Home » In an Egyptian Oasis, a House Built From Sand, Rope and Salt
Egypt Environment Global News Lifestyle News

In an Egyptian Oasis, a House Built From Sand, Rope and Salt

A designer and an environmentalist have created a retreat that surrenders to the desert.

WHEN INDIA MAHDAVI first began traveling to Egypt, she was in her late 20s and longing to connect with her ancestral origins. The architect and designer, now 61, was born in Tehran to an Egyptian mother and an Iranian father and grew up mainly in Cambridge, Mass.; Heidelberg, Germany; and Vence, France. “I was feeling like a plant in a pot that had eaten up all its earth,” she says. “I was all roots and no soil, craving for somewhere deeper to be planted.”

In 1999, after frequent trips to Egypt (her mother’s family is from Alexandria), Mahdavi chose to visit Siwa, an urban oasis (population 35,000) on the edge of the Great Sand Sea, a vast expanse of desert near the Libyan border and accessible only by car, bus or charter flight (from Cairo, it’s 90 minutes by plane). Within the oasis are a cluster of psychedelic blue salt lakes, natural springs, date palm plantations and olive trees. For miles in every direction beyond the oasis, there’s little else but sand.

Behind a curtain of rope and large white balls, a bed with white sheets, flanked by side tables, under two open windows.
The primary bedroom is clad in tiles carved from rock salt. The curtain is composed of rope created from date palm fibers and spheres made of local salt.Credit…Anthony Cotsifas

The village of Shali, Siwa’s fortified historic center, dates to the 13th century, when its inhabitants, many of Berber origin, built a settlement out of kershef, a light-colored composite of sand and salt abundant in the region. In 1926 heavy rains nearly destroyed the village, which these days resembles a complex of enormous drip sand castles. A newer town with simple one-story structures built of sandstone and cement sprang up around it, and now houses most of the population, as well as cafes, backpacker inns and small shops selling locally made rugs and crafts.

A long, rectangular pool, which reflects the clear blue sky, and a mountain in the distance, stretches towards a cluster of palm trees.
Tamazid’s pool.Credit…Anthony Cotsifas
In a window with a wooden header, a sculpture depicting two figures locked in an embrace.
A shaded balcony features a stone sculpture designed by the Chinese artist Li Shuang and executed by a local sculptor. The windows were placed strategically to catch prevailing breezes.Credit…Anthony Cotsifas

Mahdavi arrived knowing little of the place. She’d come at the invitation of the Cairo-born environmentalist and businessman Mounir Neamatalla, now 76, a close family friend who was in the middle of an adventure of his own: He was building an ambitious eco-lodge made almost entirely out of kershef, set between a flat-topped mountain and the lake that surrounds it. Mahdavi helped Neamatalla complete the project, which he named Adrère Amellal, from the Berber language Siwi (the phrase translates to “white mountain” in English). With over 40 guest rooms set inside a series of thick-walled buildings the color and texture of old parchment, Adrère Amellal appears to rise up out of the desert like a mirage made of sand. “The radicalness of his project, with no electricity, building with salt and mud, set within a beautiful ancient landscape, was pure magic,” Mahdavi says. Even today, more than two decades after it opened, the lodge is something of a pilgrimage site for architecture fans and the design obsessed.

A bright entrance room, with high ceilings and a large circular table in the center.
The entrance room to Tamazid is open to the sky and features a table with a spherical pedestal leg by the architect and designer India Mahdavi, hewn from a single piece of sandstone. On top is a sculpture, also by Mahdavi, fashioned after the pith helmets Neamatalla frequently wears.Credit…Anthony Cotsifas
In a room with high ceilings and a large bed with white sheets, a rack of clothes on hangers is suspended from a wooden beam.
The walls of the primary bedroom are clad in rectangles of rock salt sourced from Siwa’s lakes.Credit…Anthony Cotsifas

SINCE THAT INITIAL trip, Mahdavi, who’s now largely based in Paris, has returned to Siwa frequently and, in the mid-aughts, she and Neamatalla began working on another seemingly quixotic project there: a roughly 8,000-square-foot, seven-bedroom fortresslike structure, fashioned out of kershef and clay, with sandstone flooring and a palm wood-clad roof, that would be Neamatalla’s private residence. Neamatalla chose to set it near a barren rock formation in the middle of a palm grove — close to Adrère Amellal but well concealed from the main road so it wouldn’t dominate the landscape.

