Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

The prince's will

By Gihan Shahine

"I wish I had not come to see the gardens. Then the memory would have remained intact," said a member of the former royal family, who wished not to be named, on her visit to the Manial Palace and its gardens over a year ago. For her, the gardens were a far cry from their heyday.

It was her first visit to the palace in almost half a century. Childhood memories, however, lingered on: she used to visit the palace, play in its lush gardens, sit by its pond and watch migrating birds resting on the garden's stately trees in an unforgettable panorama.

Prince Mohamed Ali Tawfiq (1875-1954), a son of Khedive Tawfiq, started to build Manial Palace in 1901. He chose the site, on the island of Roda, for its serene and beautiful landscape, which directly overlooked the Nile.

In an Internet article titled "Manial Palace -- Prince Mohamed Ali Tawfiq in his younger days," historian Samir Raafat writes that "Roda Island still offered as its main attraction the remains -- Banyan, Cedars, Royal Palms and Indian rubber trees -- of the Bostan Al-Kebir (big gardens) started in 1829 by the prince's great-grandfather, Viceroy Ibrahim Pasha." Prince Mohamed Ali thus went on a mission to resurrect the old gardens in "a large dedicated enclosure henceforth known as the Manial Palace."

The well-traveled prince added to the collection, bringing some of the rarest species from around the world to the gardens. The palace, together with a reception hall named the "golden hall" for the golden Qur'anic and poetic inscriptions on its walls and ceilings, occupy two feddans at most out of a total area of 17 feddans, mostly devoted to the gardens.

An art aficionado and amateur artist, Prince Mohamed Ali envisioned his palace as a haven for Islamic art. His wish is recorded on a plaque at the entrance of the palace.

Prince Mohamed Ali designed the palace and supervised its construction himself. He chose a blend of Fatimid and Mameluke styles, tinged with Ottoman elements, and drew on Persian, Andalusian, Syrian, and Moroccan elements in the palace's several detached buildings.

The palace's façade and high gates give the aura of a Fatimid fortress. The main entrance was designed in the same way Iranian mosques and schools were built in the 14th century. On its two sides, two towers follow the style of Fatimid minarets.

Elements of Mameluke architecture can be seen in the palace's Saray Al-Iqama (residency), especially in its main gate, mashrabiya and glass-embedded windows, which overlook an Andalusian fountain. The palace's mosque is built in the Moroccan style and it is in the Throne Room that the Ottoman style reigns.

The Ottoman style dominates the interior of the palace. One can hardly fail to notice a rare collection of 350 Turkish carpets, not to mention Turkish chandeliers, shell-encrusted arabesque ensembles, exquisite wall ceramics and the sun ring motif decorating the ceilings.

Several visits are necessary for the visitor to benefit fully from the intricate frescoes, windows, mashrabiya and paintings. The palace is also home to a rare collection of valuable antiques the prince collected from different parts of the world or picked from the rubble of collapsing Mameluke and Ottoman houses.

"The palace is an inestimable work of art," says Yehia El-Zeini, professor of architecture at Helwan University's Faculty of Fine Arts, and a member of the Specialised National Committees. "It is the eclecticism of its architectural style, achieved in exquisite harmony and refined taste, that gives the palace its unique value."

Prince Mohamed Ali was keen on turning his palace, where he received favoured guests, politicians and intellectuals, into a museum. In 1908, he registered Manial Palace as an antiquity. He devoted the annual revenue of some 2,213 feddans of his arable lands to its maintenance, but the land was sequestrated after the 1952 Revolution. The palace itself was never sequestrated, being registered as an antiquity.

In his will, Prince Mohamed Ali intended the Manial Palace and its gardens to be turned into a museum. Despite his express wishes, however, 10 feddans of the palace's gardens were brought under the jurisdiction of the Tourism Authority and its affiliate company EGOTH (the Egyptian General Organisation for Tourism and Hotels) by a cabinet decree passed by Ali Sabri, then Egyptian prime minister, in 1965. Some allege that Sabri's decision was made in favour of one of his relatives, who happened to chair the Tourism Authority at the time.

EGOTH then rented out the gardens to a French company which constructed a number of two-storey wooden chalets on the land. Witnesses maintain that the company filled in a lake and cut down many trees to provide the hotel with a swimming pool and a tennis court.

