A conversation with Omar El Mekati about Siwa, Hassan Fathy and the Al Ula Oasis in Saudi Arabia
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
Nicholas Mellor is the founder of 4DHeritage. 4DHeritage is pioneering the use of agile, immersive approaches to enable communities to document and monitor fragile ecosystems and endangered heritage sites. This recognises that this heritage, be it natural or built, is often central to their identity and livelihoods. In doing so it is an opportunity for the people of those communities to share their stories.
Omar El Mekati is an Architect who gained his first experience of major conservation projects with Environmental Quality International (EQI), a pioneer in architecture and conservation programmes in Egypt and in the region. Omar took part in an immersive storytelling training programme run by 4DHeritage.
EQI created the Siwa Sustainable Development Initiative (SSD) to facilitate private-public investments to protect fragile ecosystems; create sustainable local economies; and generate balanced rewards for investors, thereby promoting sustainable development. This included a programme to restore the endangered architectural heritage and handicrafts of Siwa Oasis; creating local community awareness of the value of preserving their natural and cultural heritage; providing a direct investment in ecotourism, organic farming, and other for-profit activities and sociocultural services.
In addition, Omar has also been involved in EQI’s project to safeguard Hassan Fathy’s Architectural Legacy in New Gourna, funded by UNESCO.
Hassan Fathy’s Architectural Legacy in New Gourna, Copyright UNESCO
Hassan Fathy’s Architectural Legacy in New Gourna, Copyright UNESCO
Nicholas: Can you describe what inspired you about the work in the Siwa Oasis?
Omar: The first thing that intrigued me when I first started working at EQI, was how the company is leading the field of vernacular architecture in the country. Throughout Egypt, EQI is or has been experimenting with earth building materials. The Siwa Oasis was awhere it all started. EQI succeeded in creating mesmerizing ecolodges all built with locally sourced mud and salt. In doing so, they have elevated the entire area in the field of sustainable development, revived farming in the oasis and generated a hotspot for eco-tourism, traditional crafts and many more activities.
The Al Gourna project is the latest of these projects, and provided a blank canvas to apply all the lessons learned throughout EQI’s rich history. Having the privilege to take part in reviving Hassan Fathy’s legacy is one challenge I’m very grateful for!
Nicholas: What was the training you received from 4DHeritage to document the restoration of the Shali Fortress?
Omar: It was in three parts. Together with a group of my colleagues at EQI I had the chance to take part in a course that involved learning about the technical side of 360 degree image capturing. There we learned how to use the camera correctly and what to avoid while filming.
The second aspect was how to develop these images into a coherent series to create an understandable and immersive virtual reality experience. The challenge there was how to pace these images, as to not have a giant gap in the series. The third, and for me the most interesting phase of the training, was how to create a compelling story with all the images we’ve captured.
We brought all this together when my colleague & friend, Malak and myself went to the island of Zamalek in Cairo to create a story about our favorite sporting club in the city, the Gezira Club. There we were able to implement all that we have learned in the training and try to capture the beauty of the palace, for the whole world to see.
Nicholas: Can you tell me about the project involving Hassan Fathy’s buildings in New Gourna, and what inspires you about Hassan Fathy’s work?
Omar: I first learned about Hassan Fathy’s work while I attended university in Munich. In one of our courses, where we studied vernacular architecture around the globe, Hassan Fathy’s name was the first on the list when we focused on the Middle East. His human-centered approach instantly grasped my attention. Add to that his experimentation with locally sourced materials like mudbrick and compacted earth and I was hooked. When I therefore got the opportunity to work on restoring one of his most significant works located in the Upper Egyptian city of Al Gourna in Luxor, I did not hesitate and took on the challenge immediately. Him being a pioneer in earth architecture in Egypt, I was interested to see how he married the two contradicting ideas; traditional building materials with the idea of a modern 20th century village for the people. His main goal was to alleviate the impoverished people living in the area with a familiar form of architecture. They would feel right at home and benefit from the closeness to their farms. Or so he thought. The project sadly did not meet its full potential and only a handful of buildings of the first phase have been realized. People did not fully understand the idea behind using earth architecture, seeing it as something old and forgotten. The families that did move in, quickly tore down their homes and built “modern” concrete structures instead. Today only a few buildings remain, namely the Theatre, the Mosque, the Khan (Souq) and Mr. Fathy’s own home. That’s when EQI came in. In collaboration with UNESCO, we were commissioned to restore the above mentioned buildings and bring them back to their original glory.
View from the top of the mosque before restoration at Al Gourna in Luxor, Egypt.
Our instructions were to only use the same materials used in the original design, only to drift in the extreme necessity like in bathroom plumbing for example. The project was phased into three parts, starting with the foundation works, where we had to resort to the creation of three new wetlands to avoid any future water damage from groundwater. The second phase was the actual restoration process of all three buildings. This phase was the most challenging, as there were little to no original drawings, so the drawing and figuring out process needed to go through a lot of iterations to reach our goal. The third and final part is the documentation of all the achievements, which is now under way.
Nicholas: How does this compare with previous restoration work in New Gourna?
Omar: Actually, before we were commissioned to work on Al Gourna, another Egyptian restorer had tried to restore the Khan. Sadly, they relied on using modern buildings materials such as red brick, cement and concrete, further damaging the structural integrity of the building. They did not take into consideration the environmental damage the concrete might cause to the surrounding area. After the concrete had been set and the red brick wall had been built, the enormous added weight actually pulled the arcade of the Khan away from the building, resulting in the collapse of the first two domes, and the damaging of numerous walls and arches.
