The French diplomatic mission in Egypt has occupied two notable houses of exceptional architectural appeal. Both houses utilized fragments from Mamluk and Ottoman decorative elements, which came from various houses and structures around the city. The decorative fragments were reused in these new settings around which the new modern houses were built. Architectural historian Mercedes Voliat and photographer Blas Gimeno Ribelles have documented and analyzed these two houses and their decorative features in the recently published book Maisons de France au Caire. Le remploi de grands décors mamelouks et ottomans dans une architecture moderne. The book (French/Arabic) is published and is available for purchase at the Institut Francais d’Archeologie Orientale (IFAO) in Mounira.
The French embassy building in Giza was built in the 1930s when modernist architecture was widespread in Cairo particularly in newly developed areas and among the bourgeois class in general. Yet the interior of the embassy is dressed in antique Mamluk and Ottoman patterns reused from older structures. The main hall of the building is impressively ornamented with a montage of historic Cairene interior architectural details including stone inlays, wooden ceilings, inlaid wooden doors, and brass lighting fixtures. The modern 1930s building was designed to accommodate these precious decorative interiors, which came from an earlier modern house built in 1880-85 for Gaston de Saint-Maurice (1831-1905).
The house of Gaston de Saint-Maurice was built on land gifted by Khedive Ismail located on what is today Sherif Street in downtown. The French government acquired the land/house soon after to establish its new embassy. The new house incorporated fragments of historic structures that were collected from Cairo. The urban transformation of the city throughout the 19th century meant that many older structures were demolished to make way for new ones. Sometimes state-planned projects such as the cutting of the avenue of Mohamed Ali through the historic fabric caused the demolition of hundreds of structures including houses and sometimes mosques. These demolitions led to a lucrative trade in building parts including entire wall panels, doors, and ceilings which were sold to collectors, aristocrats to decorate their new homes and sometimes shipped abroad for the homes of wealthy Orientalists. The use of historic fragments in new buildings was increasingly popular during the same time in France. The adaptive reuse of historic fragments became a new art as it required artisans to create new pieces that fill the gaps and correspond with the older pieces. This new art called for the study of ornamental motifs and gave rise to an increased art historical interest in oriental interior/decorative architecture.
The building on Sherif Street was neo-Mamluk with various details belonging to various architectural styles from Islamic architecture. The building built in the 1880s was not unusual for that period when many notables and aristocrats built in an eclectic historicist style. The new building was inspired by a collection of architectural fragments and the interior decoration was composed of actual fragments belonging to different eras, different buildings and different styles.
As the area known today as downtown developed rapidly in the 1920s onwards from an urban fabric of mostly palaces and villas to tall modern apartment blocks the French Embassy acquired land in the then newly developing areas of Giza near the Nile and a new house was built in the 1930s. Again, in the new house fragments which formed the interior of the 1880s house were removed before that house was demolished and the interiors were reassembled in the new modern understated structure. The new building set in gardens consisted of a modern Moorish inspired design, rather than Cairene palatial architecture. The architecture was designed to host the interiors from the 1880s house. The main hall (pictured at the top of this post) is particularly impressive. Of course, since the Giza building was erected some of its parts had been redesigned or redecorated with various elements including art deco. However, the main halls with the reused Ottoman and Mamluk decor remain the main features of that building.
The book is divided into five chapters with a particularly important conclusion that sheds light on the forgotten art of reusing old architectural fragments, a practice that had existed in Cairo for centuries. The book concludes with a question about such practices as seen in these two houses: is such reuse of building materials impertinent or is it a way of salvaging heritage?
Of course such a question has no easy or universal answer but the author makes the case that in these particular houses the reuse of decorative elements from demolished Cairene houses reinvents and in ways protects heritage that could have been lost. Of course such practices continue today in much more destructive ways as intact historic buildings (examples: Villa Casdagli, Villa Ispenian) get vandalized in order to feed the clandestine market for antique building parts the clients of which are mostly outside of Cairo and Egypt. The recent destruction of several villas is evidence that the market for building parts to be reused in new buildings for the wealthy elsewhere is a lucrative endeavor. Of course these recent developments are significantly different from the context in which these two French houses in Cairo were built.
