Last month a historic villa from the early twentieth century with unique architectural eclecticism and which was filled with antiques and a rich art collection was looted and destroyed. Below is an article by Nevine El-Aref which first appeared on Al-Ahram Weekly on February 8, 2013.
Safe as houses? Not under the MSA
The luxuriously furnished villa of Kevork Ispenian on the Pyramids Road was looted and destroyed despite being on Egypt’s heritage list. Nevine El-Aref mourns the early 20th century edifice
At the Giza Plateau end of the Pyramids Road, near the Mena House Oberoi Hotel, the neo-Islamic villa of Kevork Ispenian stands wretchedly, its Mamluk and Ottoman features revealing the extent of the damage to this beautiful, historic house.
The destruction is over; the house stands in ruins. The garden, once laid out with an immaculate lawn and decorated with rare species of plants and trees and graced by a ceramic mosaic fountain, is now embellished with lumps of limestone and fallen bricks; littered with Mamluk mashrabeya (wooden lattice work) that formerly covered the windows and balustrades. Rubble and rubbish are scattered over the ground among the dead trees and palm trunks.
The house itself is in no better condition; on the contrary it is in a terrible state. Heaps of rubble and sand are piled on the floors, making it hard to tread on and walk through the rooms. Parts of the walls and decorated marble rails and slabs were scattered all around, while wooden doors engraved with foliage and geometrical decorations and beautiful mosaics that once decorated the arcades are broken and missing.
“What a loss!” Ahmad Al-Bindari, a researcher and photographer at the Centre for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage (CULTNAT), told Al-Ahram Weekly sadly. He went on to say that the villa, constructed and designed by architect Charles Aznavour in 1935 as a rest house or weekend retreat for the Armenian father and son team of Kevork and Paul Ispenian, both collectors, was a great piece of heritage and its loss was tragic.
As befitted the house of collectors, several Mamluk and Ottoman artefacts, including those belonging to French architect Ambroise Baudry, were woven within its interiors. Baudry moved in 1871 to Egypt where he spent 15 years, during which he received many commissions, both private and royal. He constructed the Matatia edifices at Ataba in Downtown Cairo, which was demolished during the 1990s. In 1873 Baudry was given responsibility for the decoration of the interior of the salamlik (men’s quarters), the façade and the marble staircase of Khedive Ismail’s palace in Giza.
Baudry built a very distinguished residential villa for himself in Abdel-Khalek Tharwat Street in Downtown Cairo, which he decorated with authentic Mamluk and Ottoman artefacts. By the turn of the 20th century, Ispenian had bought Baudry’s genuine collection along with others when all the villas in Abdel-Khalek Tharwat Street were demolished and replaced with huge apartment buildings as part of a plan to convert the area into a commercial and residential zone.
According to Al-Bindari, the Ispenian Villa stayed in the possession of the Armenian family until the 1960s when it was then sold to the Abdel-Nour family, who in their turn sold it to the Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA), now the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA). Meanwhile, the house contents were put on Egypt’s Islamic and Coptic Heritage List after that the house was abandoned. The doors were sealed in red wax, meaning that it was forbidden to enter and whoever stepped inside and removed the wax would be subjected to the law.
“I used to visit the house every now and then, but I have only seen it from the outside,” Al-Bindari told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that during his tour of office he had grown fond of the house and its distinguished architectural elements, and had even invited his friends to come so he could show them its wonderful design. “But sometimes the wind doesn’t blow the way we want,” he said. Last spring, when Bendari went for his usual visit, he found the Ispenian Villa was not the one he used to admire. The iron gate lay on the floor, broken in two pieces. The structure was partially demolished, and the house and garden were a total mess and in the worst possible condition.
Al-Bindari was told that the house, like many other monuments and archaeological sites in Egypt, had been looted during the January 2011 Revolution when security in the country was almost non-existent. However, he told the Weekly that there was no way of knowing for certain what had happened or how the destruction had come about.
“Whoever stole the contents knew what he was doing,” Al-Bindari insisted. “It was systematic. Everything from the ornamented roof, the ornamental screens, the marble floors and even a historic column supporting the balcony have been stolen. They took their time and took everything apart.”
Bendari pointed out that the condition of the villa was not unusual by any standards. “These things happen all the time because of negligence,” he said.
So what did happen to the villa? Why was it possible for it to be subjected to so much looting and destruction? Is it the property of the antiquities department or not? If so, where is the new antiquities law and its amendment? Why is it not being implemented? One of the law’s articles is one that prohibits any encroachment and destruction of archeological sites and a prison term for offenders.
Mohamed Abdel-Rehim, head of the Islamic and Coptic monuments section, told the Weekly in a telephone interview that the building was not on the Egyptian antiquities list and that the villa was still owned by Abdel-Nour family. It was not a historic house which must come under the jurisdiction of the Historic Buildings law affiliated to the Giza governorate, nor did it come under the antiquities law or the MSA. He insisted that the building was not a listed monument.
Meanwhile, archaeologist Ahmed Taha, an inspector at the Giza section of the MSA, laid all the blame for neglecting the building on the Tourist and Antiquities Police (TAP), who failed to protect the house even though there is TAP station not 10 metres from the Ispenian Villa. He also said that during the tenure of former MSA minister Zahi Hawass there was a project to convert the historic villa into a museum for Islamic art, but no steps were taken to implement the plan. Taha’s statements are verified by an MSA official, who required anonymity. The official said that the collection of the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Bab Al-Khalk was stored in the Ispenian Villa while the museum was under lengthy restoration. Some objects from this collection are now on display in the MIA while others were transported to MSA storage rooms in the Salaheddin Citadel.
Mokhtar Al-Kasabani, professor of Islamic monuments in the archaeology department at Cairo University, who was the MSA consultant for Islamic monuments during the Hawass tenure, also supports Taha’s statements. He says the house is an MSA property and should come under the new antiquities law and its amendments.
The empty 30 feddan plot neighbouring the Ispenian Villa is owned by former minister of tourism Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, who was willing to sell it to the MSA for a mega development project.
As a member of the committee who was in charge of the project, Kasabani said that the whole site in this prime area overlooking the Giza Plateau was earmarked to be transformed into a resort for tourists. It would include a small museum of Islamic art, a motel, bazaars selling replicas and souvenirs, a cafeteria and a bookstore for archaeology and art books. A parking area and a cinema would be also built as part of the complex. However, Kasabani said that regrettably the revolution had put the plan into jeopardy and it had been abandoned. The villa, he went on, was looted during the revolution and some of the mashrabeya and the mosaic fountain that once decorated the garden were missing.
“The current government and the MSA don’t care enough about Egypt’s history and its culture,” Kasabani told the Weekly. He added that a few months ago a contractor damaged the Ottoman warehouse and grist-mill of Madash-Merza in Boulaq Abul-Ela, and that even though he was caught red-handed he was set at large with a fine of only LE500. This contractor, he said, returned to Madash-Merza and resumed the demolition, and nobody moved a finger to save this great Ottoman monument, not even the MSA. Now he had built the first floor of his new building. What made things worse, Kasabani pointed out, was that all antiquities crimes were no longer prosecuted under the new antiquities law and its amendments which had priority on the court roll. Instead, they came under the usual criminal law, according to which a case can take years to be solved.
Kasabani suggests that to protect and rescue Egypt’s cultural and antiquities heritage, the MSA might be converted into an Independent Egyptian Authority affiliated directly to the president’s office rather than a ministry within the government echelon.