1 - 7 July 1999
Issue No. 436
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Upon entering the new offices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Nile Corniche, one is struck by the sharp contrast between the futuristic construction itself -- a tall, imposing block crowned by a gigantic stylised white lotus -- and the old-world charm permeating the interior of the building. Past the slim, straight columns of the outxer galleries, the elegantly appointed, sparsely furnished waiting rooms and vast offices display fixtures and fittings redolent of turn-of-the-century palaces. Fresh flowers in crystal vases stand on inlaid tables set unobtrusively before vast bay windows dressed in full curtains that match the padded brocade wall coverings. Gilt-wood armchairs and canapés surround small Louis XV or Chinese lacquered coffee tables, forming cosy islands from which one can enjoy a full view of the beautifully landscaped gardens. Italian gilt bronze side tables and Chinese chests are set against the walls. Doors are concealed behind delicate Louis XV screens; thick wall-to-wall carpets or parquet floors covered with Persian carpets complete the luxurious, tranquil atmosphere.
The plaque bearing the name of the new building's architect: Mohamed Ramzy Omar
(photos: Randa Shaath)
In the foreign minister's private waiting room, serene, well-groomed secretaries seated at old-fashioned desks welcome visitors with a warm smile. The walls in this room are adorned with rare paintings which include two Inji Aflatoun panels, a lively scene at the Luxembourg gardens by Marguerite Nakhla and a beautiful painting signed Mohamed Sabri. Two Chinese chests mounted on Chippendale plinths are flanked by a pair of delicate, ornate Chinese Chippendale chairs.
An impression of quiet splendour dominates in Foreign Minister Amr Moussa's office. He sits at an imposing Louis XV desk, but moves rapidly forward as soon as we walk in -- sparing us a long, intimidating crossing of the extensive expanse of carpet -- and leads us to a recess by a bay window, where a small canapé and two armchairs in delicate velours de Gènes offer a cosier vista. A portrait of President Mubarak and two paintings by Moussa's favourite artist, Mahmoud Said, are the only ornamentation on the bare walls, otherwise covered in fine damask. A pair of elegant Louis XV commodes complete the décor.
At the far end, near a door camouflaged by the clever use of wood panelling, a precious Regency suite with its original needlework upholstery shares a nook -- protected by a tasselled strip of red velvet -- with a lacquered kneehole Louis XV writing desk, a unique collector's item which once belonged to Sultan Hussein, Moussa tells us.
The new building is the outcome of a project that saw the light more than a quarter of a century ago, and Moussa recalls vividly how it all started. One day, back in the early '60s, when he was just embarking upon his diplomatic career, a young man carrying what looked like the model of a tall, square tower entered the offices of the Foreign Ministry, which then occupied Kamaleddin Palace off Tahrir Square. Intrigued, Moussa showed him into the office of the undersecretary of foreign affairs, and listened to the discussion between the minister and the architect -- Ramzi Omar -- then pored with them over the blueprint.
The model, based on various configurations of a stylised bouquet of Pharaonic lotuses, was to become the new Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The actual realisation of the project began much later, and Moussa, who had coincidentally been present at its birth, developed a special interest in its progress. Today, the white tower stands tall on the banks of the Nile, surrounded by verdant grounds; having meanwhile become Egypt's foreign minister, Moussa became its first occupant in 1993.
"It has taken over 33 years to complete," he says. "First the ministry had to acquire the land, then they had to expropriate some owners and tenants from the surrounding dwellings and shops, to whom proper compensation had to be paid. By this time, the ministry had run out of cash and the project was shelved, and for a while there were other priorities. Besides, since the original blueprint had been designed in the '60s, it made no allowances for the high-tech equipment which is so essential today. Alterations, including an integrated computer system, central air-conditioning and other state-of-the-art equipment, therefore had to be effected at a later stage." Eventually, the new tower by the Nile lacked only the finishing touches; but it seemed that everyone at the ministry was reluctant to make the official move to the new premises. "I really had to put my foot down and set a date," says Moussa, "and of course, when we finally took the step, there was still work to be done, but at least we were here."
