Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 November 2005
Issue No. 770
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Say pink

Can Prince Said Halim's Palace in downtown Cairo regain its original grandeur? Nevine El-Aref outlines official plans in the light of the excitement of artists

Click to view caption
THE PINK DREAM: captured by Mohamed Wassim, Randa Shaath, Hani El-Goweili and Mohamed Abul-Naga

A derelict, spectacularly run-down 19th-century edifice, Prince Said Halim's Palace on Champollion Street, downtown Cairo, otherwise (and wrongly) known as Champollion House, is a bleak shadow of its former, awe-inspiring self. Even now there is plenty of evidence of grandeur: classical arches, Baroque overlays, the prince's initials (SH) alternating with angels and the Ottoman logo on the surface of the pillars.

Halim was obsessed with Rome -- the city in which, ironically, he would eventually be assassinated by Arshavir Shiragian, an American agent, in December 1921. It was only natural that he should commission Antonio Lasciac, the Italian who designed, among other regal downtown buildings, the palace of Princess Neamat Kamaleddin and the headquarters of Bank Misr, to build his Cairo residence in 1896. In line with the extravagant tastes of the house of Mohamed Ali, materials were imported all the way from Italy. And despite his wife's preference for the Bosporus, where she eventually died, Halim spent much time in this, the envy of his blue-blooded cousins.

The palace was confiscated by the British in the wake of WWI, in which Halim had sided with the Ottomans, and later transformed into Al-Nassiriyah secondary school for boys -- many a deputy and cabinet minister would receive their education there -- before the latter's gardens, once the site of marble fountains and unique species of tree, were cordoned off and occupied by apartment buildings. It was then, too, that the street was named after Champollion and the rumour spread that the Egyptologist was living there while he deciphered the Rosetta Stone, unlocking a limitless cache of ancient mystery. Early in 2000, the palace was finally included in the register of the Institut Français d'Archaeologie Orientale, which seeks to document all monuments.

"As a secondary school the palace was subject to mistreatment and negligence," Abdallah El-Attar, the relevant Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) archaeological consultant, told Al-Ahram Weekly, stressing the perils of football and "chaotic behaviour": "Just think what your house will look like at the end of the day if your child invites a group of his friends to play there -- here were 600 people using and abusing the premises for years." The urge to preserve and protect the monument -- El-Attar went on, prompted the SCA to place it on Egypt's antiquities list in 2002 -- and two years later the Ministry of Education relocated the school and handed the palace over for restoration.

It was not until early this year that the project of restoring the palace with a view to converting it into an art centre started, with the SCA investigating its history of ownership. By Law 117/1983, now that the palace is on the antiquities list, its owners may use it for residential purposes on condition that any restoration or intervention of any kind is undertaken by the SCA; they may sell it, too, so long as the legal conditions in question are clearly stipulated in the contract. To support the initiative through expressing admiration for the palace, under the title "The Pink Dream", a group of artists organised a 10-day exhibit celebrating the palace at the Cairo Atelier last week.

Hamdi Reda, who contributed six photos, told the Weekly that the aim of the exhibit is to raise awareness of the palace: "My own love for the building is almost legendary. It started many years ago when I took to meeting friends at Al-Takaeba," a famous coffee house adjacent to the site, also known as Lipton and Abu-Ahmed, "where I first got to admire the building -- its unique beauty surrounded by darkness and silence." As a graphic symbol of the restoration to be undertaken, Reda made black and white photos of the building, toning them in (unrealistic) colour to achieve the desired effect.

Likewise Hani El-Goweili, another photographer: he recounts how the issue of the palace came up during an informal discussion at one of the coffee houses on Champollion Street -- giving rise to a collective will on the part of artists to acquire it in their own name, independently of either state-owned or foreign-funded institutions: "Abul-Naga, one of our colleagues, suggested that this would be implemented through turning Halim's palace into a house of contemporary Egyptian art, opening up a new space for all contemporary art media." Thrilled by the idea, the team took action immediately: "Last Ramadan we decided to organise the second round of the Light through Form event inside the palace, and the process started after the time was introduced to the architecture and history of the building. It was a magnificent scene, with artists roaming around this high-profile 19th-century venue -- on the stairs, in the reception area, the rooms, the garden. It had a very powerful effect on all of us."

The artists' dream of laying claim to the palace was cut short when the Ministry of Culture disapproved of their plans, insisting that a long-term restoration project was needed. The exhibition was as such a replacement, however limited -- and it must be read as "a passionate letter written collectively to a beautiful beloved".

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