In 1984, then Prime Minister Fouad Mohieddin issued a decree stipulating that both the palace and its surroundings should be considered as antiquities. The French company did not vacate the premises until 1994, when EGOTH started looking for another company to take charge of the hotel. In 1997, plans to renovate and reopen the Manial Hotel were revealed. EGOTH announced that it was seriously considering six renovation offers from six foreign companies.

A heated debate erupted over restoration plans and the future of the gardens. The local press launched an opposition campaign, led by prominent poet and literary critic Farouq Guweida in the daily Al-Ahram. The Tree Lovers' Association, an environmental NGO, and Fahmi Abdel-Alim, then head of the Islamic monuments section at the Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA), made independent efforts to stop the renovation.

In reaction to the public outcry, President Mubarak ordered the Ministry of Culture and its antiquities authorities to take over the palace and oversee its upkeep as a historic site. The government further announced that steps would be taken to have EGOTH give up the hotel and demolish the chalets that had reportedly wrought havoc in the garden.

Thereafter, however, the gardens underwent an accelerated ageing process. The chalets were not removed and were filled with insects and garbage; the trees showed signs of neglect; the lush greenery grew wild and dusty and the swimming pool was filled with dust and refuse. "People would get frightened to walk down the gardens' once merry lanes," a former employee explains.

Raafat, who recently visited Manial Palace, witnessed the gardens' decay. "The gardens have been neglected," he says sadly. "There is a long way to go before their original splendour can be resurrected. At least 20 per cent of the cacti that Prince Mohamed Ali brought from Mexico is gone. The gardens are very lush and need attention all the time because many of the original plants were brought from abroad and are not in their natural habitat."

Age also started to show on the palace itself, which was turned into a museum long ago. "The palace," Raafat says, "reminds me of an exquisitely beautiful woman who has advanced in age and is in need of some light make-up to restore its original beauty. The grooming of the Manial Palace will be equally easy and pleasurable."

Many preservationists agree the palace needs "a minor facelift" to restore its original glory. It is dimly lit and unventilated. Decades and dust have largely dimmed its original gleam. The gardens were fenced off from the palace after the hotel was built on its grounds. A visit to the museum itself thus does not necessarily offer a chance to enjoy the sights and scents of the most unique garden in all Egypt.

For the past three years, many have wondered why the Ministry of Culture has not removed the chalets or restored the palace and its gardens after the departure of EGOTH. Today, however, SCA officials have offered an answer. The expense of removing the chalets was a bone of contention between the Ministry of Culture and EGOTH.

"The decree stipulates that EGOTH remove all the chalets at its own expense," explains Ayman Abdel-Moneim, a supervisor at the SCA-affiliated historical Cairo data centre. "EGOTH, however, carried away only its valuable possessions, leaving the cheap things behind -- that is, the chalets. The problem is that removing the chalets is not part of our budget, and if we had volunteered to do it, we would have been subject to questioning before the Central Accounting Agency."

Recently, however, probably in response to a public outcry, Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni has decided to remove the chalets at the ministry's expense and seek reimbursement from EGOTH at a later date.

Preservationists have welcomed the ministry's move. They have always been pitted against developers in a battle over the proper use of historical sites. Developers are in favour of building a hotel in the gardens of Manial Palace. They argue that the hotel would encourage tourism and bring in revenue that can be spent on the upkeep of the gardens.

Where holidaymakers once splashed in the pool or snoozed in their bungalows, nature is reclaiming lost territory. Prince Mohamed Ali's legacy is being revived as modern intrusions are dismantled and period pieces revived

photos: Randa Shaath
"The hotel did not endanger the plants because it mainly served tourists who treated the greenery with great respect," says a botanist who was employed by EGOTH to take care of the gardens. "Meanwhile, the hotel offered tourists the chance to enjoy the place and visit the palace."

Veteran botanist Therese Labib, general supervisor of the Orman Gardens, concurs. Labib was appointed by EGOTH to record every single plant, rare or not, in the Manial gardens. "The company spent at least LE15,000 a month on the preservation of the gardens," she maintains. "They never spared a piastre bringing in the necessary expertise, chemicals, tools and personnel to tend them."

