Rest houses of King Farouk.
The remains of those days
Recreating King Farouk’s Cairo resthouses as museums is a step towards preserving a part of Egypt’s history. Reham El-Adawi finds an opulent past Fifty years after the revolution, the barriers surrounding the former royal residences are falling down. Some have already fallen: the former Palace of the Princess Fatma became the Alexandria Jewellery Museum some years ago, and the public is now admitted to view the royal collections of weapons, jewels and silver in Abdin Palace.
While Abdin Palace was King Farouk’s main residence, he maintained resthouses all over Egypt. Some were in hunting areas — Fayoum, Siwa Oasis, Wadi Al-Rishrash and the Alexandria Desert Road. Others were purely for pleasure. In Cairo, the king would relax at his Corner in Helwan and his resthouses at the Pyramids and the Zoological Gardens in Giza. Currently under restoration, King Farouk’s Corner in Helwan — soon to be known as the Helwan Corner Museum — celebrated its 60th anniversary on 5 September. In the royal era Helwan, 25 kilometres south of Cairo, was the resort of pashas and princesses who enjoyed the pure air in both summer and winter and loved the view of the serene and picturesque Nile fringed with greenery.
In 1935, King Farouk chose this spot on the east bank of the Nile, six kilometres west of Helwan, to build the Corner. The land covers three feddans: the building occupies 440 square metres and the rest is planted with gardens, including a pergola of grape vines, and with mango and guava trees. Work started in 1941, and the house was ready a year later. Members and friends of the royal family and neighbours in Helwan attended the party to celebrate the opening on 5 September 1942.
Atef Ghoneim, a supervisor in the museums sector, outlined the several evolutionary stages of the Corner since the July 1952 Revolution. In 1954 it was affiliated to the Tourism Authority, before moving under the supervision of the Antiquities Authority in the 1960s. It was a museum from 1955 to 1970, when it was confiscated by the Helwan local council. Since then, and even after the museum returned under the umbrella of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in 1976, it has remained locked. Ghoneim said it was not until 1994 that the idea of restoring the museum to its former status was raised. “The value of the museum’s memorabilia lies in the fact that it reflects the lifestyle of the royal era,” Ghoneim said. The current restoration plan includes the detailed restoration of the memorabilia as well as architectural restoration and repair of the fencing and other surrounding features.
Another crucial part of the restoration may, however, delay the reopening as a museum: converting the garden surrounding it into an entertainment zone with cafeterias and other basic services could take some time. “Families will find cultural and spiritual refreshment by spending a day here between touring the museum and reclining on a chair facing the river,” Ghoneim said.
The resthouse was designed by an Italian architect in the shape of a boat, though this effect can only be appreciated if one stands on the opposite bank of the Nile.
The Corner has two harbours where Farouk used to anchor his yacht Qasid Karim, which he used to cruise the Nile accompanied by close friends and guests. The art nouveau-designed building is surrounded by a limestone wall with two huge iron gates. The royal crown which tops the gates, with King Farouk’s name in the centre, leaves one in no doubt that one is about to enter a royal residence.
The basement of the three-storey building, once the servants’ halls and the kitchen, is now scheduled to become a separate section displaying 376 dolls in the national costumes of Europe, Asia, Africa and the United States, all presented to the king by their respective embassies.
On the first floor are King Farouk and Queen Farida’s Louis XIV-style bedrooms — they shared a bathroom — and the cradle of the hoped-for crown prince, who sadly never made an appearance. The two rooms overlook a wide terrace which faces the garden as well as the Nile.
The resthouse is crowded with precious memorabilia that shine and glitter following their delicate restoration, but are still waiting for a final arrangement. The opulent taste is obvious in the bronze reliefs hanging on the walls and the priceless statues scattered about, such as the statue of a peasant holding a jar sculpted by the French artist Courbet in 1866. In the main hall, a life-size bronze statue of a female harp player dressed in the costume of ancient Egypt and wearing enamel Pharaonic jewellery stands on a marble base.
Other pieces of Pharaonic-style orientalism are dotted about the resthouse. Among the precious memorabilia are two clocks; one presented to the king by the king of England and the other to Khedive Ismail by Queen Eugenie on the occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal. The marble stairs lead to an external hall, which in turn leads to two dining rooms and a terrace overlooking the Nile.
A smoking room is furnished to imitate the funerary collection of Tutankhamun and includes gilded tables, chairs and boxes studded with ivory and other precious materials. The king used the roof to hold private concerts and parties. Clearly much of the Pharaonic memorabilia originally belonged to the Pyramids resthouse, which is currently under restoration and has been totally emptied. Attempts are ongoing to restore this building, which was in danger of falling into decay.
This resthouse was also built on the orders of King Farouk in 1941 but not used until 1947. It began as a wooden kiosk in the reign of Khedive Ismail. Ismail kept a larger resthouse near the foot of the Great Pyramid which was sold in the 1880s to a British couple, Mr and Mrs Frederick Head — the original house is now the main dining room of the Mena House Hotel.
Farouk’s resthouse stands beside the Great Pyramid, and many people will remember its forecourt as a cafeteria. The ancient Egyptian architecture is perfectly reflected in the exterior and interior of the building. The design is inspired by ancient temples; the gateway resembles a small pylon and the façade is decorated with basalt statues of Tutankhamun. On each side of the door is a cartouche with King Farouk’s name and a beautiful statue of Tuthmosis III studded with mosaic.
The main hall brings the temples of Luxor to mind. At each end are gypsum “tomb” reliefs painted in natural colours; one depicting a nobleman and his wife in a hunting scene. On top of each painting is a symbol of the solar disk created by artists Mustafa Metwalli and Hassan El- Shagi’, signed in 1945. All the interior doors have cartouches with the king’s name and are topped with a winged alabaster scarab.
The crowning point of the resthouse is a dining room with a ceiling copied from the zodiac at Dendera. A unique location for one of Farouk’s pleasure domes was Giza’s Zoological Gardens, part of the Khedival royal park. All the paths to the resthouse are of colourful Italian mosaic. The house is encircled by rare trees and royal palms which still bear the carved names of royal family members. A small canal runs from the Nile.
The resthouse faces Gabaliat Al-Sham’edan (the Chandelier Cave) while the Royal Grotto and the Japanese Kiosk are on its southern side. Farouk used to relax in the Royal Grotto, seated among the cactus plants on a couch with the royal crown on the back and the date 1867 written in mosaic on its seat. On entering the house one is confronted by a wide, lavish hall where the king’s chair stands flanked by a row of chairs on either side. The house contains a luxurious bedroom and bathroom.
The roof is designed in such a way that it stores air and creates a moderate temperature in all seasons. The renovation in 1997 included restoring the mosaic paths, the exterior marble, interior walls and what was left of the royal chairs and lanterns. The resthouse is not open to visitors but is used to host official foreign delegations.
Source Al AHram 2002
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Status of historical research: Ongoing
Status of article: Open