Cairo, like many cities across the globe, underwent a significant process of urban transformation in the mid-19th century. At the core of these transformations, which can be traced in cities from Latin America, Europe, and Asia, are sewage systems, street lighting, and drinking water systems. Most of these major infrastructural changes happen below street level, which explains why commentators on the 19th century often look up at what is visible, buildings, and rarely look below their feet. Also important to note that contrary to the dual city narrative 19th century infrastructural changes were implemented in both new and old parts of the city, with varying difficulty and speed for obvious reasons. Cairo has fallen victim to urban history that has elided the complexity of the city’s urban transformation during that time. I have already argued before that Paris was never along the Nile. On a recent trip to Paris I walked down the uniform apartment blocks of Haussmann’s Paris and stayed in one such building where behind the homogeneous facades are often small apartments reached by rickety small wooden stairs. Cairo’s 19th century (and early twentieth century) apartments were often dismissed as hastily-built Parisian simulacra in analysis obsessed by reductive East/West dichotomies and which privilege the eye. A closer investigation of Cairo’s “Parisian” architecture beyond reducing architectural history to facade reading, reveals a different set of socio-economic constructs that produced these buildings.
The focus on the above-mentioned aspect of 19th century urban development in Cairo has kept the major changes of that era in the footnotes of the official narrative. Today, as the city is desperately in need of comprehensive urban transformation and upgrading it is important to highlight the less visible but major projects carried out 150 years ago around the reign of Ismail that continue to shape the city today in ways more fundamental than mere aesthetics. Here are 7 major 19th century projects that reshaped Cairo:
1. Stabilizing the Nile Banks: The Nile in Cairo shifted with season which made the prospect of urbanization Nile-side a difficult one. Stabilizing the banks of the river, completed by 1865 and filling the adjacent areas that previously flooded made urban development possible and added riverside properties to the city’s real estate. However before the prospect of real estate the first large Nile-side building erected along the newly stabilized river were the new barracks of the Egyptian army (1865-68) known as Qasr el Nil. Tahrir Square would have been underwater if it wasn’t for this major infrastructural project. Qasr el Nil Bridge was also erected following the stabilization of the river and was opened in 1871.
2. The Northern boundaries: The areas north of historic Cairo near the recently built train station (1854) consisted of small hills which were flattened and and used in the draining and filling of the city’s lakes further south. Near by there were fields of radish فجل which were removed to make way for a new neighborhood named Faggala فجالة and Sakakini further north. A square was planned fronting the train station as the city’s northern entrance and Shubra street (tree-lined and extending north to Muhammad Ali’s Shubra palace) was connected to this area directly.
3. Abdeen Area: To the west of the old city was a small lake fronted by the estate of Abdeen Bek. The area was surrounded by marches to the west and slums to the east. The estate became the location for a new royal palace (moving the seat of power from the citadel down to the level of the city) and the new palace was built in 1863. The lake and marches were filled and a city square and new streets extending from the new palace were planned. The neighborhood of Abdeen was born.
4. Azbakiyya: Another area that was radically transformed was the posh district of Azbakiyya which overlooked a lake. The lake was filled and transformed into a garden during the rule of Muhammad Ali and the garden was redesigned again during the rule of Khedive Ismail. The transformation of Azbakiyya included the creation of several small public squares such as Khazindar and Attaba as well as Opera Square. The famed Cairo Opera House (1869) was built along side the public garden and several hotels were erected on the west side of the garden which was a linking space between the edge of the old city and the westward urban expansion that became downtown.
5. The East Bank: Major avenues were planned to crisscross the city connecting the western edge of the old city to the Nile. Such new streets were Emmaddidin, Muhammad Farid Bek, Almalika (Ramsis), Merit Pasha and Qasr el Aini. Ismailia Square (Tahrir) began to take shape by the 1870s as well as surrounding squares such as Bab el Louk and neighborhoods such as Mounira, Dawaween. These newly planned areas were paved with water systems underground, sidewalks and trees above and street lighting installed before building lots were developed by individuals.