Since then, he has been especially keen on supervising the landscaping of the grounds. "Come and look at our green and yellow lawns," he jokes, indicating the part of the garden that stretches between the ministry and the Television Building. The grass under the newly planted palm trees is still in the process of growing, and yellow-tinged bare patches show, but further away, a minimalistic fountain -- a simple marble basin -- is set into a lush green lawn, hinting at things to come. Young trees are already blooming in deep shades of pink, contributing their own touch of brightness. "This is sturdy grass," explains the minister. "In time, it will take root properly. Only over there, by the fence, will the Ficus trees probably stunt its progress." Later, he says, when the garden is well established, the ministry might open parts of the grounds to the public. Moussa would like to see all public buildings surrounded with green spaces and flowerbeds.
What of the small building -- a former courthouse -- just outside the fence, and the exquisite Royal Carriage Museum, now empty? "The ministry does not own those, unfortunately," says Moussa with a mischievous smile. "Maybe you can convince the Ministry of Culture to place them under our jurisdiction. We would then be able to restore them."
The Mohamed Ali Club (the cupola was added in 1930), and restoration work nearing completion
Restoration in general, therefore, and especially the official opening of the Diplomatic Club, is a subject to which Moussa dedicates much attention. The former Royal Mohamed Ali Club, known for a while as Al-Tahrir and now as the Diplomatic Club, has been undergoing extensive renovations for the best part of a year. It is nearing completion at present, and the minister is pleased with the results. It was rumoured that the inauguration was imminent, but, he says, it will not take place before October, because the work "should not be rushed in any way". He adds proudly: "When it is finished, the club will be unparalleled anywhere in the Middle East."
For a long time, diplomats needed a place where they could entertain their distinguished guests in a fitting manner. The Mohamed Ali Club, which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs purchased after the revolution, was already in dire need of repairs and, although attempts at restoration had been made from time to time, with its flaking paint and faded velvet curtains, it was becoming less and less suitable for official receptions.
"It is important for Egypt's image that diplomats have access to a place in which the highest standards are observed," says Moussa. "This will be neither a social nor a sporting club. It will be used by high-ranking diplomats, and only for important official occasions. Black tie and formal dress will be mandatory. A veteran ambassador of our choice will be put in charge of the administration, and will be assisted by several ladies of the diplomatic corps thoroughly versed in the art and etiquette of organising receptions."
The club is therefore being restored to its original magnificence. The building itself has been completely overhauled and repainted, inside and out. "We brought out the archival photographs and meticulously examined what the salons, the library, the dining room looked like, 50 or 80 years ago," comments the foreign minister. "We asked that the same colour scheme and the same materials be preserved or replicated whenever at all possible." The edifice was renovated by an Egyptian firm of contractors and the interior decoration undertaken by Ihab Shafik, who was responsible for the interior decoration of the present Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and so successfully managed the difficult feat of combining modern efficiency with turn-of-the century charm and elegance.
"An entire floor will be reserved for the minister of foreign affairs and his guests," says Moussa. He remembers a particular reception at the club, on a warm evening in 1976, which took place in the official dining room. He had reflected then that it would have been so much nicer to sit outside and enjoy the coolness of the breeze. When the time came to restore the club, he had remembered, and a roof garden has been added for dining outside in summer -- the only departure from tradition.
There were several chandeliers, pieces of furniture and a number of paintings in various state of disrepair, dating from the club's heyday, Moussa says. Those have been refurbished and replaced exactly where they were in 1908, when the club was first inaugurated. The rest has been replicated by Egyptian craftsmen under Shafik's close supervision. "We have excellent craftsmen and decorators," comments Moussa. "Look at these chandeliers, they were made ten years ago and are exact replicas of the Turkish originals, which we left at the old ministry."
