Anyone wandering through Cairo's Zamalek neighbourhood must have noticed extensive building work taking place around the palace located on the Nile, right next to the Old Boulaq Bridge. A passerby could spot piles of bags with sand and workers moving swiftly across the location surrounded by barricades. In fact, the area houses one of Zamalek's most remarkable palaces, one with historical and cultural importance: Aisha Fahmy Palace also referred to as Mogamaa Al-Fonoon (Arts Complex).
During the many years of restoration, Egypt's consecutive ministers of culture have pronounced several promises on the expected end to restoration and the opening date... all of which were broken. It is now that after many years of work, the Aisha Fahmy Palace is ready to open its halls.
Founded in 1908, by Khedive Abbas Helmy and designed by Antonio Lasciac, the total space of the palace covers over 2,700 square metres, including 30 rooms, two large halls, basement and roof, all richly ornamented.
"The palace was the residence of Ali Fahmy, the head of the army during the reign of King Fouad I," writes Nevine Aref in Al-Ahram Weekly, pointing to the many great ornaments inside the palace, such as frescos, golden Japanese lettering, and red silk decorated walls.
In 1958, the Ministry of Culture bought the palace to be used as an office for Tharwat Okasha, Egypt's first culture minister. In 1971, the palace was taken over by the Ministry of Information. A few years later, in 1975, Youssef El-Sebai annexed the palace to the Visual Arts sector operating under the Ministry of Culture, which he then headed.
Over the years, the palace displayed works by many remarkable international artists (including Picasso and Dali) and served as the museum for Mohamed Ali family's jewellery – before the collection was moved to Alexandria in 1986 – and an active art complex holding a variety of exhibitions, but the deterioration of the building led to consecutive closure of its halls.
Put on Egypt’s heritage list, between 1989 and 1992, the palace saw a few restoration works, yet they mostly targeted its external facade, leaving the internal halls to the fate of humidity, rust and dust, alongside insects and moths.
Turning into one of the several non-operational edifices operating under the Visual Arts sector, in 2010, the Ministry of Culture appointed one of its units, the Cultural Development Fund to bring the palace back to its original glory.
"The restorations have been handled by the Arab Contractors [a construction company]. After over four years, on 4 June the works were completed," Mohamed Abou Seada, head of the Cultural Development Fund tells Ahram Online.
According to information released by the Arab Contractors, back in 2013 "the total work amount [was] about 60% including: strengthening of the basement, ceiling, slabs, wall injections; restoration of the weaving works, ornaments, floors, wood, stained glass, and paintings." The restoration was done in cooperation with the Monument Restoration Department at the Arab Contractors Company and the Ministry of Antiquities.
Waiting for the Visual Arts sector to step in
Works inside Aisha Fahmy Palace (Photo: courtesy of the Cultural Development Fund)
"As the Cultural Development Fund, part of our work is to fund and organise restoration of the important cultural locations. Further activities of the completed location are in the hands of other ministerial sectors," Abou Seada explained, adding that it is now in the hands of the Visual Arts sector to activate the palace.
"Completion of the project is an important achievement for the Fund. The building has a crucial cultural significance and finally it is ready to return to the active cultural scene," Abou Seada said, adding that the total amount poured into the restoration amounts LE30 million (approximately 4 million USD).
Abou Seada also points to the many challenges that the restoration process included. "We cooperated with a number of specialists in the field, often tearing down the covers, in the piles of dust and dirt we were discovering breathtaking gems and decoration. Some layers of wall paint were no longer there, hence we had to involve the historians and researchers to define the original colour of the walls and assure – as much as it was possible – that each detail of this marvellous location will be brought back to its original condition," he explained.
Since the palace will house different temporary exhibitions, the restoration had to put in mind creating settings that will accommodate variant visual demands of each display.
Abou Seada added that though further management and decisions regarding the activities held at the palace are in the hands of the Visual Arts sector, he believes that for the beginning, the viewers will gain access to two main display locations: one dedicated to renowned Egyptian artists with their paintings and sculpture on display, as well as a variety of exhibitions held in the basement. With a separate entrance from the palace's garden, the latter location will provide a platform for young artists to present their work.
"The hall dedicated to young artists will be directly connected to the garden, where a number of other activities – such as music concerts, performances – can take place paralleling the displays," Abou Seada explained.
While Abou Seada hopes that the artistic activities will begin soon, it is now for the Visual Arts sector to announce the palace's management, opening date and plans.