Palatial museum for Assiut
The exquisite, early 20th-century residential palace of Alexan Pasha will soon be converted into the Assiut National Museum, Nevine El-Aref
The Alexan Pasha Palace stands on the Nile Corniche in Assiut, its faded decorative façades waiting for restoration. With a budget of LE18,181,000, the palace is now on Egypt's antiquities list almost a century after its construction.
Alexan Pasha built his splendid palace on the bank of the Nile in 1910, creating a garden on just a feddan around his new residence in Upper Egypt. The palace originally had three floors; the first two for Alexan's family and the top floor for the servants. The first floor has two large rooms; the eastern one being the reception hall, furnished with a number of salons in different colours, decorative motifs and styles and with European oil paintings hanging on the walls and a number of showcases filled with small European-style antiques. The second hall at the western end of the house was used as the dining room, and holds three sets of tables and chairs and three cupboards laden with silver pieces. The room was connected to a fully-equipped kitchen, and next to it an office, a bathroom and two bedrooms complete with beds and cupboards. The dining room also has an adjoining reception area and a billiard room. The second floor has a number of bed and drawing rooms.
In 1995, owing to the exquisite and unique architectural features of the house, the Ministry of Culture and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) put the palace on Egypt's antiquities list, but the lack of money delayed all work on restoring the palace until 2004.
Now studies to restore such a palace and transform it into the local national museum have been carried out, and the building will host the artefacts discovered in and near Assiut and restored in its magazines.
"This is the first building to be devoted to an Assiut National Museum," said Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA. He says the plan for a museum of antiquities in Assiut had been permanently shelved, but periodically the idea resurfaced to be "reconsidered". However, no concrete steps towards its construction were taken until 2004, when the SCA embarked on a project to make the dream come true.
Although the Upper Egyptian town of Assiut is rich in archaeological sites, including Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic monuments, it has never had a museum to suit its great archaeological treasures. The only museum Assiut has had was a small hall at the Salam Secondary School which displayed a collection that had once belonged to an antiquities enthusiast and private collector who happened to own the school in the 19th century.
After the 1952 Revolution, the owner offered his collection to the antiquities department. The school's administrative board allocated the second floor of the library as temporary museum space for the collection until a special building was constructed to house it. It never happened.
At the Salam School museum, the room was crammed with objects too numerous for the space itself, leaving an overall impression of chaos and making certain over-stuffed corners of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo look positively orderly. The small hall displays more than 600 objects in 20 showcases, ranging from predynastic pottery to the late Mameluke era, but the objects are nevertheless exhibited in chronological order. They were obviously put together by someone with a cultivated awareness of Egyptian history; a curator who had even considered the aesthetic quality of the display. This was no storeroom.
The objects range from pottery and papyrus to scarabs and statues; from cosmetics and coins to coloured engravings and fabrics. Historically, the range is enormous, but a sequence can nonetheless be traced, moving from the Pharaonic collection through early Christianity to Islamic military equipment and soldiers' uniforms. Stelae (engraved stone slabs), coffins, and a beautiful collection of gilded mummy masks are also exhibited along with a wooden sarcophagus covered with gold leaf patterns and inscribed with religious texts. One can also see a mummy with a broken leg inside his sarcophagus. He was probably a high-ranking official, as the mask features the face of a man wearing the sun disk and adorned with the uraeus (sacred snakes).
"All these objects will probably move to the new museum after its completion," Hawass said.