Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Zamalek Arts Centre reopens

The Aisha Fahmi Palace Arts Centre in Zamalek reopened to the public earlier this week after seven years of restoration

Aisha Fahmi

Overlooking the Nile Corniche in the elegant Cairo district of Zamalek stands the Aisha Fahmi Palace, its distinguished Italian architecture relating the history of the fine arts in Egypt and the role played in promoting them by international and Egyptian artists and architects.

After it was constructed by Italian architect Antonio Lasciac in 1907, the 2,700 metre square palace was the residence of Ali Fahmi, the head of the army during the reign of king Fouad I. After his death, his sister, Aisha Fahmi, made the palace her home, spending the rest of her life there until her death in 1962.

The Ministry of Culture then bought the palace, transforming it into ministry offices. In 1971, it became a storehouse for the Ministry of Information, and late president Anwar Al-Sadat suggested converting the palace into a residence for his deputy. However, in 1975 the palace was given to the Fine Art and Literature Authority and converted into the first fine arts complex in Egypt.

Aisha Fahmi

This complex, or mogamaa al-fonoun, went on to host several international exhibitions displaying the works of renowned modern artists such as Picasso and Dali. In the early 1990s, the palace was put on Egypt’s heritage list because of its distinguished architectural style and its exquisite artistic elements.

The palace is a three-storey building including 30 rooms and two halls, a basement level and a roof terrace. The basement was originally used as a residential area for servants, the first floor was the reception area, while the second floor was originally Fahmi’s living area. The palace’s ceilings are decorated with frescoes embellished with golden arcades. Some of the walls are decorated with French tapestries, while others are covered with silk.

Probably the most striking rooms in the palace are the Japanese, billiards and green rooms. The Japanese room is the smallest room on the first floor, and its walls are covered with red silk decorated with golden Japanese lettering and scenes of landscapes in Japan. One of the room’s walls is decorated with drawings relating a folkloric Japanese tale. The ceiling is covered with wood painted with images of Japanese bonsai trees.

Aisha Fahmi

The room is furnished with Japanese furniture in red, gold and black. The most distinguished pieces in the room are two large golden statues of the Buddha on red bases.

The billiards room is a medium-sized room equipped with all the required equipment for playing billiards, such as the table, the cues and the competitor board, the latter being rather like the board used in horse racing where the names of the horses are written and on which the winning horse is put on top.

The green room is a very distinctive room. On each of its walls, there is a picture of a woman in a gold frame, all the pictures being in different styles and by different artists. The restorer of the palace, Mohamed Abdel-Baki, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the portraits of the women are thought to be pictures of Aisha Fahmi and her friends.

The room has a chimney carved in green marble and decorated with foliage painted in gold. It has a white plaster ceiling decorated with golden facings. Over the chimney is a huge mirror in a gold frame.

Aisha Fahmi

Other features of the palace include its original heating system, innovative at the time, with Aisha Fahmi insisting that heaters be installed in every bathroom in the palace. The building also boasts a stained glass image of Aisha Fahmi, while all the door handles and other fittings bear her initials.

In 2010, the Ministry of Culture in collaboration with the Arab Contractors Company launched a comprehensive restoration project to restore the palace to make it more visitor-friendly. However, due to the lack of a budget, the restoration work was put on hold twice, the first time during the 25 January Revolution and the second in 2013 owing to a lack of funds.

With the decline of tourism in Egypt, and the Ministry of Antiquities stopping its subvention to the Ministry of Culture of 10 per cent of its income, the ministry has faced financial problems in continuing the project.

However, earlier this week the palace was officially reopened to the public following its restoration by Minister of Culture Helmi Al-Namnam and head of the Fine Arts Sector Khaled Sorour. The palace’s Italian-style façade with its cast-iron railings can be seen for the first time for almost a decade as it is no longer hidden behind iron scaffolding and green construction sheets.

Mohamed Al-Taweel, a consultant to the Fine Arts Sector, said that in 2010 when the restoration work was launched, the palace was in a very bad state of conservation. Cracks had spread over the walls and ceilings, paintings had fallen into decay, and parts of the white marble stairs were destroyed or missing. The basement, which is the actual foundation of the palace because it does not have concrete foundations, was also in a bad way owing to the capillary action of water from the Nile. The high levels of humidity had also played an important role in the deterioration of the inside of the palace.

Aisha Fahmi

The restoration work was carried out in two phases. The first one started in 2010 and included the consolidation of the walls and ceilings by injecting them with special material. Cracks were restored and walls painted. The marble stairs were restored and the missing marble elements were replaced by new similar ones.

The basement was also consolidated to support the building. The roots of trees that had grown beneath the basement and led to its loosening were eliminated, and the trees in the area were cut back and their roots confined within wooden frames to prevent similar problems in the future. The tapestries in the building were restored, as was its stained glass, ornaments, wooden frames and paintings.

New lighting and air-conditioning systems were installed, as well as a state-of-the-art security system that includes indoor and outdoor cameras connected to a TV circuit.

Aisha Fahmi

The basement of the palace has been converted into a temporary exhibition space, while the other seven halls will be used for permanent exhibitions. The garden has also been replanted and landscaped, including the construction of a small theatrical stage overlooking the Nile to host different music and dance performances as well as plays. A cafeteria and bookstore have been set up on the palace roof.


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