Days of marble and rococo
The exquisite 19th-century Manesterly Palace on Rhoda Island has been restored and now appears as it did in its glorious early years, Nevine El-Aref
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The main hall of the Manial Palace|
Personal items from Umm Kolthoum's collection
A musical performance at the Manesterly Palace
An inner view of the Nilometer
When Hassan Fouad Pasha El-Manesterly, who served as interior minister during the reign of Khedive Abbas Helmi II, decided to build a grand residential house, he chose a superb location on Rhoda Island which was then a very elegant and quiet suburb of Cairo overlooking the River Nile.
The plot of land allocated for the exquisite, Rococo style residence was at the southwestern corner of the island. Next to the palace he built a mosque and the mausoleum where he was eventually buried.
Manesterly's name derived from the name of the place where he had originated, the city of Monastir in Macedonia, not far from the Bulgarian border. He progressed in the governmental echelon during the reign of Abbas Helmi II, being appointed governor of Cairo in 1854 and later minister of interior.
He built his elegant house in 1851. It consists of a series of grand rooms and two large terraces connected to one another. The floors are laid with marble, except for two rooms northwest front of the palace that are paved with very exquisite parquet in the French style.
The ceilings are in various wooden architecture designs including level, domed and semi-domed, all of then plastered and embellished with coloured foliage ornamentation. Sculpted plaster has been used to produce greenery shapes, and the surfaces of the terraces are decorated in the same way.
All the ceilings and walls are decorated with foliage and figures of birds, similar to those found in contemporary buildings in Europe. The influence of the Ottoman rococo is even obtrusive.
Mohsen Sayed, head of the Islamic and Coptic antiquities section at the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA), said that several meetings were held at the palace during the reign of King Farouk. Among the most significant was the meeting of King Farouk with Arabs leaders and rulers in 1947 after World War II, held in order to discuss the establishment of the Arab League.
The palace, he continued, was also a permanent premises for the Arab League.
After the July Revolution in 1952, the palace was seized by the government and became public property in 1954. The property was indeed theoretically sequestered, but it remained as a residence for members of the family until the old grandmother's death in the early 1980s.
In 1989 the palace was put on Egypt's antiquities list and in the early 2000s it was opened as the International Musical Centre for the performance of concerts and lectures.
In 2002 a museum dedicated to the famous Egyptian singer Kawkab El-Sharq (The Star of the East) Umm Kolthoum opened inside the palace, making it an added attraction. The museum is located in a building in the open courtyard in the palace, which was originally a museum of precious stones owned by the Ministry of Irrigation and Public Work. The building was entirely refurbished and redesigned for the purpose by a cutting-edge interior decorator from Italy, Maurizio Di Paolo, who incorporated the latest lighting, display and air-conditioning technologies into the framework of his plans, thus giving the venue a zippy, post-modern feel.
The museum put on show of Umm Kolthoum's personal belongings such as some of her iconic galabeya-style dresses, scarves, spectacles and sun glasses. Several photo-collages look by turns like a family album and stills from a biographical documentary. Objects on display range from Umm Kolthoum's diplomatic passport to the 1934 contract she signed with the Egyptian radio corporation and transcriptions of her song lyrics in the handwriting of Ahmed Shawki and Bairam El-Tounsi. There are framed photographs that were once hung on the walls of her villa, recording the equipment she owned, medals and trophies she earned and letters she received from heads of state and other significant figures. Such trophies as the Nile Medal, presented to her by King Farouk in 1946, and the Order of Merit given by president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1960 are also on show.
On the left side of the palace stands the Nilometer, a small gem built by Caliph Al-Mutawakil in 861 AD to measure the height of the annual flood. The system used in this Nilometer was devised by Abul-Abbas Ahmed ibn Mohamed ibn Kathir Al-Farghani, a native of Farghana, West Turkestan, who was known in the West as the astronomer Alfraganus. His chief work, in which the system appeared, was translated into Latin and first printed at Ferrara in 1493. This is the oldest Islamic structure in Egypt whose original form is preserved, and takes the form of an octagonal column within a stone-lined pit. The pit is connected to the Nile by three tunnels and accessed by a staircase on the interior walls. The arches within the pit are the first occurrence of the "tiers-point" arch, used here three centuries before its appearance in Gothic architecture, and with the novel use of zigzag framing carved on its stone voussoirs. It retains its original Kufic inscriptions, both Quranic and secular, commemorating Al-Mutawakil's work, though it was tampered with by Ibn Tulun, possibly to conceal the caliph's name. The inscriptions were executed in white marble on a blue background to produce a striking contrast.
Several renovation projects have been carried out on the palace, but in 2010 the Supreme Council of Antiquities, now the MSA, closed it for complete restoration and the music centre was transferred to the Gold Hall at the Manial Palace.
Mohamed El-Sheikha, head of the projects section at the MSA, said the restoration was carried out over four phases. Cracks were filled, walls consolidated and the ceilings were injected with insolation material to prevent rainwater leakage and humidity damage in the future.
Tiles in the garden walk have been restored, with damaged tiles being replaced with reproduction copies.