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Muhammad Ali Pavilion at Shubra

By: Amgad Refai
View ProfileMuhammad Ali* was born in 1769 in Kavalla, Macedonia; his Ethnic Background is unknown, though he may have been an Albanian and was certainly Muslim. His father, Ibrahim Agha, the commander of a small provincial military force that was maintained by the governor of Kavalla, died when Muhammad Ali was a boy, and he was brought up by the governor. At 18 he was married to one of the governor's relatives, as she was rich. He became involved in the tobacco trade, an experience that may account for his later commercial interest.

In 1798 Egypt was occupied by the French force under Napoleon Bonaparte. Muhammad Ali went there as part of an Ottoman Expeditionary force to oppose the French. With great political skills he managed, by 1805, to be named The 'Wali', the Ottoman Sultan's Viceroy in Egypt, with the rank of 'Pasha'.

In 1841 Muhammad Ali succeeded in guaranteeing for his family the Hereditary right to rule Egypt and Sudan; then he retired from the office in 1848, and died 2nd August 1849.

Muhammad Ali built many palaces in Cairo. One of the most beautiful is that located in Shubra. Shubra used to be an island in the middle of the Nile, known as Elephant 'Elfiel' Island, then with the silting up of the Nile mud it became connected to the land, to become what is now known as 'Shubra' and 'Rod El-Farag'.

Pavilion at Shubra

Muhammad Ali decided to build a palace for himself away from the official residence (The Citadel), which is why he chose this place on the river banks at Shubra. In order to reach the palace from Cairo, in 1847 Muhammad Ali constructed Shubra Street, the straightest and widest street at that time, so that it could be a breathing space for the people of Cairo.

The Shubra palace follows the style of a 'Garden Palace', which was new to Egypt at that time, but was very popular in Turkey, similar to those on the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.

In the interior chambers of the palace, designs followed varied and mixed styles ranging from Oriental fantasy to European luxury.

The work started on the palace in late 1808/early 1809 under the supervision of 'Zu Al-Fuqar Katkhuda'. Then in 1821 Muhammad Ali wanted to enlarge the complex, so he used the designer of the French ambassador 'Duravitty' and the architect 'Pascal Coste'. In 1820 Shubra Palace was the first place in Egypt to use a modern electric lighting system, which was installed by Galloway Bey (at a cost of 2500 Piastres).

The palace originally consisted of thirteen buildings; apart from being the resident of Muhammad Ali, it was also a guest house for foreign ambassadors and members of the Royal Family. Only three buildings remain at the site: 'The Gabalaia Kiosk', which was used as a separate reception area for guests; 'The Fountain Kiosk' - Al-Saqia - which was also used for receptions as well as a festival area; and the well and water wheel building.

The Pavilion

Pavilion at Shubra

A continuous gallery six metres wide and supported by thin marble columns encloses a vast marble basin. Various fountains supply the basin with water, four lions spout a cascade of water from each corner and twenty-four crocodiles support the octagonal platform in the middle, with its own splashing fountain. The basin is only a little over a metre deep, but it is wide enough for several boats. The platform provided a stage for musicians and dancers.

At the corners of the pavilion are four rooms: a billiard room, whose table and complete set of balls and cues were a gift from King Louis-Philippe of France; a small dining room; a reception room; and a resting room, also referred to as the room of names. All are high-ceilinged and decorated with trompe l'oeil scenes of landscape, dancing Nereids, palaces and colonnades.
The most ornate is the reception room with its beautiful parquet floor, large mirrors on wood-panelled walls, and ceiling of sculpted wood, gilded and painted in startling, fresh colours.

Some historical sources describe the magnificent Persian carpets that covered the floor, the silken hangings and tapestries on the walls, the chandeliers, and the Divans for reclining.

In 1930 some parts of the garden were destroyed during the construction of the Cairo-Alexandria agriculture road. After 1952, the palace garden became the premises of Ain Shams University faculty of Agriculture, and parts of the site were turned into a farm, research laboratories and cultivated area, used by students for experiments.

In 1978, the SCA took over authority of the site, but it was not until the year 2000 that they decided to start the restoration of the palace.

The restoration was carried out in three phases. The first was aimed at reinforcing the foundation of the three buildings 'The Gabalaia', which was in a very bad condition, 'The Fasqia', and 'Saqia', and protect them from water damage.

The second phase focused on the ceiling, walls, floors and marble columns, then the decorative parts of the 'Fasqia'.
The third phase was devoted to the garden which used to include several exotic plant species.

In January 2006, Muhammad Ali's palace in Shubra opened its gates again 185 years after its first official opening. The gates, which used to welcome ambassadors and members of the Royal family, now welcome all lovers of art and architecture, who will find every fantasy they can imagine beyond these gates.

*Historians consider Muhammad Ali as The founder of Modern Egypt
Amgad Refai
© Amgad Refai. Article used with permission.
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