A year ago, the former palace of Prince Kamaleddin Hussein, which housed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for over half a century, was slated for restoration. Moussa confirms that the work will begin in the near future. There too, the same principles and techniques of conservation will be applied. "It will be turned into a guesthouse and used to accommodate important foreign state visitors who do not normally stay at one of the official palaces. Once more, with the help of archival documents, we hope to restore it to its former glory. The day we inaugurate the Diplomats Club, work will start on the former ministry -- and we will certainly give our utmost attention to the gardens," pledges Moussa with a chuckle.
Dinner under the stairsSituated at the corner of Talaat Harb (formerly Soliman Pasha) and Al-Bustan streets, the Mohamed Ali Club was designed by architect Alexandre Marcel and built in 1907 by contractors Emilio and Aldo Ambro on land belonging to Prince Ahmed Fouad's Al-Bustan Palace. Quoting from the memoirs of Magdi Wahba, Trevor Mostyn writes: "In the 1920s and 1930s the Wafdist pashas belonged to the Saadist Club... All others belonged or 'tried to belong' to the Mohamed Ali Club in Soliman Pasha Street, which aimed to combine the formality of London St James's Club to the highbrowness of Paris Interallié. According to Wahba, the cuisine at the Mohamed Ali was so good that the club's Italian chef Costi was spared the misery of a concentration camp during the Second World War. The diplomat and traveller Fitzroy Maclean remembered dining under the stairs of the club during the war under the supervision of Costi, whom he described as a truly 'great maître d'hôtel', and enjoying all the food he had dreamt about during hungry days at the front. He was surrounded by Egyptian pashas, Greek millionaires, exiled princes, high ranking British officers and cosmopolitan beauties. It was a club where princes, pashas, rich Jews and English aristocrats mingled 'in an environment of hushed splendour'."
Trevor Mostyn, Egypt's Belle Epoque: Cairo 1869-1952, London, Quartet, 1989
Palace of sorrows
Opposite the old palace of Qasr Al-Nil (today the Arab League), a palace built by Antoine Lasciac for Prince Kamaleddin Hussein became the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the mid 1930s.
According to journalist Samir Raafat, this building, dating from the 1890s, had itself replaced another palace constructed earlier for Viceroy Ibrahim's eldest son, Prince Ahmed Rifaat, who would have ruled Egypt instead of Khedive Ismail had he not been the victim of a fatal accident when his Cairo-bound train fell off a Nile barge at Kafr Al-Zayyat.
With Ahmed's sudden death, his Nileside palace reverted to his heirs. Prince Kamaleddin Hussein, the son of Prince Ahmed's eldest daughter Ain Al-Hayat, occupied it for a while. The palace was not one of the happier royal residences; in fact, it could be regarded as Cairo's answer to Alexandria's Saray Al-Hazina (Palace of Sorrows). A young princess died there a few months after her wedding to Prince Ahmed's son. The next royal occupants were cursed with an unhappy childless marriage.
Prince Kamaleddin, who was for a short while Egypt's heir apparent and commander of its army, preferred trekking the desert or travelling around the world to his more official responsibilities. Collecting Oriental artifacts was far more absorbing than attending to affairs of state. He was a Sufi mystic who subscribed to the beliefs of the Biktashis, a reclusive sect claiming concealed origins in Albania. Having made considerable donations to this saintly order, Kamaleddin was made one of the sect's honorary Brothers. Either because he shunned public life or because he had no secular ambitions of his own, Kamaleddin renounced the throne a few days before the death of his father, Sultan Hussein, in 1917, thus enabling his uncle Fouad to become sultan of Egypt, and later its first king.
Kamaleddin died in Toulouse in 1932 at the age of 58, following the amputation of a gangrenous leg. His only wish was to be buried in a specially built vault in the Muqattam Hills, near the Biktashis' monastery.
A few years later, his widow, Princess Nimet-Allah Tewfik (youngest daughter of Khedive Tewfik, who ruled Egypt from 1879-92), donated the palace to the Egyptian government so that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could move out of its cramped quarters in Qasr Al-Bustan. The Mohamed Ali Club was erected in a corner of the palace gardens in 1907. Today, the multi-level Bustan car park stands on the palace's site.
(Photos: Randa Shaath)