An alleyway with a large palm frond and beams jutting overhead.
A passageway connects the palm and olive groves with the salt lake.Credit…Anthony Cotsifas
Low walls wind along a rooftop, which looks onto palm trees and a mountain. Long bands of salmon-colored clouds stretch across the sky.
A view from the rooftop terrace onto the neighboring palm grove and flat-topped mountain.Credit…Anthony Cotsifas

Named Tamazid after a nearby spring, the compound is, like Adrère Amellal, all earth tones, inside and out. It’s a notable departure for the designer, who’s best known for her inimitable use of color. (She was an originator of what later became known as the millennial pink trend, thanks to the bubble gum-colored interior she designed in 2014 for London’s Gallery restaurant at Sketch, an Instagram staple.) The experience of being on the property is like stepping inside an M.C. Escher print; perspectives and proportions seem to shift, depending on the light or the angle where one stands. Stairs lead to terraces that overlook the compound and surrounding landscape — the blocky structure has few windows, and most of them are different sizes. Inside, straight lines are rare and the kershef surfaces are pleasingly irregular. To Mahdavi, Neamatalla’s approach to Adrère Amellal felt more like sculpting than anything else — “The footprint of a structure was traced on the soil,” she says. “We’d decide where the windows should be according to the views and the sun” — but with Tamazid, she made traditional plans and models. (This was the first building she designed as an architect.) There were occasional disputes: In the middle of construction, she came back after being away for several months to find that Neamatalla had added another wing to the building. Mahdavi insisted it be torn down. In the end, the two reached a compromise and kept part of the addition.

A round, sand-colored table with three chairs viewed through a doorway.
In a circular court, a stone table with legs carved to resemble palm tree trunks.Credit…Anthony Cotsifas
In the center of the main sitting area, a large wheel made of wood and covered with rope.
In the center of the main sitting area, a large wheel made of wood and covered with rope.Credit…Anthony Cotsifas

As at Adrère Amellal, the furnishings are inspired by the surroundings. Nearly every object has been designed by Mahdavi and made by artisans from local sandstone, salt or date palm or olive wood. Over the years, she has filled the place with bespoke furnishings suited to the environment, some resembling her signature pieces. “These shapes are part of my vocabulary,” she says, “but they’re adapted to the local materials in collaboration with local makers.”

An aerial view onto an oasis and a rectangular salt lake, with thick clusters of palm trees, and large rocky hills.
A view of Tamazid, nestled in a palm grove, and the neighboring salt lake.Credit…Anthony Cotsifas

She and Neamatalla also became increasingly inventive with their design. Built-in benches and bed frames were molded out of limestone. The legs of an outdoor table, carved from limestone, resemble the trunk of a palm tree. Rope, made from date palm fibers, covers the ceilings and window frames. Neamatalla also used rope to create curtains between rooms, to encourage breezes and allow for veiled views. In the absence of colors, Mahdavi says, there are textures: “They create vibrations like colors do when their surfaces reflect the sun or cast shade. It’s all about catching the light.”

A narrow corridor with a curved alcove to the left and an arched entranceway to the right. At the end, a tall candle holder.
An entrance to the dining area.Credit…Anthony Cotsifas
A man in a hat, a blue shirt and khaki pants, sits on a chair with his feet resting on the edge of a circular fire pit, chatting on the phone.
Neamatalla sitting by a carved sandstone fire pit.Credit…Anthony Cotsifas

In Neamatalla’s bedroom, blocks of rock salt, harvested from Siwa’s lakes, were carved into rectangles that now line the walls, as well as the walls of the lounge that overlooks the courtyard, where they appear as diamond-shaped tiles. “The salt in Siwa is especially white, with beautiful crystals,” says Mahdavi, noting that it has the translucency of alabaster. Like Adrère Amellal, Tamazid doesn’t have electricity. In the evenings, candles are placed in scores of salt votives to provide light, and there’s also the round fire pit made of sandstone on the main terrace. “For centuries, the people who lived here knew that to survive they had to adapt to the environment, rather than forcing the environment to adapt to them,” Neamatalla says. “We can learn so much from that.”

Source : The New York Times


Instagram has returned empty data. Please authorize your Instagram account in the plugin settings .


Advertisement Small


  • Arrosticini (Pastorie)
  • Sinagoga
  • Salumi
  • Ange (detail) - Jugement dernier (13ème s.) Basilica di S. Cecilia in Trastevere
  • A cappella
  • WeGil
  • Post-Tar
  • Merulana
  • Tram 19


Collaboratively harness market-driven processes whereas resource-leveling internal or "organic" sources. Competently formulate.


May 2024

RSS Meks Blog

  • 10 Best Knowledge Base & Wiki WordPress Themes 2021 September 15, 2021
    Running a successful online business requires an exceptional WordPress knowledge base theme that organizes documentation and helps customers. Customization options, intuitive navigation, unique layouts, and fast responsiveness are just some of the features you need. The following 10 WordPress wiki themes represent the best options for 2021 and beyond. Explore the full range to determine […]
    Dusan Milovanovic
  • How to increase WordPress Memory Limit (quick fixes) June 16, 2021
    Here is a post about how to increase the memory limit in WordPress. Allowed memory size exhausted error message showed up in your WordPress installation? No worries – this is one of the most common errors in WordPress. You can apply an easy fix by increasing the memory limit in your PHP. Table of Contents […]
    Dusan Milovanovic
  • How to use (and why) WordPress sitemap plugin March 1, 2021
    Did you know that by knowing how to use the WordPress sitemap plugin you can significantly improve your site’s visibility and traffic? Although it isn’t mandatory to have a sitemap on your site, having one significantly improves the site’s quality, crawlability and indexing. All this is important for better optimization, which is why we wanted […]
    Ivana Cirkovic
  • 22 free and premium podcast software for your show [2021 edition] January 18, 2021
    You’re determined to start or improve your podcast but don’t know which podcast software to use to really make it stand out? We’ve got you! #podcasting Top 22 free and premium podcast software for your show #WordPressTips #podcasting The post 22 free and premium podcast software for your show [2021 edition] appeared first on Meks.
    Ivana Cirkovic
  • Digital storytelling with WordPress – an all-in-one guide to make your web stories pop! November 23, 2020
    Wondering how to improve digital storytelling with WordPress and build more awareness and exposure of your business? Let our guide lead the way. The post Digital storytelling with WordPress – an all-in-one guide to make your web stories pop! appeared first on Meks.
    Ivana Cirkovic
  • How to use WordPress autoposting plugin to improve your visibility and SEO? September 10, 2020
    Did you know you can use the WordPress autoposting plugin for your content efforts and improve not only your time management but your business and visibility as well? The post How to use WordPress autoposting plugin to improve your visibility and SEO? appeared first on Meks.
    Ivana Cirkovic
  • How to create a personal branding site? Step-by-step DIY guide August 15, 2020
    Looking for ways and means to create a personal branding site? Well, look no further ’cause we’re giving away all the how-to’s to do it yourselves! The post How to create a personal branding site? Step-by-step DIY guide appeared first on Meks.
    Ivana Cirkovic
  • Top 15 WordPress content plugins and tools to improve your visibility and rankings July 16, 2020
    Let’s take a look at some of the must-have WordPress content plugins and tools to use to improve both your UX and rankings. The post Top 15 WordPress content plugins and tools to improve your visibility and rankings appeared first on Meks.
    Ivana Cirkovic
  • WCEU 2020 recap – key takeaways from the biggest online WordPress conference June 9, 2020
    Missed WCEU 2020 and all the exciting stuff from there? Here are all the key takeaways and main points to remember so, take notes! The post WCEU 2020 recap – key takeaways from the biggest online WordPress conference appeared first on Meks.
    Ivana Cirkovic
  • How to change the WordPress username? An easy step-by-step guide May 14, 2020
    Wondering how can you change WordPress username once you set up your blog or site? Read all about it in our helpful guide! The post How to change the WordPress username? An easy step-by-step guide appeared first on Meks.
    Ivana Cirkovic


Distinctively utilize long-term high-impact total linkage whereas high-payoff experiences. Appropriately communicate 24/365.