6. The West Bank: Also following the stabilization of the river the west bank, which was raised two meters above water level, was available for development. Although it largely remained agricultural several new projects were implemented: The Orman Botanical Garden and the Giza Zoo as well as the Pyramids Road. A new Giza palace was erected as well.
7. Gezira Island: Known today as Zamalek, the island was consolidated out of several smaller islands and was largely left as a retreat with a palace and garden erected to host the French queen during her visit (today’s Marriott). With the exception of the palace the island was meant as an escape, a natural landscape dotted with wooden shacks/huts which gave the island its name. Eventually parts of the landscape were formalized into gardens and later streets were implemented such as Gezira St., Gabalaya St., Nile St., and eventually Foad St. (26th July).
These major projects were initiated during the reign of Khedive Ismail, however earlier projects took place during his grandfather’s rule such as the opening of several streets through the old city and the legislation of Tanzim laws for urban management. Also other major transformation took place later in the 19th century such as the filling of Khalij al-Masri (1890s) and the creation of Cairo’s first tram line in its route on what became today’s Port Said St.
One of the corners of the recently restored historic pavilion of Mohamed Ali in Shubra, has collapsed. A 55 million Egyptian Pound ($9 million) restoration took place 7 years ago and the building was “reopened” to much fanfare. In reality the “restoration” was a botched job using cheap materials (including low quality paint) and utilizing the services of contractors inexperienced in historic preservation/conservation. The Ministries of Antiquity and Culture both have a dismal record when it comes to successful restoration work and have failed to protect much of Egypt’s heritage under their auspices. Often “restoration” projects such as this become excuses for public funds to be squandered by officials, consultants and construction firms. A recent fiasco at Ministerli Palace in Manial revealed how corrupt the system is when scaffolding was put up, closing the palace for years, only to be removed after the beginning of the revolution revealing that no work had been conducted.
It is important to note that in 2009, after the pavilion “restoration,” rare paintings of members of the Mohamed Ali family were stolen from the Shubra Pavilion and the incident received nearly no press coverage and no officials were held responsible. This predates the theft of the Van Gogh painting from another Ministry of Culture museum in 2010.
The Mohamed Ali Shubra Pavilion is a unique structure combining late Ottoman, French and Italian as well as Egyptian influences in its odd design centered around a pool with an island and seating areas around its perimeter.The square building was a separate structure built in 1820 near a Shubra Palace which was built in 1912 by architect Pascal Coste and which was located along the Nile in Shubra and had been destroyed by its owner in the 1930s. Samir Raafat has the complete story:
Marveled by all who visited it during his reign, Mohammed Ali’s Shubra Pavilion consists of an artificial marble-lined pool with as a whimsical centerpiece, an elaborate octagonal Carrara marble balustrade surrounding a fountain-islet sporting marble statuettes; the whole resting atop 24 raised marble crocodiles spraying water out of their menacing jaws.
Surrounding the pool is a raised wide square gallery fronted by moresque wrap-around veranda with 104 slender load-bearing bronze-based marble colonnades.
Overlooking the pool from the interior of the gallery are 112 low-lying windows with bronze railings.
The gallery built in wood and plaster has four corner salons (diwans or kiosks). As though standing sentinel on these salons are four water-spouting marble lions.
Not unlike the interiors of contemporary palaces built in the Citadel complex including the Bijoux Palace (1814), the Harem Palace built in 1827 (now military museum) and the Daftarkhana (1828), the Shubra palace and its annexes included a melange of styles ranging from faux oriental to gaudy European.
[The central pool area of the pavilion, the corner which collapsed is one of the four partial dome structures such as the one shown in the background of this image]
[to see the pavilion in action, click on the above screen shot to watch a scene from the film Cairo 30, which depicts a party taking place in the pavilion in the early part of the twentieth century]
Although the collapse took place around July 2012 news of the disaster has been muted. An investigative report was published by Al Ahram months later and another critical piecewas posted on the news site Masress. More recently the story was published in the heritage news section of Al-Rawi, Egypt’s heritage review magazine.
