How a luxury boutique hotel in Saudi Arabia’s ancient Hegra is blending the old with the new

Special How a luxury boutique hotel in Saudi Arabia’s ancient Hegra is blending the old with the new
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The Chedi Hegra, the first hotel planned for the World Heritage Site, is part of the wider mission of the Royal Commission for AlUla. (RCU Photo)
Special How a luxury boutique hotel in Saudi Arabia’s ancient Hegra is blending the old with the new
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The reception at Chedi Hegra, the first hotel planned for the World Heritage Site. (RCU Photo)
Special How a luxury boutique hotel in Saudi Arabia’s ancient Hegra is blending the old with the new
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A view of the ruins of the ancient city of AlUla and the new city that stands adjacent to it. (Supplied photo)
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Updated 08 July 2023
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How a luxury boutique hotel in Saudi Arabia’s ancient Hegra is blending the old with the new

How a luxury boutique hotel in Saudi Arabia’s ancient Hegra is blending the old with the new
  • The Royal Commission for AlUla is incorporating the hotel into a historic railway station and an Ottoman fort
  • Chedi Hegra is part of the Kingdom’s broader Vision 2030 plan to draw tourists to its many heritage sites

LONDON: It takes courage and vision to make contemporary additions to precious heritage buildings in a bid to grant them a new lease of life, but the results are almost always successful and dramatic.

London, for example, has the Great Court of the British Museum, the striking turn-of-the-millennium transformation of the 19th-century building by renowned architect Sir Norman Foster, which when completed in 1999 created a breathtaking enclosed space uniting the two wings of the building under a gigantic roof of glass and steel.

In Paris, architect Ieoh Ming Pei’s imposing glass pyramid in the main courtyard of the Louvre was described as “sacrilegious” when the design, sheltering a vast new underground entrance lobby, was proposed in 1984 as a solution to the museum’s inability to handle the ever-increasing number of visitors drawn to the city’s number-one attraction.

Initially, as The New York Times reported in 1985, the design was described variously as “an architectural joke,” “an eyesore,” “an anachronistic intrusion of Egyptian death symbolism in the middle of Paris” and “a megalomaniacal folly.”

Today, however, the Louvre would not be the Louvre without its pyramid, and its attendant three smaller siblings, beloved of Parisians and photographed by tourists almost as much as the museum’s star attraction, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Less well known globally, but equally striking, is the ancient-and-modern blend that is Moritzburg Castle in Halle, near Leipzig, Germany. In 2008 the crumbling remnants of the 15th-century building, in neglected near-ruin for centuries, were not restored, but recruited as component parts of the thoroughly contemporary modern art museum that appeared to grow up organically out of the remains.

“By this means,” as the Kulturstiftung Sachsen-Anhalt cultural foundation said, “the palace and its colorful history have successfully been artistically brought into the present . . . Moritzburg Castle’s present architectural appearance thus also stands for the museum’s new beginnings at the start of the 21st century.”

Now the same might be said of a bold new plan to build a luxury boutique hotel within the precincts of the Saudi UNESCO World Heritage site of Hegra at AlUla.




The water basin is part of the luxury boutique accommodation at Chedi Hegra. (RCU photo)

The Chedi Hegra, due to open by the end of this year, is being constructed not as a standalone addition to one of the most dramatic landscapes Saudi Arabia has to offer, but by making imaginative use of a number of old buildings, including two outstanding pieces of architecture steeped in history — the Madaen Saleh railway station, a stop on the historic Hejaz railway that ran from Damascus to Madinah, and the adjacent Ottoman fort, one of a series built in the 18th century to protect pilgrims traveling to Makkah.

The history of this region is as rich as it is long. The Hegra archaeological area, which in 2008 became the first property in Saudi Arabia to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, is the largest conserved site of the Nabataean civilization south of Petra in Jordan.

At its heart is a stunning necropolis of 111 monumental tombs, most with decorated facades, carved out of the surrounding sandstone rocks between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century AD.

Earlier civilizations left their mark here too. Located in a valley settled from remote antiquity thanks to the presence of ample subterranean water, in this location before the rise of the Nabataeans ruled the sheikdom of Dadan, and then the Kingdom of Lihyan, both of which left traces of their passing in the rocks and the sand.




