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Reel around the fountain
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 15 - 06 - 2006

David LeHardy Sweet enjoys the opulence of a by-gone age
Shirley Johnston with Sherif Sonbol, Egyptian Palaces and Villas: Pashas, Khedives, and Kings. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. & Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2006
There's nothing like decayed gentility and Shirley Johnston's new book, Egyptian Palaces and Villas: Pashas, Khedives, and Kings, offers plenty of it in a sweeping survey of 19th- and 20th-century palaces up and down the Nile. Enthusiasts of architectural history will quickly recognise the great service Johnston has done by authoring this sumptuously illustrated book of Egypt's finest modern mansions.
I have never been a diehard fan of the coffee-table book but found myself, after a four-year domicile in Cairo, aching for just this sort of introduction to the many stately dwellings of the country's old -- or sequestrated -- elite. The chief virtue of the book is that it offers a host of color photographs of dozens of great houses, inside and out. The rich images Johnston and art photographer Sherif Sonbol have painstakingly assembled over years of hard work bring these many villas, hotels, and even final resting places, back to life under Egypt's brazen sky. Whether of gilded interiors backlit with raking sunlight, or aged facades crouching amidst the unkempt foliage, the images capture both the splendor and the occasional desuetude of Egypt's more recent architectural legacy. But don't be fooled by the coffee- table label. Aside from the collaborative photographic effort, Johnston has written revealing, if playful, descriptions of the houses, their creators and residents.
Through vivid anecdotes, Johnston outlines an entire epoch of architectural transformation as Egypt was opened up -- often by force -- to a range of European influences during the country's many heady economic booms. Huge influxes of capital funded major construction projects overseen by ambitious imperial governors of the Ottoman Sultan. These include Mohamed Ali Pasha, who reigned virtually independently in the wake of Napoleon's retreat from Egypt and the pasha's grandson, the Khedive Ismail, who opened the Suez Canal in 1871 and was the first to turn what is now Downtown Cairo -- formerly a swamp -- into a major construction site. Unfortunately, it may be returning to its former state, a consequence of outmoded laws, nonexistent maintenance, and the post-colonial "white flight" that has fuelled all those vapid "new cities" in the eastern desert.
But with the help of Sonbol's dazzling photographic skills, Johnston's book reminds us just how much architectural beauty is still out there waiting to rediscovered and revisited. Johnston presents an assortment of Turkish sarays and other residences, from salamlik to haramlik, in concise, luminous chapters, using each palace as a visual set-piece from which to examine conditions of history, questions of design, and details of style. It's as if we were being invited to stroll casually through the neighbourhoods of history, where rich and powerful personages conspicuously consumed, in grand style, the best of modern material culture. Yet while some of the images convey the breadth of a formal garden (see the Villa Antoniadis in Alexandria), others create a sense of confinement, as if the approach to the house were impeded by shrubs, or as if the photographer, by focusing on a tree-lined path, a side staircase or an address plate (the Mohamed Amin Wali House of Fayoum), was masking a sorry state of upkeep.
Johnston is no stranger to opulent houses, having written several books on such far-flung retreats as Palm Beach, the French Riviera and Malta. She first turned her attention to Egypt's many palaces by following her protagonists east. One of these was Eugénie, consort of France's second emperor, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. The empress seems to have mesmerised the young Khedive Ismail who, in his efforts to wow her at the gala opening of the Suez Canal, nearly emptied his coffers to build suitably luxurious palaces and lodges to entertain her -- including the Mena House, at the foot of the pyramids, and the Gezira Palace, now owned by the Marriott Consortium.
Indeed, many of Cairo's better-off can be found lounging in the hotel gardens of the latter, under the cast-iron porticoes designed by Carl von Diebitsch. Such hotels are examined in the book; when graced by such wonders of Moorish revivalism as architect Henri Favarger conceived for the Mena or the Cataract Hotels, they are obvious choices for inclusion. In serving the steady stream of wealthy foreign visitors to Egypt in the 19th century, the hotels constitute an integral part of the country's modern architectural heritage.
