Muhammad Ali's Shubra Palace
by Lara Iskander
Muhammad Ali, initially an Albanian general in the Ottoman army who later became a ruler of Egypt, is known to be one of the most prominent and controversial characters in Egypts modern history. Muhammad Ali build himself a retreat palace or an official residence away from the Citadel in the district called Shubra al-kheyma.
Shubra lies north of Bulaq in the vicinity of the Muqqattam hills, south of Cairo, a spot on the bank of the Nile, which he found perfect for the construction of his official residence away from the seat of government. Another probable reason for that location was that Bulaq, at the time, was already undergoing many urban changes given the considerable efforts Muhammad Ali had put into developing a modern industrial infrastructure area.
Muhammad Alis Palace is considered to be one of the first significant structures in Shubra which led to the consecutive changes that the district later underwent. It was first transformed from being a vast rural village to an elegant residential quarter during the 19th century and finally into a crowded middle class zone during the 20th century. The palace was originally built across agriculture land and covered around 150 acres.
The construction started in 1808 -the early years of his reign- and was completed in 1922; however the complex kept undergoing alternation well into the 1870s. Muhammad Ali appointed both Turkish and Armenian architects to design his palace and he requested that the construction would follow the distinctive architectural style of Garden Palaces, similar to other palaces and styles that prevailed in Turkey on the Bosphorus and the Dardanil. As for the interior chambers of the palace, designs followed a varied and mixed styles ranging from Oriental to European approaches unlike the interiors of his other palaces such as the Bijoux Palace built in 1814 or the Harem Palace, now known as the military museum, built in 1827, each of which had a distinctive, clear style.
The palace, which originally consisted of thirteen buildings, was also to be used as a guest house for foreign ambassadors and members of the royal family apart from being the residence of Muhammad Ali. Sadly, only three buildings remain today on the site; the Gabalaya Kiosk used as a separate reception area for guests; the fountain Kiosk, El Faskeyya for receptions and festivals as well as the water wheel building, El Saqya. In addition, the grounds of palace consisted of a large park reaching down to the Nile with a diverse group exotic trees and rare plants, parts of which still remain.
The first building constructed on the site was the main residence palace, al-Salamlik. The palace was annexed with several other constructions set up for employees and guards of the property in addition to an anchorage for Nile boats. In 1820, Muhammad Ali employed French architect, Pascal Coste to enlarge his residence in what might be assumed to be dissatisfaction from his part with the primary results. He then requested an extension or more of a small Versailles with stretches of water surrounded by pavilions and galleries. The addition was to be the Fountain Palace or El-Faskeyya which consists of a colonnade divided into four terraces enclosed by a square pool resembling the yard of a mosque.
The ceilings are painted with decorative flora patterns and portraits of Muhammad Ali and his sons set in medallions. The central marble island of the water basin was used as an opera stage. Surrounding the pool is the cloister-like pavilions, all of white marble, exquisitely sculptured in a neo-classical style. In the four corners of the colonnade, on semi-circular platforms, stand marble lions spouting water into the pool.
The rooms of the building occupy its four corners. The first is a drawing room with an exceptionally beautiful wooden floor inlaid with elaborate designs. In another corner is the billiard room in which one of the walls is decorated in an Italian style. It is said that this was originally the dining room until the 1840s when King Louis-Philippe sent Muhammad Ali a billiard table.
The architectural style of the palace was unique in the way it combined several styles; the European styles were used in the interior decorations such as the paintings of Muhammad Ali and his family which showed Italian and French techniques. On the other hand, other features and patterns of the architectural planning and layouts show evidence of Islamic approaches.
Another interesting aspect that characterizes Muhammad Alis Shubra Palace is that it witnessed the first modern electric lighting system in Egypt added to it in 1820.
The remaining buildings of the palace were known to be built of the finest materials and were richly decorated. The main building, El Haramlik, which usually refers to the more private section of a palace, was built in white marble and was noted for its extravagant decorative and furnishing style.
During World War I, the Haramlik was demolished by Aziza, a member of the royal family, when it was believed that the British were thinking of using it for military purposes. It was rumored that fortunes were made from some recovered materials.
Other parts of the Palace were destroyed during different periods. In the 1930s some part of the garden was destroyed during the construction of the Cairo-Alexandria agricultural road and in 1952 Revolution, the palace garden became the premises of Ain Shams University's Faculty of Agriculture, and parts of the site were turned into a farm, research laboratories and cultivated areas used by students for experiments. This unfortunate decision led to the neglect of the palace over the decades.
The palace finally came under the authority of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in 1978 and was targeted for a restoration project that only took place in 2000 and is approaching an end. The palace grounds now separated from the university area has not yet been opened to the public; however, this ancient revived landmark has finally regained it long lost splendor and is presumed to become one of Cairos major touristic attraction sites.