Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 December 2011
Issue No. 1074
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Library fit for a princess

The Princess Samiha Palace, now the Great Cairo Library, is being restored, Nevine El-Aref reports

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Clockwise from top: Princess Samiha palace; the reading hall; the palace front façade and the entrance hall

The three-storey palace refurbished for Khedive Ismail's granddaughter, Princess Samiha Hussein, overlooks the Nile Corniche in Zamalek. It owes its individual appearance to a combination of Mamluk, Ottoman, European, Andalusian and Moroccan architectural styles.

This awe-inspiring building has four façades and is topped by a tower. Its front façade is decorated with foliage elements and wrought-iron gates, while the window frames are adorned with geometrical patterns. The colonnades in the entrance hall of the palace are of Andalusian marble with foliage crowns, while the walls are ornamented with the Arabic phrase "Muslims are hand in hand" enclosed in the geometrical gilded decorations popular in the Mamluk period. This hall opens to several rooms decorated with Mamluk- and Ottoman-style ornaments except for one, which is decorated with classical Roman art and contain genuine Roman columns.

The main hall on the second floor has Greek-style ornamentation, and opens on to seven rooms decorated in a Fatimid style. The internal doors are of wood and decorated in the Ottoman style.

Princess Samiha was the sixth child and fourth daughter of Sultan Hussein Kamil, who ruled Egypt under the British protectorate; her mother was his second wife, Melek Tourhan. She was known for her love of art and culture, and throughout her time in the palace she would hold musical and singing evenings for such famous Egyptian singers as Abdel-Wahab, as well as art salons for the leading poets and writers of the day. Well-known Italian artists taught her sculpting and drawing, which is largely why the palace exhibits such distinguishing artistic elements that combine several styles of art.

The palace was originally built by the De Cattaui family. They sold it in the 1930s to Princess Samiha, who lived in it until she died in 1984. Two years after her death the palace was declared a government-owned property and in 1990 was converted into Great Cairo Library, a transformation that was true to the wishes of Princess Samiha. As a poet and intellectual, the princess recommended that the palace be used for cultural purposes following her death.

The public library occupies the first floor of the palace, while the audio-visual library is on the second floor. The third floor houses a gallery for cultural activities.

The library holds almost 170,000 volumes, about 120,000 in Arabic and the rest are in other languages. They cover several topics including fine arts, humanities, social sciences, technology and books for children. It also has almost two million audio-visual CDs and microfilms, in addition to a large number of newspapers and magazines and 500 maps. The library's holdings are fully catalogued and are easily searchable by computer.

In 2001, owing to its distinguished architectural style, the palace was placed on Egypt's Islamic antiquities list. This gave the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) full supervision of the whole building.

Following routine monitoring of the building and its artistic elements, the head of Islamic and Coptic antiquities at the SCA, Mohsen Sayed Ali ,told Al-Ahram Weekly that the SCA's inspection committee had concluded that the palace had been incorrectly restored and its granite columns and front façade and foliage wall decorations were covered with beige paint. After receiving the approval of the Permanent Committee of Islamic and Coptic antiquities, Ali said, the SCA began a year-long restoration project to return the palace to its original appearance.

Ali explained that the granite columns would be cleaned and all incorrect painting would be removed in order to reveal the original colours of the walls and its decorative elements.

Mustafa Amin, the SCA secretary-general, said that while cleaning the hall that leads to the indoor stairs restorers stumbled upon a number of mosaic columns. Examination of these columns revealed that cracks were spreading all over them and that they needed to be consolidated as did the walls and wooden floors.

Restoration work will be completed in June 2012, according to Ali. He said the library would continue to welcome visitors apart from the few sections that were to undergo restoration.

Several pieces from Hussein Kamil's jewellery collection are on display at the Jewellery Museum in Alexandria. Among them are diamond necklace and earring sets; and gold items embellished with precious and semi-precious stones.

A piece of his jewellery was the subject of a furore earlier this year following the resignation of former Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass. Hawass, the former minister of culture Farouk Hosni and the director of the Alexandria Museum, Ibrahim Darwish, were accused of offering a gold necklace that once belonged to Princess Samiha, to former Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak at the reopening of the Jewellery Museum in Alexandria in April last year.

Darwish said evidence proving that the accusation was unfounded had been presented to the prosecutor-general, and said the museum's collection was strictly inventoried. "Nothing from the museum's collection has been removed," Darwish stated. "No official, whatever his position, may do such a thing."

Hawass affirmed that no artefacts could be removed from any museum without government approval, and said he had never given such approval or helped facilitate the giving of artefacts as gifts.

Mona El-Kadi, the Jewellery Museum's director, has said that the story resulted from a joke made by Mrs Mubarak during the museum's official inauguration following its long closure for restoration. Kadi said the object in question was not a gold necklace as had been published in the press, but an ivory eyeglass cover embellished with small diamonds and engraved with the initials of Princess Samiha Hussein. Mrs Mubarak, Kadi continued, had commented that "S.H." might have stood for Suzanne and Hosni instead of Samiha Hussein. "And we all laughed in return," Kadi said. "This is the truth and it is documented in the film screened on Egyptian TV."

Legal investigations are now taking place and the results will be announced soon.

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