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At home with the royals
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 22 - 10 - 2009

A new book on the Al-Tahra Palace gives a fascinating insight into the domestic lives of Egypt's former royal family and is a lively trip into Egypt's recent past, writes Giovanna Montalbetti
After its volume on Abdeen Palace, Abdeen Palace: The Jewel of 19th Century Cairo, CULTNAT has now released another book, Al-Tahra Palace: A Gem in a Majestic Garden, the second volume in a series of books on Egypt's presidential palaces, a project that was originally conceived as a group of complimentary books for presidential guests. Other presidential palaces to be featured in the collection will be the Qubba Palace in Cairo and Alexandria's Montazah and Ras Al-Teen palaces.
Luckily for us, the project has evolved since its inception, and these beautiful books are now available to a broader audience, providing an enlightening account of Egypt's recent history through its architectural and artistic heritage. This in itself is one of the major accomplishments of the series, but it is not the only one, since the books will have Arabic versions to make them even more accessible to local readers. This matches the project's spirit, which takes pride in the books being "100 per cent Egyptian products", their being entirely written and produced by Egyptians.
Under the auspices of Zakaria Azmi, head of the presidential cabinet, the team led by Heba Nayel Barakat, editor of the present volume, has more than met the challenge that is the Al-Tahra Palace. The present volume is different in form to the volume on the Abdeen Palace as, unlike Abdeen, Al-Tahra was never an official royal residence, but was instead the personal property of Queen Farida and later King Farouk.
King Farouk fell in love with the Al-Tahra Palace on visits to his cousin and friend Mohamed Tahir Pasha, who had inherited the property from his mother, Princess Amina. In 1939, he bought the property as a gift for Queen Farida. Being a private possession, the palace did not benefit from government maintenance or refurbishment as the other royal palaces did, and this may have encouraged Farouk to select items to decorate the palace from treasures stored in other palace store-rooms.
As a result, the king's personal taste permeated the Al-Tahra Palace in various ways, as described in the present book, from the architectural additions and modifications and the original structure to the decoration and gardens. As this book demonstrates, the objects in the Al-Tahra Palace not only have artistic value, but also a sentimental one, reflecting the owner's character as well as the historical circumstances.
Because of its official role as a royal residence, the treasures contained at Abdeen Palace form a catalogue of items classified as furniture, clocks, etc., on official inventories. Since the Al-Tahra Palace was more of a home for the former royal family, Barakat's team have wisely settled for an approach that blends items and their history with the rooms in which they are found, achieving a livelier account than in the former book. The result is a fascinating and lively trip into Egypt's recent past.
The book is divided into three parts: a compelling historical introduction, a section on the palace building, which includes an explanation of the characteristics of the main furnishing and furniture styles, and a chapter devoted to the gardens. Each part is written by experts, and equilibrium is kept between the three sections. The team producing the book has done commendable research work that included going through all the available archives and even contacting the families of the original architects and manufacturers involved. This effort is felt throughout the text, which is both instructive and entertaining.
Moreover, the visual content of this new volume is superior to that of the previous book on Abdeen. The choice of Sherif Sonbol as photographer has proved a good one, as he successfully meets the challenge of giving a faithful portrait of the spaces without sacrificing the artistic quality of the images. He has a gifted eye for detail. Even when constrained by the technical demands of the authors, Sonbol manages to produce images full of beauty and life. Looking at his pictures, the reader feels that a table is not just a piece of furniture, but is a character conveying a story and one that invites the reader to look further into the text.
The volume also contains an important amount of archival content. The result is a walk through time, in which the lives of architects, owners and visitors intertwine with that of the building and its treasures, weaving a tapestry of Egypt's modern history.
However, while the quality of the book makes it stand out like a valuable gem, as often happens with precious stones it needs some further polishing. The writing, for example, could be found confusing, especially in the historical section, unless the reader is already acquainted with Egypt's history before the 1952 Revolution. This is curious when one remembers that the book was originally intended as a gift for foreign visitors, who might nevertheless feel slightly baffled by the lack of chronological continuity in the finished volume and the shifting of focus from one character to another.
The photo captions can be quite perplexing too. Many photographs have no captions at all, and not all of the items are easily identifiable from reading the book. When present, the captions sometimes fail to explain the images. On several occasions the captions do not match the photographs they describe, which is puzzling.
Sometimes, as in the case of the "warrior on horseback fighting a lion" depicted on the Persian Qajar carpet in the Grand Hall on the first floor of the palace, the caption seems to have been written for a photograph that has been substituted by the one that actually appears in the book. At other times, the caption repeats inaccuracies found in the main text. Of these, the most striking case is that of the "creatures" or "winged dragons" on the staircase chandelier that the text fails to identify as griffons, despite these being a popular form of iconography in architecture, art and heraldry.
Since the book stresses botany and horticulture, it would have been interesting to have captions with at least the plant names below the photographs included in the book, though none are in fact included before page 205. Although the reader is constantly reminded of the importance of the palace gardens, and of their faithfulness to the original design, one is surprised to find that only six plants are discussed in the book's botanical section out of the 48 listed on one of the garden plans. No clue is given as to why these plants were selected over the others. The description of only one flower seems slightly inconsistent with the role of the gardens as a "pleasure garden", described in the text as being full of flowers and perfumes.
The quality of the photographs could also have been improved, as this does little justice to Sonbol's photographs and does not match the overall quality of the book. Too often, the images seem to have a yellowish tinge, and in some cases the photo correction work is definitively clumsy. In one of the garden images one can actually see the place where a building has been deleted, while the tampering with the photograph of the bathroom is hideous.
Although one may accept the need to cover up the nude statue of Phryne devant ses juges -- a masterpiece by Campagne -- it is a shame that this has been done in such an unprofessional way. Ironically, the result is that the reader will probably wonder what there was to hide in the first place and may feel tempted to look through the rest of the book to see if other images have also been censored. With a more professional and discreet correction, one would have been able to look at this photograph without constantly being distracted by the mutilated statue.
However, these small flaws can easily be overlooked when compared to the quality of the volume as a whole. Many jewels posses value and beauty despite small imperfections, and Al-Tahra Palace: A Gem in a Majestic Garden falls into this category. It is a must-have for anyone interested in art, history and Egyptian heritage, and it is testimony to the praiseworthy work being done by CULTNAT.


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