The piece posted on Masress is particularly important because it puts the Shubra disaster in within a larger context of corruption by officials in the ministries of culture and antiquities.
د. عبد الفتاح البنا الأستاذ بكلية الآثار جامعة القاهرة يري أن انهيار احدي القباب التي تغطي أحد القاعات الركنية بسرايا الفسقية بقصر محمد علي بشبرا بعد أقل من 6 سنوات من استلام القصر من مقاول الترميم بتكلفة معلنة 55 مليون جنيه يضاف إليهم ماهو غير معلن من أعمال تكميلية قد تتخطى هذا الرقم، هي بمثابة كارثة ولن تكون الحادث الوحيد بل سيتكرر ذلك كثيرا ولن ننسي منذ أربعة أشهر ما جري لشارع المعز لدين الله الفاطمي الذي غرقت آثاره في “المجاري” وكم السرقات التي تحدث جهارا نهارا لوحدات أثرية بالمساجد والدور والأسبلة الإسلامية وكل هذا يجعلنا في إطار حملتنا ضد الفساد في الآثار بصدد فتح ملف مشروعات ترميم الآثار خاصة ما كان في حوزة السجين “أيمن عبد المنعم” وزملائه سواء من سجن معه أومن هم مازالوا طلقاء لم تقتص منهم العدالة حتى وقتنا هذا !! لاسيما وأن حواس وغيره تغنوا بإنجازاتهم المزيفة في وقت كان الفساد والزيف هو السمة السائدة.
صندوق التنمية الثقافية أو “مغارة على بابا ” في وزارة الثقافة كما يطلق عليه د. عبد الفتاح البنا، كان يتولاه أيمن عبد المنعم، هذا الشاب اليافع الذي تحول لمليونير خلال سنوات قليلة، ويتردد أن الشركة التي اتهم بتقاضي رشوة منها بأعمال الديكورات فيها وتأثيثها بأثاث جيد، شمل قطعا من السجاد الإيراني وتحفا نفيسة، هو كان المسئول عن مشروع تطوير القاهرة التاريخية، ورسميا تولى أيمن عبد المنعم إدارة صندوق التنمية الثقافية الذي يسمونه بالإضافة إلى أكثر من 10 مشروعات أثرية أخرى.
On the morning of 1 March, two historic and valuable pieces of embroidered cloth, Kiswa, hanging in the mausoleum of Khedive Tawfiq, were stolen. The Kiswa is a ceremonial decorated cloth, often with gold threads, offered by the Egyptian ruler to cover the Ka`ba in Mecca. The stolen objects, although have historical value, are not registered with the department of antiquities. The building from which the objects were stolen, however, is registered. The site is managed by the Awqaf Ministry. Such disputes between Awqaf and Anquitities authorities have been to blame for the loss of countless buildings and objects in the past. This theft was the third attempt by robbers. The first attempt to steal the objects was sometime in the late 1990s when a Saudi princess commissioned the theft. The ordeal was covered in a 2002 investigative report on Aljazeera. The princess was allowed to flee along with other historic objects without facing charges. There is no evidence if the same person who attempted to possess the items in the past is responsible for this theft.
The two historic Kiswas were restored in 2006 and 2008 along with the entire building in which they hang. The building is the mausoleum of Khedive Tawfiq known as Qubbat Afandina.
Click on the Cairobserver Map on the left panel to locate Qubbat Afandina on the eastern edge of the Northern Cemetery. The following brief introduction comes from architect Agnieszka Dobrowolska who conducted its restoration in 2008 with the support of the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo:
The mausoleum is located in the Eastern Cemetery, (qarafa al-sharqiya), sometimes also referred to as Northern Cemetery, a Mamluk necropolis. It stands in the south-eastern part of this section of the necropolis close to the mausoleum of the much venerated sheikh Afifi (Abdalla al-Manufi, died in 1348), so the whole area of the cemetery is popularly known as Afifi. The building is officially registered in the Supreme Council of Anitiquities list as Qubbat Afandina (Tomb of Our Lord).