The gardens, Labib adds, house a huge collection of rare plant species -- some over 100 years old -- that require special care. But it is that very collection that justifies conservationists' call for the area to be treated as a historical site. Many historians similarly argue that, even if the gardens were maintained, their separation from the palace has spoilt the atmosphere and significance of the palace.

"Many plants were uprooted and the pond was filled in because of the hotel," Abdel-Alim argues. "The construction of modern bungalows marred the beauty of the gardens and the antiquity of the palace."

El-Zeini, who is also a member of the Tree Lovers' Association, concurs. "The construction of a hotel in the gardens was criminal," he explains. The gardens, he adds, are part and parcel of the palace, and are thus subject to law 117/1983, which stipulates that no one has the right to make any change whatsoever to the palace. "Besides, UNESCO recommendations make site conservation a crucial point in the restoration of a monument to maintain its original character. The Manial Gardens should thus be accorded as much care as other antiquities."

Is the SCA qualified for that job? El-Zeini is sceptical. "What SCA officials do is renovation rather than restoration," he argues. He mentions the Azbakiya, Fish and Zoological Gardens as cases in point.

"Renovation has ruined the original character of these areas," he adds. "The gardens were laid out by foreign professional landscaping experts. No change whatsoever should be made to the original landscape and the species of plants chosen by their architects. Culture Ministry officials, however, lack professional experience in the restoration of gardens."

Restoration experts, while happy about the restoration of the palace, are similarly sceptical about the quality of work to be done.

"The palace is among the rare preserved edifices belonging to Mohamed Ali's dynasty," maintains Salah Zaki Said, dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Misr International University and professor of architecture at Al-Azhar University. "The restoration work should therefore be carried out by professionals."

The problem, Zaki proceeds, is that the SCA is restoring a huge number of Islamic antiquities simultaneously, at a time when professional restorers are still very few in Egypt.

"Most of the restoration work already accomplished is unprofessional," Said maintains. "The restoration of Al-Azhar and Sayeda Zeinab Mosques are living examples. Both have been renovated, not restored."

Said suggests that SCA officials copy the UNESCO Charter, which lays down the basics for restoration, and hand it out to those handling antiquities.

SCA officials, however, retort that the restoration of the Manial palace and its gardens will be of high quality.

"The SCA has not yet identified the restorers but we have excellent offers from highly professional restoration experts," maintains Hisham El-Orabi, head of the Manial Palace Museum. "The SCA also has its own restoration experts, who will supervise the work themselves. Foreign expertise will be imported if necessary."

The original plans and photographs of the palace will be used during restoration work, El-Orabi adds. A new lighting and security system will be installed.

"We are currently studying the means to install air-conditioning without making any change to the walls, using the original pipes of the palace's fireplaces to channel cold air inside," he says. "A comprehensive facelift will give the museum a new lease on life."

What about the gardens? "They will be restored to their original splendour," asserts Abdel-Moneim. "Everything will be the way it was in the time of Prince Mohamed Ali: the same plants will be grown in the vacant plots left when the chalets were removed, and the swimming pool will be turned back into a pond. We have all the original plans of the gardens and a record of every single plant there."

Meanwhile a comprehensive upgrading of infrastructure and irrigation will be carried out.

But can the SCA afford to spend LE15,000 a month on preserving the gardens alone? Many doubt it, considering the 500 Islamic monuments on the SCA restoration agenda.

"We are fully aware of the gardens' value as an antiquity and will definitely not stint in preserving them," Abdel-Moneim asserts. Will the budget allow it? "We do not depend on the budget of the museum, but on that of the SCA," he replies.

Perhaps the museum should be promoted to attract more visitors and bring in its own revenue. On the day of our visit, very few visitors ventured in; of this handful, two or three were foreign tourists.

"Publicity is not part of the SCA's job," maintains Abdel-Moneim. El-Orabi agrees, adding that all Islamic museums face the same fate. "The problem is that the Tourism Development Authority focuses on the Pharaonic heritage."

SCA officials, for their part, are currently considering the removal of a modern edifice that has long encroached upon the Manial Gardens. Many preservationists describe the building as an "eyesore" that has to be removed to restore the gardens' original landscape. Officials, on the other hand, argue that it is necessary to keep the building for office space.

Will this bone of contention serve as pretext for a new tug-of-war between SCA officials and preservationists? The insects will soon know.

Life at the top
In the shade of the banyan tree

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