The Nabataean District - Hegra Museum. (Supplied)

Ancient Hegra, as the UNESCO nomination document attests, was “at the crossroad of international trade and of different cultures and civilizations, and played a key role in the exchange of goods and cultural traditions between Arabia and the Mediterranean world, becoming a wealthy and important halt for the caravans crossing the Arabian Peninsula carrying incense and spices from Yemen and India.”

And more recent history, no less fascinating, can be found within the UNESCO site, including the path of one of the three great Hajj pilgrimage routes, all of which are on Saudi Arabia’s UNESCO Tentative List as potential future World Heritage Sites.

Alongside the Darb Zubaydah, which linked the Iraqi city of Kufa to Makkah, and the Egyptian Hajj road, from Haqel on the Gulf of Aqaba, runs the Syrian Hajj road from Damascus, which passed through AlUla on its way south to Makkah.


FASTFACTS

• The Hegra archaeological area is the largest conserved site of the Nabataean civilization south of Petra in Jordan.

• In 2008 the area became the first property in Saudi Arabia to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

• The area contains a necropolis of 111 tombs carved out of sandstone rocks between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century AD.


In addition to its Islamic heritage, this is a road that was traveled for centuries by traders and Bedouin, many of whom left their marks in ancient rock carvings along the route. 

The square, thick-walled Hegra fortress, which dates from 1744 to 1757 and has an ancient well in its courtyard, was one of the many forts built to protect the pilgrims’ routes to Makkah.

It was partially renovated in 1985, and not for the first time — it is thought that it was previously restored in the late Ottoman period, probably when the railway station was built, in about 1906.

The historic Hejaz railway, which ran 1,300 km from Damascus to Madinah, was built by the Ottoman Empire before World War I and followed the course of the old Syrian pilgrimage caravan route.




The Ottoman-era Hijaz Railway station in AlUla. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah/File)

The 700 km section of the railway that ran through what is now Saudi Arabia is also on UNESCO’s Tentative List as a potential World Heritage site of universal importance.

One of the great engineering achievements of its day — and all the more significant historically because its construction was funded by donations from Islamic communities around the world — the railway reduced the journey time for pilgrims to Makkah from about six weeks to just a few days.

The railway was also used to carry Ottoman forces south to maintain Turkish control over the Hejaz, but after being repeatedly attacked and disabled during World War I by T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) and the forces of the Arab Revolt, it fell into disuse, never to be restored.

Today, traces of the railway can still be seen all along its route — tracks, half-buried in sand, toppled engines lying where they fell after being blown up by mines more than a century ago, and more than 2,000 bridges and other structures along its total length.

Now, both the railway station and the Ottoman fort are to find a new lease of life as component parts of the new hotel, as part of the broader determination in a Saudi Arabia focused on diversifying away from dependence on fossil fuels to attract visitors by making the most of its many heritage assets.

This is, of course, not the first time that ancient and modern have been brought together as Saudi Arabia pursues its ambitious plans to develop the country’s potential as a hub for cultural tourism.




A view of the luxury boutique at the Chedi Hegra, the first hotel planned for the World Heritage Site. (RCU photo)

Until now, perhaps the most striking example of this determination not to treat heritage assets as museum pieces, frozen in time, but to breathe new life into them as key attractions is the preservation of Diriyah, birthplace of the Kingdom, as the jewel at the heart of the architecturally sympatico Diriyah Gate development just west of Riyadh.

But the plan for Hegra, executed audaciously and confidently within the bounds of a World Heritage site, sets a new standard for bold reimagination of heritage assets.

And this is about far more than merely the creation of yet another luxury hotel. The Chedi Hegra, the first hotel planned for the World Heritage site, is part of the wider mission of the Royal Commission for AlUla, working with local and international experts in archaeology, heritage conservation and preservation, architecture and master planning “to deliver an environmentally and historically sensitive transformation of AlUla.”

RCU is building the hotel directly into several existing structures, including the railway station and Hegra Fort, with existing structural and exterior walls, some of which are of historic mud-brick construction, being preserved and integrated with the modern architecture.




