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Timely warning
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 01 - 07 - 2004

The collapse of the throne hall ceiling in Prince Mohamed Ali's Manial Palace has set alarm bells sounding over the condition of this exquisite edifice, considered a fine example of Islamic art. Nevine El-Aref reports
It was an ordinary, peaceful working day at Prince Mohamed Ali's Manial Palace. Its tall, Fatimid-style gates greeted the visitors who came to roam through the rare botanical garden, exquisite halls and several detached buildings, all bearing a blend of Fatimid and Mameluke styles tinged with Ottoman elements, and drawing also on Persian, Andalusian, Syrian, and Moroccan taste.
The serenity was suddenly shattered by an earsplitting roar. A part of the false ceiling, constructed in 1945 to reduce the weighting load of the large copper chandelier on the original ceiling of the throne hall, had collapsed.
"I was really shocked when I heard of the disaster, but my fears were calmed when I inspected the site and realised that the original cement ceiling of the throne hall was safe in situ," Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Hosni described the incident as "an advantage of a disadvantage" because the collapse uncovered the hall's original architectural design, which in turn will provide a correct and accurate model for the restoration and preservation of the ceiling area. He said all the false ceilings found in the various halls of the palace would be detached from their original ceilings in order to prevent any further similar disasters, especially since the iron bars used to maintain the false ceilings dated back to the year 1901. This was the year when Prince Mohamed Ali, the son of Khedive Tawfiq, built the palace at the southern tip of Roda Island in an attempt to revive the Islamic architectural style, as opposed to the European style commonly adopted for the royal family's palaces.
Immediately after the ceiling's collapse, the Ministry of Culture cancelled the restoration contract signed four years ago with a contractor who had slowed down the progress of the restoration work. By a direct order, the project was reassigned to another contractor who immediately began the restoration as planned.
The original comprehensive restoration project was launched by the Ministry of Culture in 2000 to remove the encroachments made on the palace gardens since the early 1960s. All royal palaces became public property after the 1952 Revolution, and the Egyptian General Organisation for Tourism and Hotels (EGOTH) had transformed the garden of the palace into a hotel.
The project also aims at restoring the various buildings that make up the palace. Cracks will be repaired, walls cleared and new ventilation and lighting systems will be installed in the palace and its garden. The museum's display will be reorganised, and visits will be designed in such a way as to allow visitors not only to view the items on display, but also to enjoy strolling around the marvelous palace gardens.
In the restoration plan the swimming pool built by EGOTH will be replaced by a small lake, while the bungalows, built by Prince Mohamed Ali for his servants and guards will stand beside a garden featuring exotic tree species similar to those cultivated in the vast garden of the palace. An index of every single tree and plant cultivated in the garden will be created, with each entry providing information about an individual plant including its name, species, age and place of origin.
As for the building used for the erstwhile hotel staff, many suggestions have been made. Museum experts want to transform it into the headquarters of a network connecting all the country's museums, while others would like to see it used as an administrative building to replace the original administrative complex built by the prince for his employees.
In July 2000, only the first phase of this project was executed. At the time some 50 labourers, archaeologists and cultivation experts demolished 18 bungalows, a complex with a capacity of 300 residential rooms, and the kitchen, bathrooms, and swimming pool, but without causing any harm to either the building or the garden as a result.
"It is a limited destruction that could easily be restored and repaired," Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Zahi Hawass said of the ceiling incident. He admitted that a vase had been broken, along with some wooden decorative elements, while all the other pieces of furniture in the hall had been out of harm's way.
To preserve the 450 artefacts exhibited from any further damage that could occur during restoration, they have been removed, cleaned, numbered, packed and stored in the palace storeroom. In addition the ceiling and walls of the first floor of the palace have been retained behind wooden scaffolding until the removal, restoration and reinstallation of the deteriorated ceiling starts.
An inspection committee to examine every ceiling and wall within the palace gates has already been set up, Culture Minister Hosny said. Ceramic tiles and all the palace's decorative elements would be subjected to comprehensive and delicate restoration.
After the completion of the outdoor restoration, Hawass said, an interior designer specialising in displaying royal artefacts would be assigned to arrange the display according to the latest museological themes.

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