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Manial Palace

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The Manyal Palace

The Manial Palace is said to have been built for Prince Mohammad Ali between 1899 and 1929. The palace was given to the Egyptian nation in 1955. Prince Muhammad Ali is the first cousin of King Faruq and the younger brother of Khedive Abbas II Hilmi. The complex consists of six structures. Among these structures is a museum in which Faruq's hunting trophies are found, the prince's residence and furnishings and a museum in which some of the family's memorabilia are found. There are also gardens that have beautiful plants and flowers that are worth seeing. The palace also includes a collection of manuscripts, carpets, textiles, brass work and crystal. Items that can be seen here are a table made of elephant ears and a 1000-piece silver service. On part of the original grounds a hotel has been built called the Meridian Hotel.

When he commissioned Sheikh Mohammed Afifi to execute his magnificent Oriental alcazar, Prince Mohammed-Ali Tewfik chose the island of Roda. It was out of harm's way mainly from the dust and turmoil of a modernizing Cairo. In view of its unique topography, the silt-laden island still offered as its main attraction the remains: Banyan, Cedars, Royal Palms and Indian rubber trees--remnants of the Bostan al-Kebir or Big Gardens started in 1829 by the prince's great-grandfather, Viceroy Ibrahim Pasha.

A modern day Ibn Batuta, the well-traveled, European-educated prince was bent on reviving what remained of the fabled gardens in a large dedicated enclosure henceforth known as the Manial Palace.

Born in the floradora palace of Kobbeh north of Cairo, then on the edge of the desert, Mohammed-Ali Tewfik retained vivid recollections of its "garden of a thousand delights" his own terms when describing it in his unpublished biography.

Following the partial completion of Manial Palace in 1900 the prince and his head gardener took off for the four corners of the globe in search of saplings and one-of-a-kind floral species with which to enrich the palace gardens. The pride of the collection consisted of several cacti acquisitions from Mexico.

It was therefore against a background of luxuriant tropical and desert plants that the five detached palace buildings formed the ensemble of Manial Palace where Turco-Islamic architecture prevailed. Whether in the salamlik--reception quarters, the haramlik--main residence; the throne room, the golden hall or the palace mosque, Turkish ceramics from Iznik and Kutahaya adorned the walls.

The palace's plaster and wooden ceilings were decorated with intrinsic designs and works of art from which hung giant Turkish and glass mishkas--chandeliers. And if the darkened and confined arabesque living quarters and salons abounded with Turkish jades, Persian opals and inestimable ceramics, the palace's marble and wooden floors were covered with priceless oriental carpets forming one of the world’s most important collection. The walls meanwhile were grafted with Sermas-silk embroideries and portraits of Egyptian and Turkish royals, some of them especially painted by court favorite Hedayat.

Indeed the traveling prince had the eye for what was unique and beautiful. From the fallen palaces in al-Shaam (Greater Syria) he purchased inimitable pieces that included meticulous wooden and mother of pearl ceilings, Mamluk-era doors and exquisite glass lamps. From forgotten yalis and sarays on the Bosphorous the prince saved many an objet d’art and irreplaceable artifacts from destruction. He would simply purchase the entire collection be it a gilded hall or a fac simile gallery around which he constructed an new section within his Manial residence thus accommodating his priceless discoveries.

While difficult to distinguish between the private and public areas of the haramlik, the fanciful divan with its lookout tower is probably where the prince wrote his polished publications describing his travels. Somewhere by the southern corner of the palace gardens stood a menagerie, home to sub-Saharan fauna many of which had been personally hunted by the prince. Situated nearby were the royal stables stocked with Arabian thoroughbreds, some of which had traveled with the Mohammed-Ali Tewfik to Europe daunting French countesses and English lords.

British diplomat Sir Ronald Storrs took a liking to Prince Mohamed Ali Tewfik describing him in his book Orientations as someone who revived Oriental splendors at his Manial Palace and characterized by his courtly bearing and graceful entertainment; his fine devotion to his mother" and "his great 'lucky' emerald ring".