The preserved Hegra Fort is being integrated with the modern architecture as part of the Chedi Hegra. (RCU photo)

The vast majority of the UNESCO World Heritage site, says RCU, “will remain untouched by construction and carefully preserved by RCU to maintain the integrity of Hegra’s incredible human and natural heritage.”

The Chedi Hegra, says John Northen, the RCU’s vice president of hotels and resorts, “embodies the fulfilment of our Journey Through Time master plan, with its deep respect for heritage, sustainable design features, and an authentic luxury experience that celebrates what makes AlUla a special destination for travelers seeking both comfort and adventure.”


READ MORE: The Journey Through Time: A master plan for preserving and sustainably developing Saudi Arabia’s ancient AlUla


Equally important, with the relatively modest but pioneering Chedi Hegra — the construction of which will use local materials, businesses and labor, and when up and running is expected to create at least 120 jobs — the RCU is demonstrating its determination to work hand in hand with the local community and to “invest in education and learning for AlUla’s next generation and create training and employment opportunities for its people.”

In AlUla, thanks to a bold and imaginative blending of the old and the new, Saudi Arabia is demonstrating how its past can play an increasingly important role in its future.

 

The rebirth of AlUla
Hegra, ancient city of the Nabataeans in Saudi Arabia’s historic AlUla Valley, is emerging from the mists of time to take its rightful place as one of the wonders of the world

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Hail deputy governor joins Zubaida Trail for Founding Day

Hail deputy governor joins Zubaida Trail for Founding Day
Updated 22 February 2024
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Hail deputy governor joins Zubaida Trail for Founding Day

Hail deputy governor joins Zubaida Trail for Founding Day

HAIL: Prince Faisal bin Fahd bin Muqrin, the deputy governor of Hail region, took part in a Zubaida Trail caravan on Thursday to mark Founding Day celebrations.

The caravan, overseen by the Heritage Commission and organized by the Caravans Trails Association, began its journey from the historic city of Fayd to Sumaira’ Province.

Prince Faisal honored the sponsors and partners, and along with hikers, horseback riders, camel riders and cyclists, took part in the caravan journey.

Along the route, the deputy governor spoke to groups taking part in the event, including Saudis and foreigners in the Kingdom.

Prince Faisal praised the government’s support for the heritage sector, and commended the dedication of all parties involved in the caravan program.

Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Obeida, general supervisor of the Zubaida Trail, praised the support given to the initiative by the Saudi leadership, as well as the Hail governor and his deputy.

He said that the scheme aims to revitalize the ancient route, which is one of many in Saudi Arabia dating back over 1,000 years.

Al-Obeida highlighted the importance of community involvement in sustaining and developing the trail route for economic, cultural and tourism purposes.
 


Endangered native animals released in Saudi reserve

Endangered native animals released in Saudi reserve
Updated 22 February 2024
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Endangered native animals released in Saudi reserve

Endangered native animals released in Saudi reserve

AL-ULA: Fourteen Arabian oryxes and 40 Arabian sand gazelles have been released into the Gharameel nature reserve by the the National Center for Wildlife.

The conservation effort at Gharameel, located 60 km north of AlUla, took place with cooperation from the Royal Commission for AlUla.

The reserve features unique biodiversity throughout its rock and sand formations, and hillsides.

Resettlement of endangered native species is a key target of the center, as well as restoring biodiversity and environmental balance as part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.

Animal reintroduction also promotes the RCU’s plan to activate six nature reserves while regenerating AlUla as a leading global destination for cultural and natural heritage.

The formations of rocky pillars in the area were created through wind and rain erosion over thousands of years.

AlUla is also a popular stargazing destination for tourists from around the world.
 


Saudi honeybee program achieves 200% productivity boost

Saudi honeybee program achieves 200% productivity boost
Updated 22 February 2024
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Saudi honeybee program achieves 200% productivity boost

Saudi honeybee program achieves 200% productivity boost

RIYADH: The honeybee breeding program — spearheaded by the Sustainable Agricultural Rural Development Program “Saudi Reef” in partnership with the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture — is poised to make a substantial impact on bee populations.

A select group of model beekeepers has achieved an impressive 200 percent increase in productivity by implementing the program.

According to the “Saudi Reef” program, the surge in production is attributed to a strategic focus on expanding queen bee rearing within the breeding and propagation program.

