by Lara Iskander
This palace is hidden in the middle of quite a busy area. Upon arrival, one instantly wonders what the urban surroundings must have looked like in 1897, at the time of its construction.
The area was named after the creator of the Palace, Habib Sakakini Pasha (1841-1923), a Levantine descent businessman whose family immigrated to Egypt at the beginning of the 19th century. It is said that he came to the country when he was 16 years old and worked his way up, finally becoming a rich contractor. The Arabic name Sakakini can be translated as "knife-maker", which some say he earned from his trade in the arms and knives business.
The rococo style and quite fancy architecture of the palace is said to be taken from an Italian palace that Habib Pasha saw and fell in love with. He then ordered an Italian company to create a replica of it in Cairo. The architectural rococo style of the facades was common at the time in Europe, but quite rare in Egypt.
He chose quite an impressive site for his home. The palace stands high in a focal location where eight main roads radiate out, hence making it the center point of the zone. Acquiring such a distinguished location normally would have not been an easy task at the time. However his good connection with the Khedive allowed him such privileges.
View of the first floor terrace;
Main entrance of the palace
As architect and researcher Samir Raffat points out, a close relationship between Habib Sakakini and the Khedive Ismael was developed when he exported by Camel Express sacks full of famished cats to the rat-infested Suez Canal Zone. Within days, the rodent epidemic was resolved. Afterwards, the khedive made good use of the shrewd Syrian, giving him the daunting task of completing the Khedivial Opera House, working under the Italian architect Pietro Avoscani. The task was completed and the Opera House was open in time for the grand ceremonies of the Suez Canal opening on November 17, 1869. The khedive's gratification was boundless and hence, Habib Pashas contracting business and status grew even more. Hence, at the very young age of 39, he was given the Ottoman title Bey.
Habib Sakakini focused much of his efforts on the area known as Fagalla in Cairo, which later was naturally to become the location of his home. He transformed this entire area from a deteriorating district into an up-market residential area. Later, Rome's Leon XIII awarded Sakakini with the papal title of Count in recognition of his services to his community.
View of palace details, statues on the exterior
Today, the palace, with its conical and onion shaped domes and its medieval gargoyles and steeples, seems to be misplaced in the midst of the traffic and modern buildings. Nevertheless, this invaluable architecture still stands proud, though in somewhat of a neglected state.
Designed by Italian architects, it embodies the art of rococo. The bureau that supervised the building process stipulated that no amendments were to be introduced to the palace unless under their supervision.
The exterior of the palace misleads one regarding its size. A look from the outside would never give the impression that the palace contains expansive space and vast interiors. The palace is five stories high with a total floor area of 2,698 square meters. Housed within its walls are 50 rooms and halls with over 400 windows and doors, and a dcor boasting over 300 busts and statues. The bust of Habib Pasha himself is placed above on the palaces entrances. The surrounding gardens are not vast though they do help isolate the palace grounds from the more modern surroundings. The garden contains many statues and fountains of rare nature, all of which were created and designed solely by Italian artists and architects, no doubt completing the Pashas vision of a European palace.
Views from within the ballroom
The interior of the palace still shines in grandeur. The elaborately laid parquet floors, amazingly decorated ceilings, doors and windows and even some mirrors all give us a hint of how luxurious the interiors had been during its day. The dining area still bears its cupboards and food elevator connecting it with the kitchens.
When Habib Sakakini passed away in 1923, the ownership was divided among his heirs. Eventually the family gave the property to the government, though one of Sakakini's grandson's gave his share specifically to the Ministry of Health. He was a doctor and it was his way of contributing to the profession. For some years, the palace was misused and neglected and certainly the Ministry of Health was not the best caretaker of the palace.
Although the palace was placed under the care of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) when it turned 100 years old, only recently has it received much attention. Now it is being considered for restoration with the idea of the building being reused as a museum. Today, a huge project has been launched and detailed studies are underway to assess the structural stability of the palace, given that it suffered some extensive damage by the 1992 earthquake. If it is found to be stable, the restoration project is intended to start immediately.
There is a tentative plan to convert the palace into a museum devoted to the development of medicine from the time of the pharaohs through the present day. The idea will be to display medical tools found during excavations, as well as papyri describing prescriptions for various illnesses and details related to surgery and dentistry. The thought of developing such a museum was inspired by the book, "Egyptian Medicine in the Days of the Pharaohs", published five years ago by one of Egypts distinguished physicians, Nabil Ebeid. The book provides a comprehensive study of pharaonic medicine. It reveals the art of healing in early times and the high levels of perfection it reached.
A main section of the museum will provide significant information about the mummification process, since embalming was one of the medical branches in ancient Egypt. The museum will also include a collection from the Islamic Museum consisting of surgical tools, scales that were used to weigh drugs, perfumes and ointment, and rare medical prescriptions.
A view of the upper palace facade, with a statue of Sakakini overlooking the grounds
Other sections are to include surgical tools of the Byzantine age which are currently on display in the Coptic Museum. It will also include a statue of the Greek god of medicine as well as other medical related statues. Finally an ancient Egyptian collection will be on display including tools that belonged to Kar, the senior physician of the royal family of the fifth dynasty. His cartouche was found on each of his instruments.
The gardens are to be planted with herbal plants and papyrus. Such a scheme might well be the only way to revive the abandoned palace and avoid any more decay or damage to this unique piece of architecture.
The palace is actually open to visitors today. The caretaker will be more than pleased to show people around. It is quite an interesting experience visiting it before any of the work commences. While walking through the empty abandoned rooms, one can picture all its past glory. The gardens are frequently visited by students of art schools, who sit for hours painting the delicate and impressive statues that proudly stand guarding the grounds.
Last Updated: June 12th, 2011
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