Thursday June 20th, 2024
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The Cosmopolitan Interiors of Cairo’s Majestic Manial Palace

There are few monuments that showcase the eclecticism of Egyptian heritage and history as Manial Palace, a tour de force of design and architecture inspired by the world.

Karim Abdullatif

The Cosmopolitan Interiors of Cairo’s Majestic Manial Palace

In contemporary times, the Manial Palace on the Nile’s Rhoda Island has showcased some of Egypt’s most spectacular cultural and societal events. Its artistic heritage was showcased during Art D'Egypte’s Annual Exhibition in 2018, while its ballrooms graced some of the classiest gatherings in the nation. It’s only natural that they’d place here - the very spirit behind the space invites them in, offering a vision of a version of Egypt where societies from around the globe would gather and their cultural treasures would intermingle. A version of Egypt that existed back in 1875, when the Manial Palace was built by Prince Mohammed Ali Tewfik to embody Cairo’s cosmopolitan eclecticism of styles and mark his legacy and, fundamentally, his dynasty.

Showcasing the lifestyle of late 19th and early 20th century Egyptian royalty, the Manial Palace merges European Rococo with traditional Mamluk, brings Moorish architecture into Persian gardens, and combines Syrian woodwork with Armenian ceramics in distinctively styled spaces that are tailored towards romantic orientalism.

Housing the prince’s furniture, objets d’art collections and manuscripts dating back to the middle ages, the public art and history museum greets its visitors upon entry with Mediterranean mosaics ranging from turquoise to teal as light seeps through intricate mashrabiyas unravelling delicate arabesque foliage that covers the ceilings. Meanwhile, Islamic calligraphy echoes serenity throughout every entrancingly carved corner of its interiors, including the living quarters, which are exuberant and joyful in their decorative spectacle.

Within the estate, Persian gardens were designed in forms that harness sunlight and are assisted by walls to protect pathways from its heat. Pacing the park, which also includes English landscaping, astonishing trees are planted in a perfect regularity with waving branches unleashing waves of sweet scents. The clock tower establishes the exterior aesthetics with traces of gothic modes curbed by an understated Moorish look that doesn’t divulge the lively contrast of the colourfully ornate interiors.Offering bits and pieces of what is to come, the lobby displays wooden flair with a staircase that is staggered under a massive painting of Mohammed Ali Pasha and mezzanine with Islamic horseshoe arches. Calligraphy decorates the focal points as the Armenian ceramicist David Ohannessian’s mosaic magic covers the walls in blue artistic wonder. The palette gets lighter when you enter the ‘Shakma’ room in the residence palace. Covered in turquoise faience tiles, its corners are carved into teal and gold muqarnas which are squinches between the immaculate woodwork on the walls and the Arabesque interlacing of delicate foliage on the ceiling.Muqarnas are also present in the mosque, however, here they are only golden just like the remainder of the Mihrab they are situated in, while the Armenian’s ceramic arrays join in on the dense visuals. Slightly changed in pattern but with the same alluring aesthetics, it lays its patterns as Islamic calligraphy assertively marks all the walls enclosing the space. Contrarily, in the ‘Winter Hall’ of the palace, the calligraphy takes up a much smaller footprint as they are nuanced by this interior’s rather dominant style, Rococo. 

Exuberant in decoration and modelled on nature, Rococo manifests in this living quarter through the furniture. Covered in gold stuccos with acanthus and other leaves moulded into their design, they stand on portions of the floor that are not covered by the grand carpet and its sky blue highlights. This shade offers a subtle - and easy on the eye - grading to the enigmatic shade of azure used for the cushioning.Colour serves as a consistent element behind the glory of these marvellous interiors while the ornaments grab all the attention. The Syrian hall offers a conundrum, its glass windows openly contest Levantine woodworking which is not only densely patterned, but also richly textured. Tinted in a variety of hues and of many geometric shapes and compositions, the coloured glass is paired with splendidly decorated wood, inlaid with stones and covering every inch of the walls and ceiling in the finest of detail. Whether they complement or challenge one another, the features ultimately enrich the space and add an unquestionable air of magic. That being said, we do love a good conundrum.This next space is perfectly capable of being the most decorated one if it were in any other estate, but here it serves a function beyond its visual appeal. The Regency hall, also known as the Throne hall, pays homage to the longevity and prosperity of the prince’s lineage, radiating with Ottoman aesthetics in royal red and a golden twist. Empires and people don’t last long in the greater scope of things, regardless of their sheer abundance and might. But objects, materials and spaces like these manage to endure beyond them, staying behind to tell their stories. Not just of royal silver spooning but of the craftsmanship behind such great relics of the pasts.Things take after the spirit of those who made them, timelessness lies in the sincerity of craft. These perplexing and complicated decorations capture in a beautiful animation the countless stories of craftsmen who likely spent years working on this depiction of Egypt’s modern history. When you pay the palace a visit, look closely and rejoice at the appreciable level of intricacy and commitment to art and beauty that is evident in the wood and ceramic.

Photography credit: Essam Arafa (@earafa)