Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

New hope for Al-Sakakini Palace

Plans are afoot to turn Cairo’s neglected Al-Sakakini Palace into a museum of medical instruments, writes Nevine El-Aref

Al-Ahram Weekly

In Al-Sakakini Square in the Al-Daher area of downtown Cairo stands Al-Sakakini Palace, its rococo architectural style contrasting with the ragged gardens that surround it and the modest buildings in the rest of the area. The building’s present poor state of conservation has been raising concerns about its future, even as the palace this year celebrates its 116th anniversary.
When he arrived in Egypt in the mid 19th century with his father from Damascus at the age of just 16 to work for the Suez Canal Company in Port Said, the building’s later owner, Gabriel Habib Al-Sakakini, could not have known that he would one day become a member of Egypt’s elite and the owner of one of Cairo’s most distinguished private palaces.
Following some years spent in Port Said, Al-Sakakini moved to Cairo, where he worked his way up in the world, eventually becoming a wealthy building contractor.
The details of his transformation are difficult to know with any degree of certainty, but according to an article by Tawfik Moufare that appeared in the Cairo newspaper Al-Lata’ef Al-Masreya in the 1920s, later tracked down by historian Samir Raafat, Al-Sakakini came to the attention of the Khedive Ismail when he sent sacks of famished cats to deal with the rats in the Suez Canal Zone.
Quick to recognise such inventiveness and initiative, the khedive made good use of the shrewd Syrian, giving him the daunting task of completing the Khedival Opera House to a very tight schedule under the supervision of its designer, the Italian architect Pietro Avoscani. As a result, the Opera House was completed in time to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal.
After this success, many large construction projects were led by Al-Sakakini, who became a wealthy man as a result. He was awarded the title of bek when he turned 39, and in 1901 Pope Leo XIII awarded him the papal title of conte for his services to the Catholic community in Egypt.
When the Al-Sakakini Palace was completed in 1897, the Al-Daher district of Cairo in which it is located was being turned from a marshy area into an up-market residential area. According to legend, before becoming a successful building contractor Al-Sakakini made a fortune dealing in weapons. The palace itself was apparently modelled on a similar rococo building that Al-Sakakini had previously seen in Italy.
According to Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, head of the Historic Cairo Project, a conservation organisation, Al-Sakakini chose an impressive site in Al-Daher for his new home. The palace stands at the focal point of eight roads, making it a landmark in the area. “Acquiring such an important location in an up-and-coming area would not have been easy at the time,” Abdel-Aziz said, adding that Al-Sakakini had used his connections with the then royal family to acquire the land.
The exterior design of the palace can mislead visitors as to its actual size. It is a five-storey building covering some 2,698 square metres, and it has 50 rooms, over 400 windows and doors, and is decorated with more than 300 busts and statues. There is a marble bust of the palace’s original owner at the entrance. While the gardens are today rather small when compared to the size of the palace, these still contain the original statues and fountains.
The interior of the palace, though much faded, is as opulent as the exterior. The floors are made of parquet wood, the walls and ceilings are painted and decorated, and the dining area still features the food elevator connecting it with the kitchens. However, nowadays the palace, with its ornaments, domes and towers, seems to be rather out of place in the middle-class Al-Daher area, with its crowded traffic and modern buildings.
Nevertheless, the palace still stands proudly at the heart of the district, though in a rather neglected state. Time has taken its toll on the palace, and there are cracks in the ceilings, damaged paintwork and fixtures, and a dull coat of dust and dirt covers every inch of every room.
Abdel-Aziz said that the damage had been due to neglect over the past nine decades, ever since, in fact, Al-Sakakini himself had passed away in 1923. The ownership of the palace had been divided among his heirs, and his grandson, a doctor, had eventually offered the palace to the Ministry of Health.
In 1961, the ministry turned the palace into a museum of medicine, using it to display the medical instruments used by past generations, from the ancient Egyptians to the modern period, for surgery and other purposes. In 1983, the museum collections were transferred to the Technical Institute in Imbaba, with any non-exhibited objects being put into storage in the basement of the Al-Sakakini Palace for safe-keeping.
In 1987, ministerial decree number 1691 listed the palace on Egypt’s Heritage List of Islamic and Coptic Monuments, putting it under the care of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, now the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA). The palace was opened to visitors from the Fine Arts Faculty, who would go there to draw its unique decorations and statues.
However, the end of the palace’s function as a museum, and its transfer from one ministry to another, took a toll on its state of conservation. The palace began to be neglected, and today it is in a poor state, with street vendors using it as a base for their activities and underground water damaging its walls.
Al-Hag Abdallah Imam, a resident of Al-Sakakini Square for more than 20 years, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the recent lack of security had also negatively impacted the palace, with parts of its ornamental façade being stolen or going missing as a result. Young people had been using the palace as an impromptu party venue, sometimes holding parties there from late at night into the early morning, he said.
Now, however, these abuses have stopped, thanks to the re-establishment of security in the area and the appointment of new MSA guards. Mohamed Ahmed, a porter in the area, said that the MSA should stop renting out the palace to film directors, as it had for the late Youssef Chahine’s film Hiya Fawda (It is Chaos), since after carrying out quick maintenance work on the palace they had left it in a worse condition than it had been when they arrived, he said.
Tarek Al-Komi, the owner of a restaurant in front of the Al-Sakakini Palace, expressed his sadness at its neglect. “Even the trees surrounding it have not been pruned for ages, and the overgrowth of vegetation has given it an inappropriate Gothic appearance,” he said.
However, help may now be at hand. According to Abdel-Aziz, the MSA is planning to once again convert the palace into a medical museum, this time into a museum of medical instruments showing the development of medicine in Egypt from ancient times to the present day.
The museum will display medical instruments as well as papyri and manuscripts describing the prescriptions used for various illness and details related to surgery and dentistry. It will also have a section on mummification and embalming materials. Surgical instruments, the scales used to weigh drugs, perfumes, ointments and rare medical prescriptions, all of which were once displayed at the Islamic Museum, will now be transferred to the new museum in the Al-Sakakini Palace.
Instruments from the Byzantine era will be transferred to the Coptic Museum. A statue of the ancient Greek god of medicine will be placed in the palace, however, as will a rare collection of instruments that once belonged to the 15th Dynasty ancient Egyptian physician Kar.
Abdel-Aziz said that the restoration work on the palace would begin soon, once the details of the budget had been decided. The MSA, working in cooperation with a team of consultants, had completed the required studies for the restoration and had documented the original fittings of the palace. The condition of the building, as well as its foundations, had been assessed. The building’s paintings, engravings and external decoration had all been documented in detail.
Once the MSA’s museums department had drawn up the exhibition design for the museum and the budget had been earmarked, restoration work would begin, Abdel-Aziz said.

add comment

  • follow us on