports visitors to a different era. A team from Egypt was chosen for their expertise in working with mud bricks and palm materials, while young local artists were commissioned for many of the paintings that adorn the hotel’s spaces. Students of AlUla’s Madrasat Addeera, a school dedicated to fostering artisanal skills and craft programs of the region, were called in to design the in-room amenities at the hotel.

Shahira Fahmy collaborated with local archaeologists, artists, artisans, and craftspeople to create a truly authentic experience for visitors | Image by Maxime Seltenrijch; Courtesy of Shahira Fahmy Architects

Fahmy’s team also worked with the archaeologists to preserve existing murals in red and blue that adorn the walls of the Old Town showcasing everything from local flora and fauna to household items, festive customs, calligraphy and abstract symbols.

Details were just as important. “We wanted people who knew how to paint on wood, because all the doors — not only the walls — used to have drawings and paintings on them too,” says Fahmy. “We also sourced a few items from Al-Dirah Art School. They did a lot of research, which helped us a lot. They created a palette of what the colors of AlUla are. They did a lot of work on the pigmentations and the colors that the people in Old Town used to paint with.”

Creating a palette of traditional pigments, Fahmy and her team restored murals showcasing everything from local flora and fauna to festive customs | Image by Kerten - Mohamed Haimoura; Courtesy of Shahira Fahmy Architects

The design intentionally limits electrical lighting in the suites to just one light source, nudging visitors to experience a more natural, candlelit ambience from a time without electricity. “The rooms have Wi-Fi, one outlet for charging your phone, one socket in the bathroom for shaving or for a hairdryer, but that’s it. The food for guests is cooked on wood fires,” Fahmy explains.

The candlelit dining area at Dar Tantora The House Hotel | Image by Maxime Seltenrijch; Courtesy of Shahira Fahmy Architects

The hotel opened its doors to the public in January this year. To encourage visitors to immerse themselves in the region’s vibrant culture, engaging activities such as fresh bread making, Saudi coffee-making sessions, and weekly and monthly local traditions such as ancient games and artisanal craft-making are incorporated into the guest experience. Also on offer are bespoke tours and curated experiences led by local guides called rawi.

The hotel, which opened in January this year, has on offer various activities to encourage visitors to immerse in the region’s vibrant culture | Image Courtesy of Dar Tantora The House Hotel


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