But the 'lucky' ring was not enough to change the prince's destiny. Twice Egypt's Heir Presumptive (1892-99 & 1936-52) and for a short while head of the Regency Council, the prince never made to the throne. Yet it appears he was prepared for such an eventuality for tucked away in his palace gardens is a facsimile throne room. Whether out of design and ambition or simply another fetish with which to embellish his wondrous environment, the intent of this unique hall remains a riddle. In any case the throne-room-that-never-was remained a venue where the tidily attired prince--best known for his precariously slanted tarboush--held virtual court directing etiquette and protocol.

Several contemporaries attest the palace salons were never without grace. Aziza Sabit, one of the prince's younger relations remarks that "privileged friends and select members within the royal entourage were sporadically invited to a variety of genteel lectures, concerts and poetry readings. Tea at Manial Palace were elaborate affairs where Turkish Delights were served next to French pastries and Petit Four." It appears that at these selective encounters conversation was conducted in a simultaneous hushed babble of Turkish, French and English, for although the prince spoke excellent Arabic, it was a tongue alien to most of his highborn peers.

For other kinds of entertainment are the music, billiard, fencing and reading rooms situated directly above the movie-set throne hall.

It was at Manial Palace that the prince's houseguest, Camille Saint-Saens, gave private recitals and composed some of his music including Piano Concerto no. 5 "The Egyptian".

With the birth of King Farouk's only son in January 1952, the thought of reigning over Egypt was forever erased from the septuagenarian prince's mind. In any case, Mohammed Ali's dynasty was to rendezvous with a fatal blow the following July when the Free Officers did away with Egypt's tottering monarchy.

Like his older brother who died in exile in Geneva (1944) after having ruled Egypt for almost 22 years, Prince Mohammed-Ali Tewfik also expired overseas, in a third floor suite at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Ouchy-Lausanne, Switzerland, not far from Chateau de Lancy where he had studied as a schoolboy. His sister Nimet Kamaleldine, at Cap Ferrat at the time, was the only family member available to handle the immediate burial details sur place. And despite his having prepared for himself an elaborate marble mausoleum in Cairo as a final resting-place the sometime heir-apparent to Egypt's throne was eventually laid to rest in an unpretentious tomb next to his brother and father at the Afifi Cemetery in Cairo. "Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the planned mausoleum was dismantled and the marble used many years later for President Gamal Abdel Nasser's own tomb" remarks his grandnephew.

Just as he had planned his final resting-place, Prince Mohammed-Ali Tewfik left specific instructions regarding Manial Palace. In the early 1930s, the childless prince decreed that the palace and its newly added private museum were to be turned into a Wakf--trust with the intention that after his death its entirety should serve as a museum of antiquities. Similarly, the garden would become a public park. Year round maintenance of palace, museum, garden and annexes were also taken care of with a guaranteed annual revenue from the prince's vast agricultural property at Kfour Naga.

But before the prince's wishes could be honored, a turbulent interim period intruded with dire consequences. Exactly when is difficult to say yet it was during the second decade of the republic that the palace gardens succumbed to the first post-monarchy attempts at tourism promotion. For starters, rudimentary wooden cabanas were potted between the park's magnificent trees so libidinous Club Med holiday makers could frolic freely with the consent of palace's new caretaker--the newly formed ministry of tourism.

Then came the winding cement alleys carved out of the floral base and a large swimming pool dug out where unique tropical trees had once stood. What escaped the Rothschilds-owned holiday factory went to a mélange of government departments so that an army of futile bureaucrats and civil servants, most of them insensitive to their unique surroundings, replaced what had formerly been the exclusive preserve of royal guards, black eunuchs and trained palace personnel.

The Golden Hall meanwhile became the scene of sundry Sadat-era mega-weddings. And where poetry readings and piano recitals had once filled the rarefied palace halls, belly dancers and gawking commoners were pounding the floor to the sounds of disco music. Such festive occasions were alien in the prince's days. In fact, his 1941 betrothal to his French companion of many years, Suzanne Hemon, had been such a private affair few realized Prince Mohammed-Ali Tewfik was married.

When in September 1940 a few privileged Egyptian and Ottoman royals attended the wedding of the prince's nephew to a granddaughter of Turkey's last sultan, not even the tiniest zagroota--ululation had been allowed. All one ever heard coming out of the palace was the occasional drawn out cry of a karawan--nightingale going to sleep or the chirp of some migratory specie in blissful transit.

 

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