The Art-Inspired Manyal Palace

Written and Photographed by Ahmed Kafafi

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By mid-19th Century, baroque architecture and other Western designs greatly influenced the Middle East and ushered in the recession of traditional Islamic architecture that had flourished for centuries. The outcome of this Westernisation movement was a bevy of constructions as well as palaces such as Al Montaza, Ras Al Teen and Abdin that continue to feature as part of the architectural heritage in both Cairo and Alexandria, all of which were styled after historical buildings in Western capitals.

In Manyal, a Cairo suburb located near the downtown centre, you can spot medieval-styled walls with conspicuous Arabic-Islamic character that are reminiscent of Islamic fortress walls, which protected castles and ancient towns, in the midst of modern constructions and high-rise buildings. The identity of the place remains concealed behind these bulwarks, which are dwarfed by ramifications of mammoth tree branches.

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Inside these walls is the Manyal Palace, which is considered one of the most important historical museums in Egypt, where some of the rarest art pieces in the world are housed.

The palace, completed in 1930, came to stand for a kind of nostalgia for Islamic Medieval architecture and a return to a long-forgotten tradition and a reflection of the character and culture of its owner, Prince Tawfik, the late king Farouk’s cousin. Besides his established reputation as an art lover, Tawfik was the oldest member of the Egyptian royal family. This was why he was recognized as a crown prince when King Farouk was still under age, and he continued to act as such until Farouk took power in 1936 following his father late King Fouad I’s demise.

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Prince Tawfik immersed in Arab as well as foreign cultures, and his religiosity sparked in him a special fondness for Islamic arts. With a devotion to collecting artefacts, the prince sent members of his retinue in search of valuables and rarities. From the ruins of collapsing houses in old Cairo, he would pick all that was of any real artistic or historical value. In addition to what he received as gifts from royals and princes, the globe-trotting royal purchased precious pieces during his long journeys to various parts of the world.

By the time he began construction of the building, he had already accumulated a fortune of treasures, portraits and documents, where the palace, meant to be a museum long before the prince’s death, came as the ideal place to shelter his priceless findings.

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Location

The palace is located on a beautiful spot overlooking one of the Nile branches surrounding Manyal Al Roda, a river island that has now been bridged to the rest of the city.

The palace’s spacious garden is home to lively trees that were brought from equatorial as well as desert and cold surroundings to endow it with a beautiful landscape. For twenty years, the forest-like garden had been leased to the French hotel chain the “Club Méditerranée”, which set up bungalows amidst the palace’s green locales. After the hotel’s contract with the government came to end, the bungalows were removed in order to turn the garden into a public park.

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Architecture and Design

The Manyal Palace combines several Islamic styles that range from Iranian, Fatimid and Egyptian to Moroccan and Syrian.

The interior consists of around ten sections, some of which were part of the prince’s own living quarters, like The Reception Hall and the Residence Palace, while others were built to be museums like the Hunting Museum, Al Sabeel, The Golden Hall, The Private Museum and The Throne Hall.

The palace’s mosque is located near the entrance. Though small, it is a real architectural and decorative masterpiece that reflects the expertise of all the Islamic schools in building and decorating mosques.

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The Hunting Museum is one of the palace’s main attractions that was originally a long passage overlooking the garden. Years after the prince’s death, it turned into a hunting exhibition, which displayed what former King Farouk and Prince Yousif Kamal had caught during their hunting trips in Egypt. A walk around the museum could take hours among embalmed birds, reptiles, gazelle heads and butterflies, among others.

Another interesting area is the Throne Hall, which includes large portraits of the prince’s ancestors, rulers of Egypt and descendants of Mohammed Ali the Great, founder of modern Egypt. The artwork is spread out in the vertical hall that is furnished with red carpets, curtains and chairs. Dwarfing the other chairs, the throne, flanked by two huge crystal chandeliers, is placed next to the founder’s portrait in the hall’s centre. The room’s ceiling is covered with golden decorative items that represent the sun, which stands for aristocracy and the enlightenment brought to the country by the royal family.

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The Mother Hall was the private residence of the prince’s mother, where she stayed whenever she visited. It is complete with a bedroom, a large reception decorated with turquoise tiles and bibelots in addition to a magnificent parlour.

The Private Museum consists of 15 halls exhibiting items that vary from manuscripts, writing tools, clothes and handicrafts to weapons, china, vases and carpets, all of which the prince collected in his lifetime. If that museum reveals the prince as an avid collector, the Reception and Residence Halls give evidence of his taste and artistic approach.

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Since the museum was inaugurated in the 1960s, it has been attracting scores of art students and researchers of all kinds. The palace is among the rare areas that could not be estimated in monetary terms.

The prince willed upon his death that the palace would be dedicated to the posterity to study and appreciate Islamic art, but ironically in 1952, two years before his death, the Egyptian revolution broke out and the palace became a state property, so his wish was fulfilled during his lifetime.

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