Relying in part on earlier studies by Mercedes Volait and Samir Raafat, Johnston enlivens her text with quotations and observations -- sometimes pithy, sometimes acerbic -- by travelers that include novelist Pierre Loti and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. She has also interviewed many contemporaries from Egypt and abroad, current home owners or the descendants of former ones.
The result is a book of surprises, though tinged with occasional regrets, just as Sonbol's beautiful pictures often reveal signs of neglect and disrepair. One such surprise is Mohamed Ali's Shoubra Palace, greatly admired by the poet Gérard de Nerval, but built for no other purpose than to enclose a vast, open- air swimming pool -- a pool which, unfortunately, was drained at the time of photographing, though it had been replenished for the AUC Press party marking the launch of this book. As is so often the case, public events are met with fanfare, while the hard work of individuals like Johnston and Sonbol is under- accommodated.
The Manial Palace on Roda Island is more satisfying. The variety of Islamic styles displayed within reminds one of just how much there is to learn on a visit to Prince Mohamed Ali Tewfik's museum and botanical gardens. The gardens are surveyed by a majestic, square tower with a quirky observation deck that reminds one of Eero Saarinen's air traffic control tower at Dulles International Airport. Although the prince had long planned to convert the palace into a museum of Islamic art, Johnston's portrayal of his decision to give up his beloved estate captures some of the pathos of the architectural transition from elegance to ugliness in the course of Cairo's modern development, as high-rise apartments gradually encroached on Roda's once green and pleasant shores.
But my favourite example comes with a story attached. The Zaafaran Palace, named for the saffron flowers in a neighboring field, was designed and built at the turn of the century by Antonio Lasciac, court architect of the Ottomans and creator of some of Cairo's most beautiful palaces (see the Kemal Al-Din Palace on Tahrir Square, seemingly under perpetual restoration for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). The Zaafaran belonged to the two surviving wives of the Khedive Ismail's household who had come home to Egypt after a long, but not very hard, exile in Italy, where they had lived for years in a rented palazzo with their husband. The two widows wasted no time in commissioning Lasciac to create a new palace with the latest Art Nouveau adornments. As Johnston writes: "The ladies of the harem had been kept out of sight, but traveling each summer in black silk mantles and white veils, they had seen it all."
Another palace that almost every newcomer to Cairo will note on his or her first taxi ride through Heliopolis to points downtown, was built for Baron Empain. Conspicuous for its wonderfully weird domes, multi-tiered balconies, and figurative decoration based on the Hindu temples of Khajuraho (though the sculptures are modest by comparison), the palace stands alone, exuberant and bizarre, to be gaped at by Cairenes of all stations as they negotiate the city's traffic. The brainchild of architect Alexandre Marcel and collaborator Georges-Louis Claude, the palace was home to the man who created and financed the Paris Metro, as well as the railroads in the Belgian Congo. That's right: it's the heart of darkness living large in the city of the sun, Heliopolis, a suburb also developed by Empain.
Among the many villas presented in the book one notices a tendency to revive and recombine architectural features from different times and places, as when Lasciac matches Italianate facades with Islamic interiors, or when modern architect Hassan Fathi shifts from the mud brick materials of his "Architecture for the Poor" to the reinforced concrete of his Abu Gabal House -- a house which is, as Johnston notes, "spirited and spontaneous in its modernism, but also imbued with the memory of Islamic decoration." From such examples one overcomes the antiquarian impulse to hearken back to some medieval Al-Andalus to find historical moments of vibrant cultural exchange between East and West. Indeed, the proliferation in Egypt of such examples during the period of the British occupation suggests that these many cultural borrowings -- though they signify cultural openness and felicity -- also signify much less at the level of ideology or politics. Like spectacles and gladiatorial events in Roman times, art and architecture helped the elite to convince us of their right to rule, and Egyptian Palaces and Villas captures all the seductive power of the claims of art. If only today's elite had such panache! It's a beautiful book on a subject that needs to be revisited and discussed more often.


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