Additionally, the adoption of innovative production techniques and best practices, including hive management and organic beekeeping, has played a key role.

These practices have been documented in a booklet distributed to beekeepers and have yielded significant production boosts in several model farms established by the project.

Expanding on its success, the program plans to roll out projects for “bee queen breeding and nuclei production” across eight centers spanning regions such as Jazan, Najran, Asir, Baha, Makkah, Madinah, Hail and Tabuk.

Each center is expected to produce 5,000 queen bees annually, characterized by purity and high-production specifications.

This will enable beekeepers to expand queen bee breeding and bee colonies while preserving favorable genetic traits for enhanced production and resilience against diseases and environmental factors.

The honeybee development and honey production sector is a key focus of the “Saudi Reef” program. Since its inception, the program has had significant increases in production, enhancing the income and living standards of its beneficiaries.

To increase food security and agricultural self-sufficiency, Saudi Arabia unveiled an ambitious initiative in August last year to produce more than 7,500 tons of honey annually as part of the Saudi Reef.


Makkah expo focuses on next steps for hotel, culinary sectors

Makkah expo focuses on next steps for hotel, culinary sectors
Updated 22 February 2024
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Makkah expo focuses on next steps for hotel, culinary sectors

Makkah expo focuses on next steps for hotel, culinary sectors
  • Saudi employees trained at top schools bringing skills back to the Kingdom

MAKKAH: The Makkah Expo for Hotels and Restaurants, held at the Makkah Chamber of Commerce and Industry Exhibition Center, ended on Wednesday evening.

The exhibition’s fifth edition was inaugurated by Vice Chairman of the Makkah Chamber of Commerce Mustafa Rajab and involved officials, business owners and company representatives.

A large number of companies and institutions representing the hotel and culinary sectors, specialized in serving Hajj and Umrah pilgrims and visitors, attended the three-day exhibition, which was held in collaboration with the Unit for Exhibition Organization.

Abdullah Haneef, the acting secretary-general of the Makkah Chamber of Commerce, told Arab News: “The exhibition provided an opportunity to access the best practices in the hotel and restaurant sectors, as it brought together a select group of people specialized in this field in Makkah, a pioneer in the hotel sector field attracting large numbers of visitors from around the world.”

He added that industry officials exchanged business ideas and showcased modern tools and technology, food products and hotel and restaurant supplies, and took part in several accompanying events.

Haneef added: “The exhibition offers an opportunity for investors, interested parties, specialized companies and experts in the hotel and restaurant sector from inside and outside the Kingdom, to display their products to investors and interested individuals and exchange expertise, as well as engage in commercial deals between exhibitors, participants and individuals interested in the hotel and restaurant sector.”

The exhibition also hosted a salon for culinary arts and live cooking demonstrations.

Khalid Al-Ghamdi, an investor in the hotel sector, said that the Saudi industry has begun a strong post-pandemic recovery, and is fulfilling its role in serving visitors.

He added that intensive training programs Saudi employees are undertaking in top international hotel schools are helping them apply their knowledge back in the Kingdom.

Al-Ghamdi said that the restaurant sector is facing significant challenges but also opportunities, including smart digital solutions.

Makkah is one of the most significant and holiest places worldwide, drawing millions of Muslims for religious rituals such as Hajj and Umrah, he added.

The city should therefore focus on enhancing future innovation plans and smart marketing to make the hospitality sector a top performer, through innovative solutions and major investment, he said.


Saudi, French FMs discuss bilateral ties on G20 sidelines

Saudi, French FMs discuss bilateral ties on G20 sidelines
Updated 22 February 2024
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Saudi, French FMs discuss bilateral ties on G20 sidelines

Saudi, French FMs discuss bilateral ties on G20 sidelines
  • Ministers reviewed latest regional and international developments, particularly Israel’s war on Gaza

RIYADH: Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan met on Thursday with his French counterpart Stephane Segournet on the sidelines of the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Rio de Janeiro.

They discussed bilateral relations and ways to enhance them in various fields, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

They also reviewed the latest regional and international developments, particularly Israel’s war on Gaza.

The Kingdom’s Ambassador to Brazil Faisal Ghulam and Walid Al-Smail, assistant director general of the Saudi foreign minister’s office, were also present at the meeting.