The mausoleum was built in 1894 by the Khedive Abbas Hilmi in memory of his father Khedive Muhammad Tewfiq Pasha (born in 1852) who died on 7 January 1892. It was designed by Dimitri Fabricius in the neo-Mamluk style. It is an important example of architectural design which combined traditional Islamic motifs appropriate for the purpose and location of the building with the modern design principles of the time it was built.
[Above is the eastern facade after restoration and below is the interior before restoration.]
The conservation project was financed by the Ministry of Awqaf (pious foundations) through Prince Abbas Hilmi, the descendant of the royal family. This is one of the royal family tombs, the other notable one is in the Rifa`i Mosque. The project included the cleaning and treatment of the facades, treatment of domes and roof, conservation of woodwork, conservation of marble, conservation of metalwork, lighting, in addition to the conservation of the historic Kiswas which had been hanging in the building’s vestibule until they were stolen on 1 March, 2012.
As it is the case with other such buildings and sites, despite the excellent and extensive conservation work carried out by the team, the building is mis-managed by the state. Also, considering this is one of Egypt’s royal tombs it is nearly unknown to most Egyptians who are made ignorant of their own history and treasures. If this was a site visited regularly and known to Egyptians, that alone would have made the theft more difficult. The general public only hears about Egypt’s treasures after they are stolen (as was with the famous Van Gogh painting), burnt (as with the Institut d’Egypte), or destroyed (as with numerous and countless buildings). Every one of these incidents is a reminder of the failures of the state’s institutions (Ministry of Culture, Supreme Council of Antiquities, Awqaf Ministry among others).
Sabils are a prominent, although not exclusive, feature of Ottoman urbanism. Cairo once had over three hundred Sabils and they were pivotal elements in various neighborhoods, they were places to get water a life necessity. The historic core of Cairo is dotted with these buildings, some have been restored, while others have fallen into disrepair as drinking water became available in private homes, and the waqf and patronage system that once maintained these structures no longer exists. Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt (1805-48) built a sabil in a prime location at the heart of Cairo. In 1998 that building was on the verge of collapse but a group of conservers led by architect Agnieszka Dobrowolska carried out a meticulous restoration project that saved the building. The following few paragraphs are an excerpt from a publication co-authored with historian Khaled Fahmy titled Muhammad Ali Pasha and his Sabil: A Guide to the Permanent Exhibition in the Sabil Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha in al-Aqqadin, Cairo.
A sabil is a drinking fountain, charitably endowed to distribute free drinking water to the people. In Cairo, most drinking water was brought from the Nile to be sold on the streets by water carriers, hence sabils were welcome and useful, and many were built in the city. By establishing a sabil, the founder hoped to earn credit toward in the hereafter, but also to signal social status and perpetuate his or her memory. Sabils can be found throughout the Islamic world, for the tradition of offering water to the thirsty is deeply rooted in Islam.
When sabils first appeared in Cairo in the fourteenth century, they were attached to mosques and other religious buildings that were founded by sultans and elite members. Later, wealthy men and women built them as separate structures at prominent locations in the city. Only in Cairo was an elementary school, called a kuttab, included in the same building, above the sabil. These sabil-kuttabs became a standard feature of the city’s landscape. When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, his surveyors counted more than three hundred of them in Cairo.
Cairo’s sabil-kuttabs reflected the architectural styles of the periods when they were built. The early ones are splendid examples of Mamluk style, an architectural tradition so deeply rooted in Cairo that it continued into the Ottoman period. Late eighteenth-century sabil-kuttabs in Cairo are fine examples of an architectural style that combined the Mamluk tradition with elements of Ottoman decoration originating in Istanbul.
Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha broke the centuries-long architectural tradition and inaugurated a completely new style in Cairo by erecting this sabil. He chose a prominent location in a busy commercial area on the main street of the city. He imported white marble and timber from Turkey, and probably craftsmen as well. He chose to erect a building of such grand scale and splendid appearance as to emphasize its founder’s political power. Calligraphic panels on the façade, written in Ottoman Turkish, display poetic verses and the names of Mahmud II, who was the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, of which Egypt was a part, and Muhammad ‘Ali, its governor.
The sabil was built to commemorate Muhammad ‘Ali’s beloved son, Prince Tusun, who had died of bubonic plague three years earlier at the age of 22. The grieving father spared no effort or expense to imprint on Cairo a lasting mark of his family’s presence and importance. It was also a turning point in Cairo’s architecture. The style of the opulent carved-marble decoration on the bowed façade was completely novel. It was an Ottoman interpretation of European baroque, but an interpretation that was very modern at the time, with a strong classical element. Wide, overhanging wooden eaves, richly carved and painted, were also a Turkish motif. In another departure from tradition, there was no kuttab over the sabil, which was instead surmounted by a lead-covered dome, like many buildings in the imperial capital. As if to make the point even more strongly, the dome’s interior was decorated with paintings depicting an imaginary Turkish urban landscape, not at all like the skyline of Cairo. A glittering gilded crescent crowned the building; the main entrance doors were cast in solid bronze. Gold-covered ornate grilles in arched windows were meant to impress those who stepped up to receive a cup of water from a marble basin behind them.
Reflections on antiquity management
Reaching Muhammad Ali’s Sabil is easy, it is a short walk from the famous Bab Zuwayla. The building retains its restored appearance and it is open to the public for a symbolic fee. Inside, the restoration team created an exhibit telling the story of the building and its patron, Muhammad Ali. A classroom on the upper floor from when a Kuttab/school was added to the building’s function, remains with its school desks. Below the cistern that was once filled with water to supply the community is accessible via a small stair. It is a wonderful example of restoration. However, once the dedicated team hands over the keys to the authorities in charge of managing the site, namely the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the building’s fate is in government hands.
The authorities have not learned neither from experience nor from exposure to other contexts, how to keep a monument alive, living, and part of a community. This is a management problem which seems to be the easiest bit since all the difficult work was already done by the restoration team. Sadly, like many historic sites in Egypt that are not of the caliber of pyramids, sites such as the sabil are under-visited, and minimally managed. (meaning unless a disaster takes place no one from the authorities will pay attention to the building’s afterlife once it has been restored).
English and Arabic publication were created and printed by the AUC press and the architect had dedicated a space for their sale by the entrance of the sabil, yet copies are not available and the space is unused. Inside there is a wonderful courtyard and a small cantina that could serve hot and cold drinks, yet the tables are stowed away and the cantina is empty of supplies. In Cairo’s tourism map, despite the sabil’s location on historic Cairo’s main street, it is off the beaten path and few tourists visit. The community, although they welcomed the restoration, are not invited by the authorities to use the space.
The sabil, and others like it dotting Cairo, could be made into pivotal elements in the urban environment, as they once were, with new functions. They can be part of the community and income generating tourist sites. Income generation is essential for restored historic buildings and Muhammad Ali’s sabil has the potential to be economically independent with proper management. Income generated could pay for staff, cover maintenance costs, etc. The unused bookshop and the cafe are missed opportunities.
The problem is greater than this particular example and goes back to the bureaucratic structure controlling antiquities but also the very mindset of the institution. Considering how many historic sabils there are, IMAGINE IF there was an expert on sabils, in charge of Cairo’s sabils. Additionally, each sabil would have its own person in charge. As a team these managers would organize events such as poetry readings, political debate, art and music events aimed at the community. They would also manage various income generating sources such as the sale of books and souvenirs, beverages and snacks (if space is available). Sabil walking tours could be organized so that a group can walk from one sabil to another learning about their distinction, architectural significance, historical significance, etc. Income generated would NOT need to go to the SCA’s purse nor to a centralized government account (which is current policy). Imagine how reworking the way these historic buildings are managed can give them new life, make them relevant to residents and tourists. The potential is there and it is achievable.