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

The rose of the Nile

A massive restoration project is breathing new life into the long-neglected Rashid National Museum. Nevine El-Aref witnesses the preparations for the opening

Click to view caption
The moulded grouted burnt bricks façade of Rashid National Museum

On the Rashid branch of the Nile, famous for its splendid Islamic buildings, stands the Arab Killy house -- now the Rashid National Museum -- with its moulded, grouted burnt bricks alternatively coloured red and black and its very fine mashrabiya (lattice woodwork) façade.

This 400-year-old residential house of Rashid's Ottoman governor is the largest house in the town, a three- storey building with a large ground-floor area. It reflects the tall style of architecture, construction and carpentry typical of the time. Designed to echo the Islamic style, the house contains, as well as its exquisite mashrabiya, decorative inscriptions, inlaid sea shell work, a ceiling dome and a densely-ornamented door.

In its heyday, the ground floor housed a storehouse with a cross-vaulted ceiling, a cistern and a sabil (fountain). The second floor, which was reserved for men, contains a courtyard surrounded by a number of rooms with windows of iron grilles. The third floor was similar to the second, but was the domain of the women of the household. One room, the Al-Aghani (song room), was also placed on this floor so the women could hear and watch the evening's entertainment from an adjacent room. This room contains a beautiful cupboard inlaid with mother-of-pearl which acted as a hiding place for women so they could watch the parties without being seen by men.

In the early 1960s, following the 1952 Revolution, the house was converted into the town's museum to commemorate Rashid's legendary struggle against French and British colonisation. Some years after its conversion, the house became sadly neglected and fell into a state of decay. Several attempts were made at restoration, but the results were unsatisfactory. However, in 2003 the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) launched a massive restoration project for this superb house.

The long-neglected museum is now being titivated up to welcome visitors again. It has finally reached the end of restoration after two years of being buried under scaffolding and piles of sand, and workmen have been polishing and strengthening its walls and decorative items. Like all the other Islamic houses in this coastal town of picturesque setting between the Mediterranean and the western arm of the Nile, the Arab Killy house was suffering badly from structural neglect and environmental threat, including a high rate of humidity, rain and subsoil water level, not to mention the adverse effects of unplanned urban expansion. All the magnificent monuments of Rashid are now unfortunately surrounded by modern buildings that have affected them almost as badly as other factors.

"When I took on the responsibility of restoring the building and returning it to its original glory, the house was in a very critical condition," Abdel-Hamid Qutb, the engineer in charge of the restoration, told Al-Ahram Weekly. Qutb described the house as partly submerged in groundwater, with serious cracks veining the walls, damaged masonry and with most of the mashrabiya broken. The decorative items on the walls were stained with dust, while most of the flooring was badly damaged.

Now there is a vast improvement. All the restoration has been carried out according to the latest and most scientific methods, and every effort has been made to ensure that all the original architectural features have been retained," Qutb said, adding that the walls were reinforced, masonry cleaned and desalinated, the Kufic calligraphy embellishing the walls cleaned and missing pieces of the floor replaced.

Hussein El-Shabouri, who designed the museum's interior, told the Weekly that one of the most important of the project's tasks was to undo the faults of the 1984 restoration executed by the Egyptian Antiquities Authority and to uncover the house's original features hidden beneath false painting and polishes. This led to the discovery of a small gravure and a very fine piece of Kufic calligraphy.

El-Shabouri said the museum exhibits related the history of Rashid from the town's construction in ancient times right through to the modern era. On display are 600 artefacts carefully selected from the Islamic and Coptic museums and the Gayer Anderson house in Cairo, along, with another 200 objects unearthed from archaeological sites around Rashid. These include a collection of Omayad and Ottoman gold and bronze coins, pots and pans, versions of the holy Quran and a collection of 18th- and 19th- century weapons such as arrows, swords, knives and pistols. Tapestry, military and national Ottoman and Mamluke costumes will also be exhibited.

To give visitors an idea of what an Ottoman house looked liked, some halls of the museum have been furnished with complete sets of Ottoman furniture. An Ottoman bedroom, reception room, kitchen and bathroom will be provided along with modern paintings featuring various struggles by Rashidi residents against Napoleon's expedition and the British invasion. Models of the Qait Bey Citadel and copies of historical documents, such as the marital contract between the French general Menno and his Egyptian bride Zubaida, are also on show.

To provide extra facilities for visitors, El-Shabouri said a modern wing in a similar architectural style and constructed in the museum garden would contain a bookstore, a cafeteria, an exhibition hall, a lecture hall, a restoration laboratory, the administrative offices and a police zone.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, said the highlight of the exhibition was a life-size replica of the Rosetta Stone offered by the British Museum in response to an official request submitted by Hawass to the museum's ancient Egyptian department. The replica stone, which arrived early this week, will be on show in the museum foyer. Hawass expressed his happiness and gratitude, but said he wished to see the original Rosetta Stone back in its place of origin on special loan to the exhibition.

During the last meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin, held at the UNESCO premises in Paris last September, Hawass called for the return of five particular ancient Egyptian objects on display abroad. In his speech, Hawass pointed out that "Egypt had been deprived of the five artefacts, and as they are regarded as key items of Egyptian cultural heritage they should therefore be handed back". These objects are the Rosetta Stone, the bust of Queen Nefertiti at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, the statue of the great pyramid architect Hemiunnu at the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hilesheim, the Zodiac of Dendera Temple in the Louvre and the bust of the Khafre Pyramid-builder Ankhhaf in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

In addition Hawass urged other countries concerned with similar issues to prepare a list of stolen artefacts that are considered to be unique and valuable for their cultural identity and that should be handed over either for good or on loan.

Many observers consider this call by Hawass as casual dialogue, like the issue he raised two years ago in a speech he made at the British Museum on the occasion of its 250- year celebrations. At an official dinner Hawass made a more specific proposal, suggesting that the Rosetta Stone should be loaned to Cairo's Egyptian Museum for three months.

He later told reporters: "if the British want to restore their reputation, they should volunteer to return the Rosetta Stone because it is the icon of our Egyptian identity."

However, this time it was obvious that Hawass was serious, and in October he delivered an official request to UNESCO of which the Weekly has obtained a copy, asking the UN body to act as mediator between Egypt and the countries concerned not only regarding the return of the five items but also to helping Egypt recover treasures plundered and smuggled out of the country since 1970 and secure their safe return.

Culture Minister Farouk Hosni describes the new museum as "a living memory of Rashid's span of history". He sees the museum as of benefit to Rashid in that it will preserve and protect its priceless heritage, as well as putting the city on the international museum level. "It will be a great educational and cultural Institute in Rashid," Hosni commented.

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