Removing the intrusive red brick wall of the previous restorer
This is just one of many examples of the approach taken by inexperienced restorers around the country, who have decided not to do any research before delving into such a complicated project. Our job in the Khan was therefore much harder, firstly having to study how to remove the intrusions and how to go about rebuilding the collapsed parts. In complete contrast to the previous restorer, we fully complied with Hassan Fathy’s original vision, trying to adhere as much as possible to his own plans. Likewise, no grouting, cementing or chemical treatment were used throughout the entire project. Rather I am proud to say that we have only used locally sourced materials from the surrounding areas and all our workers were from the neighboring village to strengthen community engagement and their ties to the place. We fully believe that the surrounding community can prosper and be empowered through this project, being a beacon for environmentally aware architecture and a hub for earth architecture. I can imagine that the tourists on their way to or back from the valley of the kings will be able to have a break in this village and see a different part of Egypt's rich history. The villagers can be local guides, taking them on tours of the buildings and the surrounding farmland while telling personal stories of their ancestors. The Khan building might be turned into an artist residence, further diversifying the reasons to visit this magnificent site and being in awe of the beautiful location right next to the river Nile and the Colossi of Memnon.
Nicholas: What are you working on now?
Omar: At the end of last year, I slowly transitioned from the Luxor project to a similar project in the Al Ula Oasis in Saudi Arabia. Similar to the projects in Siwa and Luxor, the Old Town there was fully built out of natural materials, mostly stone foundations and mud bricks and mud plastering. The Saudi’s end goal is to create a fully immersive experience and transport the visitor to the past, make him or her see how their forefathers used to live. They’ve created a huge masterplan around the entire oasis, with the Old Town being at the centre of it all. The panorama below shows the majesty of the Al Ula site.
Nicholas: What inspires you about the site in Al Ula?
Omar: Well as I mentioned before, what drew me to the site in Al Ula were the striking similarities in both the building materials and the techniques used to create the dwellings. As an architect, I have always been intrigued by how ancient civilizations built their cities and towns. The old town of Al Ula is no exception. The cell-like structure of buildings, how narrow streets snake through the town, and how they connected two buildings through the first floor, effectively creating shading for the street underneath is just fascinating to me. You can observe this kind of architecture all around the MENA region, but never in such abundance as in this oasis. It is very similar architecturally to the Siwa oasis back home, both culturally and architecturally. The location of the Old Town is very important, as it lies on the ancient silk road that stretched from China to Turkey and beyond.
Dr. Mounir Neamatalla, who is the founder and visionary behind EQI, wanted to implement the knowledge gathered in the years EQI was engaged in Siwa, and bring the old town of Al Ula back to its former glory. It is for this reason he has decided to use workers from Siwa to make his and the Royal Commission of Al Ula’s dream come to fruition. During the first days there while having multiple conversations with the skilled craftsmen of Siwa, I was told that they felt right at home, themselves in awe of how similar it is to their ancient town of Shali. It was very easy for them to imagine how the town would look after the restoration, and therefore also very easy for them to understand what needs to be done. Their enthusiasm coupled with the funding of the project meant that a lot of progress will be seen very early on in the project. Their commitment created a buzz with the visitors and the whole restoration process was turned into a live tourist attraction. Further enhancing the seriousness of the project and its success. This symbiotic relationship with all stakeholders is one that I am very grateful to have experienced at uch a young age and at my very first job after finishing university. Hopefully one day I will be able to return to Saudi Arabia and see the town alive and full of people, bringing it back to its former importance as a major stop along the ancient trade route from Asia to Europe and Africa. I am also very hopeful for the future as this project shows the potential the Arab you can achieve in all sectors of life if we can collaborate as much as we do here in Al Ula. The survival of these ancient architectural skills and values rely on the involvement of the youth themselves. If the youth is not interested, then they will eventually go extinct, only to be remembered in images and films.
The Siwan skilled craftsmen while working on a major building along the incense road
Nicholas: What do you aspire to do in the future?
Omar: That’s a question I’ve been trying to find an answer to for a while now.
In parallel to the work in the Kingdom, I’ve been trying here to dive into the world of freelance work. Inspired by my peers, I’m trying to create a footing and a name for myself in the world of architecture here in Egypt. My goal here is to enhance my architectural skill set and apply the experiences I have gained while being surrounded by the vernacular architecture and traditional building techniques. I would like to be able to find the balance between using modern technology and materials and mergeit with the Egyptian culture and revival of traditional Architecture.
I know for certain that in the future I would like to be working in the field of vernacular architecture conservation and revival of those regional architectural values. It appears Egyptians have forgotten about their rich cultural heritage. Rather than looking for inspiration within the region and learning from their ancestors, modern day Egyptian architects draw their inspiration from the western architecture scene. While vernacular architecture has been perfecting itself throughout the centuries, finding the most suitable solutions to fit its regional climatic conditions, most present-day architecture is devoid of such sensitivity. It is not uncommon for example to see gable roof family houses sprawling up in the middle of the desert, ignoring the actual goal of such architecture in their native climate. It appears they are simply designed for visual appeal. I’m of course talking here about the various developers who just have the goal of selling the most units to people, with slogans like “California way of living” or having posters with western actors as opposed to an Egyptian family. Talking about the informal housing that has plagued the cities of Egypt is a whole different story for another time. My goal is finally to attempt to try and illustrate the importance of finding a balance between the vernacular architecture and the contemporary requirements of an Egyptian household, as well as design projects with the aim to revive traditional Egyptian architectural elements and illustrate their efficient and effective use for a modern-day interpretation.
That being said, my experience at EQI has cemented that idea and I very much look forward to the future as an architect here in Egypt.