The cosmopolitan interiors of the majestic Manial Palace in Cairo
In contemporary times, the Manial Palace on the island of Rhoda on the Nile has featured some of the most spectacular cultural and societal events in Egypt. Its artistic heritage was showcased at the annual Art of Egypt exhibition in 2018, while its ballrooms have graced some of the country’s classiest gatherings. It is only natural that they place here – the very spirit behind the space beckons them, offering a vision of a version of Egypt where societies from around the world would congregate and their cultural treasures mingle. A version of Egypt that existed in 1875, when the Manial Palace was built by Prince Mohammed Ali Tewfik to embody the cosmopolitan eclecticism of Cairo’s styles and mark its heritage and, fundamentally, its dynasty.
Showcasing the lifestyle of late 19th and early 20th century Egyptian royalty, the Manial Palace fuses European Rococo with traditional Mamluk, introduces Moorish architecture to Persian gardens, and combines Syrian woodwork with ceramics Armenians in distinctively styled spaces suited to Romantic Orientalism.
Housing the prince’s furniture, collections of art objects and manuscripts dating back to the Middle Ages, the public art and history museum welcomes its visitors at the entrance with Mediterranean mosaics ranging from turquoise to teal blue then that light seeps through intricate moucharabiehs revealing delicate arabesque foliage that covers the ceilings. Meanwhile, Islamic calligraphy echoes serenity in every sculpted corner of its interiors, including the living quarters, which are exuberant and cheerful in their decorative spectacle.
Within the estate, the Persian gardens have been designed in forms that harness sunlight and are aided by walls to shield the pathways from its heat. Striding through the park, which also includes English landscaping, astonishing trees are planted in perfect regularity with undulating branches releasing waves of sweet scents. The clock tower establishes the exterior aesthetic with traces of Gothic fashions held back by an understated Moorish look that does not divulge the vivid contrast of the ornately colored interiors.Offering pieces of what’s to come, the lobby flaunts a touch of wood with a staircase that’s staggered beneath a massive painting of Mohammed Ali Pasha and a mezzanine with Islamic horseshoe arches. Calligraphy decorates the focal points while Armenian ceramist David Ohannessian’s mosaic magic covers the walls in an artistic blue marvel. The palette brightens as you enter the ‘Shakma’ hall of the Residence Palace. Covered in turquoise earthenware tiles, its corners are carved with teal blue and gold muqarnas that weave their way between the immaculate woodwork of the walls and the arabesque tracery of delicate foliage on the ceiling.Muqarnas are also present in the mosque, however, here they are only gilded, just like the rest of the mihrab in which they are located, while Armenian ceramic paintings join the dense visuals. Slightly modified in its pattern but with the same alluring aesthetic, it lays down its patterns as Islamic calligraphy confidently marks all the walls surrounding the space. Conversely, in the “Winter Room” of the palace, the calligraphy takes on a much smaller imprint because it is nuanced by the rather dominant style of this interior, the rococo.
Exuberant in decoration and modeled on nature, the rococo manifests itself in this lively district through the furniture. Covered in gilded stucco with acanthus and other leaves molded into their design, they stand on parts of the floor that are not covered by the large carpet and its sky-blue reflections. This shade offers a subtle – and pleasing to the eye – gradient to the enigmatic shade of azure used for the upholstery.The color serves as a cohesive element behind the glory of these marvelous interiors while the ornaments grab all the attention. The Syrian Room offers an enigma, its glass windows openly challenging the Levantine woodwork which is not only densely patterned, but also richly textured. Tinted in a variety of hues and numerous geometric shapes and compositions, the colored glass is paired with beautifully decorated wood, inlaid with stones and covering every inch of the walls and ceiling in exquisite detail. Whether they complement or challenge each other, the elements end up enriching the space and adding an unmistakable air of magic. That being said, we love a good puzzle.This next space is perfectly capable of being the most ornate if it were in any other area, 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 Ottoman aesthetics in royal red and a touch of gold. Empires and peoples do not last long in the greatest extent of things, however abundant and powerful they may be. But objects, materials and spaces like these manage to endure beyond them, staying behind to tell their stories. Not just the royal silver spoon, but the craftsmanship behind such great relics of the past.Things take from the spirit of those who made them, timelessness lies in the sincerity of craftsmanship. These intricate and intricate decorations capture in beautiful animation the countless stories of craftsmen who likely spent years working on this depiction of Egypt’s modern history. When you visit the palace, look carefully and rejoice in the appreciable level of intricacy and commitment to artistry and beauty that is evident in the wood and ceramics.
Photo credit: Essam Arafa (@earafa)