In the arched corridor beneath the walls of the Manial Palace in Cairo where the Hunting Museum is located, curators, restorers, designers and workers are all racing against the clock to reach the deadline for the museum’s reopening.
Armed with yellow helmets and grey gloves, workers are putting the showcases in position, while restorers with their white gowns and technical tools are installing a skeleton of a camel that once transported the Kaaba cover, a vast piece of embroidery, from Cairo to Mecca in the early 1900s.
“Work is at full swing,” Elham Salah, head of the Museums Department at the Ministry of Antiquities, told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that the Hunting Museum was scheduled to be officially reopened in mid-February during the mid-term school holiday after a decade of closure.
She said that when Manial Palace was officially inaugurated in 2013 after restoration work, the Hunting Museum was not among the halls that were opened to public. Last month, with a budget of LE140,000 provided by the Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project, the Museums Department began the renovation and restoration of the museum in order to open it to the public during the mid-term holiday.
The museum displays preserved animals, birds and skeletons from the collection of former King Farouk and Princes Mohamed Ali Tewfik and Youssef Kamal collected during their hunting trips. “Among the most beautiful and unique collection on display is the butterfly collection of prince Mohamed Ali Tewfik, the former owner of Manial Palace,” Salah said, adding that the collection consisted of 7,000 butterflies.
Sameh Al-Masri, the designer of the museum’s galleries, has brought the aura of the jungle into the galleries of the Hunting Museum, Salah said, adding that the roar of lions, sound of chickens, screech of eagles, and trumpeting of elephants would echo on the audio system. Visual effects would be used to suggest something of the ambiance in which the objects on display were collected.
Walaa Badawi, director of the Manial Palace, told the Weekly that the story of the museum started after the 1952 Revolution when an inventory was carried out of the property of members of Egypt’s former royal family.
When the committee in charge of the inventory detected a large collection of animals and birds, a section of the arched corridor beneath the palace walls was transformed into a Hunting Museum with 15 galleries displaying 10,000 animals and birds from the collection of former King Farouk, who was very fond with hunting, and princes Youssef Kamal from his palace in Matariya and Mohamed Ali Tewfik in Manial Palace.
The museum was inaugurated in 1963, closing in 2007 for restoration. Even after the reinauguration of the palace, the museum remained closed, however. “In 2015, I took the initiative to call for the restoration of the Hunting Museum as it is unique of its kind in Egypt,” Badawi said.
Funds were found earlier this year, and restoration work started by restorer Manal Abdel-Moneim and her team. Some of the animals were in bad condition due to temperature and humidity fluctuations, but much of the damage was reversible.
Some of the fur and hair of the animals was damaged, and there was evidence of insect infestation. Lions and tigers were in poor condition. Badawi said that the fur was cleaned and missing parts replaced.
The design of the museum is divided into three sections dedicated to animals, birds and butterflies. In the foyer, an alligator given by a Nubian tribe to prince Mohamed Ali Tewfik in the early 20th century is on display.
In addition to the buffalos, falcons, eagles, chickens, ducks, gazelles, wild rats, rabbits, cats and weasels, there are also two huge incisors of an African elephant which were given to Prince Mohamed Ali Tewfik by Sudan.
There are also two life-size complete skeletons of a camel and a horse that were part of the Mahmal, the caravan which transported the cloth that covered the Kaaba (the kiswah) from Egypt to Mecca.
The camel saddle on which the kiswah once rested is on show beside the skeleton. It is made of leather and decorated with pieces of coloured tapestry from Upper Egypt embellished with foliage and geometric motifs. The gilded design of the old Egyptian flag consisting of a crescent and three stars is also imprinted on it.
A map highlighting hunting locations around Egypt that were used by prince Mohamed Ali Tewfik is also among the Museum collections, as well as two large maps showing those of birds. Panels showing the original location of every animal on display and information about its habitat are also provided in the museum.
At the end of the visitor route, there is a workshop for children. This is part of the museum’s education department and is intended to increase children’s awareness of their heritage. The workshop helps children to draw the animals they have seen in their museum locations.
The Manial Palace was built in 1901 by Prince Mohamed Ali, the son of Khedive Tewfik and cousin of King Farouk, in a revived Islamic architectural style, unlike the European style usually employed for the royal family’s other palaces.
The prince chose Roda Island in Cairo as the location of the Palace because of its beautiful vegetation, including Banyan trees, cedars, royal palms and Indian rubber trees, part of the Bostan Al-Kebir (the large gardens) established in 1829 by the prince’s great-grandfather Ibrahim Pasha.
“Prince Mohamed Ali was on a mission to resurrect the old gardens in a large dedicated enclosure henceforth known as the Manial Palace,” Salah said. Rare species from around the world were introduced to the gardens.
The prince thought of the palace as an expression of Islamic art. Its façade and gates are reminiscent of a Fatimid fortress, while the main entrance employs a 14th-century Iranian design. The two towers are in the style of Fatimid minarets.
Elements of Mameluke architecture can be seen in the palace’s Saray Al-Iqama (domestic spaces), especially in the main gate, as well in its use of mashrabiya and the glass-embedded windows that overlook an Andalusian-style fountain. The palace’s mosque is built in the Moroccan style, while the throne room is in Ottoman style.
The latter style dominates the interior of the palace, which boasts a rare collection of 350 Turkish carpets, chandeliers, shell-encrusted arabesque ensembles, exquisite wall ceramics and a sun-ring motif decorating the ceilings.
“The palace is also home to a rare collection of antiques that the prince collected from different parts of the world or picked out of the rubble of collapsing Mameluke and Ottoman houses in Egypt,” Salah told the Weekly.
She said the prince was keen to turn his palace into a museum, and in 1908 registered it on Egypt’s Heritage List of Islamic Monuments. He devoted the annual revenue from some 2,213 feddans of arable land to its maintenance, but this was sequestrated after the 1952 Revolution.
“The palace itself was never sequestrated, as it was registered as an antiquity,” Salah said, adding that in the prince’s will he gave directions to convert the palace into a state museum.
However, in 1965, ten feddans of the Palace gardens were brought under the jurisdiction of the Tourism Authority, which leased the land to a French company that constructed two-storey wooden tourist chalets on the land.
The company filled in a lake and cut down trees to provide its new hotel with a swimming pool and tennis court.
In 1984, a ministerial decree designated the palace and its gardens as an antiquity, but the company did not vacate the gardens until 1994. In 1997, a renovation plan was launched for the re-opening of the then Manial Palace Hotel. A ministerial decree was issued that same year, stipulating the removal of the hotel and all encroachments on the building and gardens.
The Ministry of Culture later won the argument over the building’s future. In 2000, the ministry cleared the site of 18 bungalows, a complex with a capacity of 300 rooms, and the hotel’s kitchens and swimming pool.
A restoration project was launched, but major work on the palace’s restoration only started in 2005.
Salah and Badawi inspecting the displaying scenario
This article was originally published in Al-Ahram Weekly