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Arabian Nights

Inside a boutique hotel on the Nile where luxury is space and flowering gardens.

Zeina Aboukheir

Zeina Aboukheir first arrived on the banks of the West Bank of the Nile, in Luxor, aboard a felucca, a traditional wooden Egyptian boat. Immediately she fell in love with its transcendent charm.

Much more peaceful than the East Bank, it represented a quiet haven. “Discovering Luxor was the vision. Luxor has unique archaeological sites, and the magical Nile. I said, that’s it, this is where I must create a boutique hotel,” says Aboukheir. “The idea had been in my mind for many years. I was just waiting for the right place to do it,” she says.

Aboukheir bought a patch of desert with a natural spring, in an oasis of palm trees at the edge of the Nubian Desert, next to the Valley of the Kings, within a UNESCO world heritage site. In 1999 she started to build her dream: a luxury boutique hotel named after her role therein; Al Moudira, ‘the boss lady’.

A bathroom in Villa Zeina

Lebanon-born Aboukheir is married to a well-known French journalist who had been stationed in Cairo and was well connected in Egypt. A citizen of the world, she lived in Italy for 10 years and was influenced by the Italian sense of la dolce vita.

“My dream for this boutique hotel would be where luxury is space, luxury is like flowering gardens, the sound of water in the fountains, and I wanted my guests to feel as though they were guests in a private house, not in a hotel,” she explains. 

Aboukheir worked as a photographer, artist and jewellery designer and with a strong sense of her own style, she worked closely with Egyptian architect Olivier Sednaoui to help infuse each of the 57 rooms with her personality.

She travelled around the Middle East, cherry-picking beautiful antiques to fill the hotel with an evocation of the glamorous heydays of Alexandria, Cairo, Beirut and Damascus. Aboukheir calls it a “mix of Lebanese, Syrian and Turkish influences, with Italian colours”.

Courtyard detail, Villa Zeina

The construction process took three years and involved 150 local artisans and labourers; during which time Aboukheir was intimately involved in the process, prompting her nickname from the workmen; Al Moudira.

The hotel is an Egyptian palace with a honeycomb of 10 courtyards, surrounded by 10 hectares of palm groves and fountains, and seven pools. There are 57 rooms, including five villas and three apartments. Much of the hotel’s interior has been created using the discarded parts of beautiful old villas in Alexandria and Cairo that were being torn down to build modern high rises; marble antique tiles, thrown-away handcrafted wooden doors, locally sourced terracotta and painted glass, even unwanted fountains; all found a new life in Al Moudira.

Within three years the glamorous ochre palace had opened its doors on the Nile’s West side, in a short period of time attracting privacy-loving celebrities such as Kate Moss and Mick Jagger, as well as Christian Louboutin. “Before I owned property in Egypt, I always stayed there, it feels like a family home,” said French shoe-designer Louboutin in an interview, who now has a house in Luxor and a houseboat on the Nile. 

Fast forward another decade an Egypt-based European investor has come into the picture. He booked out the entire hotel for his wife’s 50th birthday, and it was at some point in the process that Aboukheir offered to sell Al Moudira to him. The deal was signed last year.

Pool Villa

The new owner says: “It’s difficult to find truly special hotels, so many are somewhat flashy and lack authenticity.”

Aboukheir has stayed on as a consultant to assist during the period that the hotel has been improved and expanded, including increasing the space by some 70,000 square feet, building new villas, and adding a library tower in the style of a traditional Egyptian pigeon tower. Some 7,000 unique works of history are housed there, ranging from ancient Egyptology to Middle Eastern art. The hotel recently acquired a stunning collection of historic photographs of Egypt and had them framed and hung throughout.

“There was an idea, if people want to stay a bit longer, there will be somewhere for them to read and research,” she says.

As it enters its next phase, the future of Al Moudira looks bright. Aboukheir adds: “The hotel was a dream come true and became a magical place for me. It still has all those sensibilities.”

This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Taste & Travel Issue. For subscriptions click here.