Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

Palace restoration planned

Repair work will soon be carried out at the Mohamed Ali Pasha Palace in Shubra Al-Kheima, which was damaged in a recent bomb attack, reports Nevine El-Aref

Al-Ahram Weekly

On the Nile’s banks in the Shubra district of Cairo, set in a splendid park planted with rare trees and shrubs, stands the palace of Egypt’s early 19th-century ruler Mohamed Ali. Only part of it survives today, but following recent restoration work it looks as majestic as it did 200 years ago.

However, a week ago parts of the building were damaged when a car bomb targeted the neighbouring National Security building. Mohamed Abdel-Latif, head of Islamic Antiquities at the Ministry of Antiquities, told the Weekly that the fountain (Saraya Al-Fasqiya) and gabalaya buildings were badly damaged by the explosion.

An architectural and archaeological committee has been formed to determine the full extent of the damage and to start immediate repair work. After a comprehensive inspection tour, the committee has discovered that the most damaged building is the gabalaya building, which is only 200 metres from the National Security building.

The Saraya Al-Fasqiya building received less damage, as it stand 500 metres away from the building, Abdel-Latif said.

He said that a modern lamp in the main hall of the fountain building had fallen and smashed. Decorations on the doors were damaged and dislodged.

All 21 stained glass windows in the building’s dining room were also broken.

In the gabalaya building, glasswork on the facades of the western and eastern entrances was destroyed, while cracks have spread over the building’s walls and floors, the most critical of which are those at the northwest corner of the building and in its northern section, he said. The Waterwheel (Al-Saqiya) Tower was not damaged.

Mostafa Amin, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said the damage is reversible and has not affected the authentic parts of the site. He added that a comprehensive restoration project will start immediately to return the damaged buildings to their original state.

Waad Abu Al-Ela, head of the projects section at the ministry, told the Weekly that an architectural study is being carried out, in collaboration with the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University, in preparation for restoration of the gabalaya building. The study will last three months and will be followed by a study of the fountain building.

“The car bomb explosion will speed up other needed repairs,” Abdel-Latif told the Weekly, adding that the buildings were closed for restoration two years ago and that work had been delayed.

Abu Al-Ela said that an agreement was signed with the Faculty of Engineering six months ago, but the lack of a budget has delayed the restoration work. The agreement was to survey the condition of the three buildings and not to undertake the restoration work, which will be implemented by the ministry’s Engineering Department.

The Mohamed Ali Palace, once known as the Egyptian Versailles, was comprehensively restored in 2000 in order to save its exquisite early 19th-century buildings, which feature a blend of rococo and baroque styles.

The palace site has groves of shrubs, a labyrinth, a hippodrome and a great expanse of water surrounded by galleries flanked by four pavilions.

There is also a mosque and wide tree-lined avenues.

Built over 13 years, from 1808 to 1821, on an area of 11,000 feddans, the palace has lost many of its features. It originally consisted of 13 buildings that were used by Mohamed Ali to house visiting foreign ambassadors and members of his family.

During World War I, the haramlik (main palace) was demolished by Princess Aziza, a member of the royal family, following rumours that the British were thinking of using it for military purposes.

In 1935, King Fouad used the buildings as a temporary residence for members of the royal family. Part of the garden was destroyed during the construction of the Cairo-Alexandria agricultural road.

A few years after the 1952 Revolution the garden became the premises of Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Agriculture, and the site was turned into a farm, complete with chicken coops, rabbit hutches, a barn, research laboratories and cultivated areas used by students for experiments.

Nowadays three sections of the original complex are still in place: the gabalaya, used as a residence for women, the Saraya Al-Fasqiya, a nymphaeum complex used for receptions and festivals, and the saqiya (water wheel), which once supplied the palace with water from the Nile.

In 1984, a presidential decree was issued to include the Mohamed Ali Pasha Palace and its gardens on Egypt’s antiquities list and hand it over to the Supreme Council of Antiquities to turn it into a museum.

Although the decree was designed to put an end to the misuse of the buildings, it triggered a conflict with Ain Shams University. The Faculty of Agriculture refused to evacuate the buildings and the SCA did not want to start the restoration work as long as the faculty was still occupying the site.

In 2000 a restoration project was launched by then-Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni to save the palace, which had fallen into a serious state of disrepair.

The ceilings, painted with decorative foliage motifs and portraits of Mohamed Ali and his sons, set in medallions, had lost some of their elements; the walls were covered with cracks and the marble bestiary of frogs, lions, serpents, fish and crocodiles on the water fountain’s basin had been damaged.

The only obstacle standing in the way of restoration was the Faculty of Agriculture, which occupied most of the garden. After meetings at which both sides tried to reach a compromise solution, it was agreed to build a wall separating the palace from the faculty, while the student hostel and the chicken coops and rabbit hutches, which encroached on the saqiya, were moved out of the palace site. A separate entrance was also created.

Abdel-Latif said the restoration was carried out in three phases. The first reinforced the foundations of the three buildings (the gabalaya, which was in especially bad condition, the fasqiya and the saqiya) to prevent water damage.

The second phase focused on the ceilings, walls, floors and marble columns, along with the decorative items of the fasqiya, while the third phase was devoted to the gardens, which included several exotic plant species.

Mokhtar Al-Kassabani, a professor of Islamic Architecture at Cairo University, told the Weekly that the palace was built in a distinctive architectural design known as the “garden palace” style.

The style was introduced to Egypt by Mohamed Ali in the first half of the 19th century, when urbanisation changed Shubra from a vast area of agricultural land to a suburb of Cairo.

The palace is embellished with Italian, French and Arabic decorative elements. Its main building was built in white marble in the early 19th-century orientalist style, with loggias and balconies adorned with metalwork and stucco arabesques.

As the palace was reputed to have had splendid decoration and furnishings, fortunes were said to have been made from materials salvaged when it was demolished, including paintings set into the walls.

Al-Kassabani said that the only part that survived the destruction was the kiosk around a vast square pool with a marble island at its centre.

Surrounding the pool is a cloister-like colonnade broken up by four advancing terraces, all in white marble and exquisitely sculptured in a neo-classical style.

The building and colonnades are enclosed on the garden side by a wall composed of amber-coloured windows and four doorways opposite the advancing terraces. In the four corners of the colonnade, on semi-circular platforms, stand marble lions spouting water into the pool.

The ceilings of the cloisters are painted with decorative motifs, among which are a portrait of Mohamed Ali set in a medallion and, in the opposite ceiling across the water, a corresponding one of his son Ibrahim.

The rooms of the building are grouped in the four corners. On the right, when entering the colonnade, is a drawing room with an exceptionally beautiful parquet floor inlaid with intricate designs made of rosewood.

This is surmounted by a heavily sculptured ceiling that is painted dark blue and gold, with a handsome chandelier hanging from its centre. The room is furnished with 19th-century chairs, in the style of Louis XV, lined up against the wall.

Two other suites in the corners of the building were used as bedrooms, with all the walls and ceilings gaily painted with oriental arabesques. In the fourth corner is the billiard room.

The wall on the right, on entering, is decorated in the Italian manner of the period, depicting a romantic landscape with classical ruins. This achieves an almost trompe-l’oeil effect, but the flowing architectural lines that frame it are Turkish.

The three remaining walls are almost all made up of windows, with a deep divan facing them. “Originally, this was the dining room, until King Louis-Philippe of France [reigned 1830-1848] sent Mohamed Ali the billiard set, with its superbly sculptured bronze-handled cues, and he housed it there,” Al-Kassabani said.

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