Street smart: Before the Immobilia Building

Nabil Shawkat , Sunday 1 May 2011

When you stand at the intersection of Qasr el-Nil and Sherif today, what you see right across from the central bank is a multi-story building that was, when it was built in 1936, the pride and joy of downtown Cairo


It doesn’t look as imposing today as it once did. Its austere geometric lines, once the mark of modern sophistication, are no longer refreshing. The fancy restaurants that once inhabited the ground floor are gone, although there is a simple restaurant that serves Egyptian meals at the entrance.

If you’re familiar with Egyptian cinema stars of the mid-twentieth century, walk into Immobilia’s front courtyard, and at the right gate check the plaque announcing that Naguib al-Rihani, one of Egypt’s best-loved comedians, once lived there.

But before the Immobilia building was built, its place was occupied by a three-story villa built in the Mamluk style for the horse-trainer of Khedive Ismail. Back in the mid-1860s, the entire area of what is now the centre of Cairo was leafy, quiet, and sparsely-populated.

This was the exclusive part of town, designated by Khedive Ismail for his top aides and friends.

Ismail, who received his education in Paris, wanted to wean Egyptians from their medieval habits. He didn’t want to be seen as a ruler of a people who lived in the inaccessible, maze-like communities known as harat, the gated communities of the Middle Ages. 

He was sick of the humidity in the marshlands around Bab el-Louk, weary of the repeated outbreaks of cholera and typhoid, and immensely jealous of the elegant boulevards of Paris.

Ismail was determined to change Egypt. The energetic ruler (1863-1879), started by negotiating a new title for himself. In 1867, he became khedive, a title borrowed from Persian whose meaning was as little known to his contemporaries as it is to ours, thus ditching the more easily understood title, wali (meaning ruler or man in charge), which he deemed unfashionable.

In architecture, his taste was strictly European, as you can tell by looking at the Abdeen Palace, which he started building immediately after taking power. Interestingly enough, a lot of his aides, especially the Armenians and French, had more oriental tastes.

Nubar Nubarian, the foreign secretary who negotiated the title of khedive for him, built a Moorish house near Azbakiya lake. The horse-trainer who lived on the corner of Qasr al-Nil and Sherif Streets went for a medieval Mamluk villa, with striped walls and mashrabiya windows, says Mercedes Volait, who has written an informative book called “Fous Du Caire” (Madmen of Cairo).

According to Volait, when Ismailia, or what is now called downtown, was established, its central part was occupied by a hippodrome, or a horse racing track. The hippodrome covered the area between Emaddeddin and Sherif Streets, bordered by what is now Kasr al-Nil Street to the south and Tharwat Street to the north.

The villa of the horse-trainer of Khedive Ismail, a Frenchman by the name of Gaston de Saint-Maurice (1831-1905), occupied the same site as the Immobilia building today.

Gaston was a lover of Islamic art. So he bought the entire flooring and wall cladding of an Arab qa’a, the main reception room in a grand oriental house, usually composed of two sitting areas and a fountain entrance in the middle.

In houses of the Arab and Ottoman elite, a qa’a would be tiled with a colourful mosaic of marble slabs, the walls would be embellished with floral and calligraphic patterns, and the wooden ceilings would be painted in geometric or floral shapes.

The qa’a that Gaston bought was missing part of the roof, so he ordered a replica of the shokhsheikha (skylight) of the Mesaferkhana (in Gammaliya, not far from Khan al-Khalili but now damaged by fire) to be made for his home.

It is very interesting the way two aesthetic waves were heading in opposite directions - the East heading West and the West heading East.

The ruler of Egypt, Khedive Ismail was born in the oriental-style royal guesthouse called Mesaferkhana, and spent most of his life running away from everything oriental or medieval, seeking to modernise the country at breakneck speed. His horse-trainer, who came from European stock, was doing the exact opposite. He was collecting Islamic artefacts as fast as he could get his hands on them.

As the khedive pulled down houses to build Abdeen Palace and evacuated homes to start his mega-projects -  Mohammad Ali Street and Ismailia - many artefacts were emerging onto the market, and the “orientalists” who came to work in his service were snatching these up as they appeared.

There are surviving pictures of Gaston’s house, reprinted in “Fous du Caire”, but most importantly, the artefacts and most of the interiors haven’t been lost to posterity. The qa’a of the house is still in Cairo, although it has been moved to Giza, and the Islamic objets d’art are in a European museum.

In 1884, the French embassy bought Gaston’s house and kept it till the mid-1930s, when it was sold it to a consortium of developers led by the shipping magnet Abboud Pash. The consortium pulled down Gaston’s villa and built the Immobilia in its place.

When the embassy moved out, it dismantled the qa’a decoration and used it to embellish its new building. If you go to the French embassy in Giza, look around for the marble panelling and the delicately carved wood dating back to the seventeenth century. Also, take a good look at the front door which once belonged to Gaston. It is from the fourteenth century and believed to be from the Madrasa Zahiriya in Gammaliya.

Gaston sold his collection of Islamic art to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where it remains to this day.

The book Mercedes Volait, Fous du Caire (L’archange Minotaure, 2009) is sold at Livres de France on 17 Brazil Street, Zamalek .

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