On the banks of the Nile in the Cairo district of Shubra Al-Kheima set in a splendid park planted with rare trees and shrubs stands 19th-century Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha’s Shubra Palace.
Only part of the palace survives today, but following the completion of conservation work and with its reopening to the public scheduled soon, it should look as majestic as it did more than 200 years ago.
Although the palace was also restored and reopened to visitors in 2005, it was closed in 2010 as several ceilings were damaged. In 2015, the Saraya Al-Fasqiya, a nymphaeum complex used for receptions and festivals, and the Gabalaya kiosk building, used as a residence for women, were damaged by a bomb outside the neighbouring National Security building.
According to a cooperation protocol between the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces to conserve a collection of eight monuments including the Baron Empain Palace in Heliopolis, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Fustat, the Elyahu Hanavi Synagogue and the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, a comprehensive restoration project for both the Saraya Al-Fasqiya and the Gabalaya kiosk began in 2017 after the completion of an architectural study carried out in cooperation with the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University.
The Gabalaya building was in a poor state of conservation. The decorations on the doors had been damaged by the bomb, and all 21 stained-glass windows in the building’s dining room were broken. The glasswork on the façades of the western and eastern entrances of the building were destroyed, while cracks had spread over the walls and floors, the most critical in the northwest corner of the building and northern section. Several lamps had fallen and were broken.
The walls of the Saraya Al-Fasqiya building were traced with cracks, the ceilings painted with decorative foliage motifs and portraits of Mohamed Ali and his sons set in medallions had lost some of their elements, and other parts of the building were damaged by rot. Parts of the marble bestiary, featuring frogs, lions, serpents, fish and crocodiles, on the water fountain were damaged, and there were problems in the drainage system.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli accompanied by Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany embarked on an inspection tour of the conservation work being carried out according to a timetable that will see the buildings reopening this year.
“Conservators and engineers have succeeded in carrying out several parts of the conservation project,” Hisham Samir, assistant to the minister for engineering, told Al-Ahram Weekly. He explained that the restoration work on the Gabalaya kiosk had been 100 per cent completed, and 93 per cent of the restoration of the Saraya Al-Fasqiya had also been completed.
All the lamps and chandeliers in the Gabalaya building have been dismantled and restored, the doors and windows have been restored, and the cracks on the façade repaired. The foundations of the Gabalaya complex have been strengthened and protected from future damage by the implementation of a micro-pile system by installing sharp pointed columns beneath the complex to reinforce its foundations.
At the Saraya Al-Fasqiya building, most of the painted ceilings, the marble channels of the fountain basin, the marble columns and the decorative plaster ceilings of the halls and corridors have been cleaned and restored.
The outdoor landscape around the Gabalaya kiosk has been replanted, as has the surrounding area. A pedestrian bridge connecting the palace to a new Corniche-side marina has been created, and 60 per cent of it has been finished. A tourist walkway leading to the bridge has been created and will include a group of bazaars and cafeterias.
Egypt’s Versailles: The Shubra Palace was once known as the “Egyptian Versailles” and saw comprehensive restoration in 2000 to save its exquisite early 19th-century buildings, which feature a blend of rococo and baroque styles.
Complete with groves of shrubs, a labyrinth, a hippodrome, and a great expanse of water surrounded by galleries flanked by four pavilions, it also includes a mosque and large avenues lined with trees.
However, this magnificent palace, built over 13 years from 1808 to 1821 on an area of 11,000 feddans, has lost many of its features over the years. It originally consisted of 13 buildings used by Mohamed Ali Pasha as a guest house for foreign ambassadors and members of his family.
During World War I, the haramlik (main palace) was demolished by Aziza, a member of the royal family, when it was rumoured that the British were thinking of using it for military purposes.
In 1935, king Fouad used the buildings as temporary residences for members of the royal family, and parts of the garden was destroyed during the construction of the Cairo-Alexandria Road.
A few years after the 1952 Revolution, the palace garden became the premises of the Ain Shams University Faculty of Agriculture, and the site was turned into a farm complete with chicken coops, rabbit hutches, a barn, research laboratories and cultivated areas used by students for experiments.
Three sections of the original complex are still in place today: the Gabalaya, used as a residence for women (haramlik); the Saraya Al-Fasqiya, used for receptions and festivals, and the Saqiya (well), which once supplied the palace with water from the Nile.
In 1984, a presidential decree was issued to list the palace and its gardens on Egypt’s Antiquities List and hand it over to the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), which in turn would transform it into a museum.
Although the decree was designed to put an end to the misuse of the palace, it triggered a conflict with Ain Shams University. The Faculty of Agriculture refused to evacuate the buildings, and the SCA did not want to start the restoration work as long as it was still occupying them.
In 2000, when a restoration project was launched to save the palace, then in dire need of repair, the Faculty of Agriculture agreed to build a wall separating the palace from the garden while the chicken coops and rabbit hutches which had encroached on the Saqiya, as well as a student hostel, were moved from the site. A separate entrance was also created.
The palace was then reopened in 2005 after the completion of the restoration work, closing again in 2010.
Mokhtar Al-Kassabani, a professor of Islamic Architecture at Cairo University, told the Weekly that the Shubra Palace was built in the distinctive “garden palace” style introduced by Mohamed Ali during the first half of the 19th century when urbanisation changed Shubra from being an area of agricultural land to a suburb of Cairo.
The palace is embellished with Italian, French and Arabic decorative elements. Its main building, demolished during World War I, was built in white marble in the early 19th-century Orientalist style, with loggias and balconies adorned with metalwork and stucco arabesques.
As the palace was reputed to have had splendid decorations and furnishings, fortunes were said to have been made from the materials salvaged when it was demolished, which included paintings set into the walls.
Al-Kassabani said that the only parts that had survived the destruction was the kiosk and the Saraya Al-Fasqiya, featuring a vast square fountain with a marble island at its centre. Surrounding the fountain is a cloister-like colonnade broken by four advancing terraces, all in white marble, exquisitely sculptured in a neo-classical, almost Pompeian style.
The building and colonnades are enclosed on the garden side by a wall composed mainly of amber-coloured windows and four doorways opposite the advancing terraces.
In the four corners of the colonnade, on semi-circular platforms, stand marble lions spouting water into the pool. The ceilings of the cloisters are painted with decorative motifs, among which is a portrait of Mohamed Ali set in a medallion, and, in the opposite ceiling across the water, a corresponding one of his son Ibrahim.
The rooms of the building are grouped in the four corners. On the right, when entering the colonnade, there is a drawing room with an exceptionally beautiful parquet floor inlaid with intricate designs made of rosewood. This is surmounted by a heavily sculptured ceiling painted dark blue and gold, with a handsome chandelier hanging from its centre. The room is furnished with 19th-century chairs in the style of Louis XV lined up against the walls.
Two other suites in the corners of the building were used as bedrooms, with all the walls and ceilings gaily painted with oriental arabesques. In the fourth corner is the billiard room. The wall on the right on entering is decorated in the Italian manner of the period, depicting a romantic landscape with classical ruins; it is almost a trompe l’oeil, but the flowing architectural lines that frame it are very Turkish.
The three remaining walls are almost all taken up with windows, with the whole length facing them a deep divan. “Originally this was the dining room, until king Louis-Philippe of France (1830-1848) sent Mohamed Ali a billiards set, with superbly sculptured bronze-handled cues, and he housed it there,” Al-Kassabani said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly