Lofty living with Egyptian art deco
By Shirley Johnston
Published: April 21 2006 15:54 | Last updated: April 21 2006 15:54
What’s in Egypt?” wondered my friends. They could see why I might try to write a book about the great homes of France or Spain, Palm Beach or the Riviera, even the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta. But Egypt? The idea drew blank stares.
Still, I knew Egypt was a land of not only towering pyramids and golden mummies but also stunning 19th-century and early 20th-century palaces, villas and houses. When I arrived, I found more examples than I had hoped for, many of them simply breathtaking. Where to begin and where to end became my challenge as I criss-crossed cities, towns and villages from Alexandria to Aswan. Even now, six years later, I’m amazed to turn a corner in my own Heliopolis and stumble upon yet another unexpected jewel.
The face of architecture in Egypt began to change dramatically after Napoleon’s invading army retreated in 1801, leaving behind some of its French savants and a power vacuum to be filled by a former tobacco merchant and mercenary of Albanian origin, Mohamed Ali Pasha. Often called the founder of modern Egypt, this ambitious character from Cavalla would pay homage to the Ottoman sultan while also looking to the west for ways to fulfil his own lofty dreams. Mohamed Ali summoned European experts in technology, industry and agriculture and sent his sons and other promising young Egyptians to study in France; his descendants went on to reign as khedives and later kings of Egypt until great-great grandson Farouk abdicated in the wake of the Nasser revolution in 1952.
With the prosperity and wealth of a cotton boom and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, another wave of Europeans swept in to help with massive public works and to build and decorate palaces and villas for the royal court, a coterie of landowning pashas, merchant princes and foreign adventurers. Grand hotels also were needed for travellers attracted to newly found archaeological sites. Architects, engineers, artisans, craftsmen and painters from France, Italy, Germany and Austria edged out those from Istanbul and the Balkans and introduced western construction techniques and the latest styles, among them the voluminous opulence of the Belle Epoque, embellished by landscaped parks and gardens. With clients in step with the Paris elite, the builders and decorators also went on to revive the lost arts of the east; at the very least any proper Cairo residence was obliged to have a salon arabe. Later on, also from Paris, came the widespread taste for art deco, and the Ottoman divan returned to Egypt as the chaise longue.
Although many of these grand houses have been converted into museums, institutes and ambassadorial residences, most remain private residences, each with its own story to tell. One example, the Greiss Palace, edges an Upper Egyptian village in the province of Assiout, where the descendants of landowner Bishai Bey continue to live in a towering palazzo designed by Italian craftsmen and their trainees. Another, the Loutfy Mansour House, is an Italianate villa in Alexandria erected by Greek owners who benefited from the expertise of Victor Lehmann, Egypt representative for esteemed Paris furniture-maker and decorator, Maison Jansen.
Greiss Palace, Meir, Assiout province, 1922-24
Bishai Bey was not an especially devout Christian. Yet the tall and dark omda, or mayor, of Meir considered himself blessed, believing that even the most unfortunate people became fortunate in his tiny village. The reason? It went back to biblical times, when the holy family, in its sojourn in Egypt, walked through Meir before settling in a cave nearby. It became a second Bethlehem and Coptic monks built a church there dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Even Muslim ladies went to it in hope of gaining favour.
Bishai Bey had many reasons to believe in what the Lord had told Isaiah: “Blessed be Egypt my people”. He owned 4,000 feddans in the southern Nile Valley planted with cotton, wheat, maize and barley. He succeeded his father as mayor and, at the age of 30, in 1920, was granted the Ottoman title of bey by the sultan and future King Fuad. He went on to win a senate seat in the first Egyptian parliament, standing for the Nationalist party. And all he had needed to do to beat his rival from neighbouring El-Qusiya was to build a bigger and better house.
A trip to see King Fuad in Alexandria brought Bishai Bey back home with Italian craftsmen and engineers for his new house. “It was like a hôtel de ville, with a pole outside flying a green flag with a crescent and three stars,” his great-grandson Magdi says. Replacing the family’s old stone fortress in the middle of fields, the residence became a palazzo – “with a reception house”, usually called a madiafa or “guest house” just inside the entrance gate. As mayor, Bishai Bey oversaw village customs and served local justice in a plain room lined with wooden Ottoman divans. The salons on the upper floor, “more or less in the European style”, were to greet pilgrims travelling the path of the holy family.
The Italian workmen added high round towers at each corner of the new palazzo; its Tuscan floor plan called for terraces and balconies with balustrades that looked to the Nile on one side and the Western Desert on the other. A central hallway led to a marble staircase, which rose to the family’s private quarters above; there, a large stair hall gave on to several apartments, one for Bishai’s only child Wahiba and her husband. “She was ‘the lady of the castle’, and very strong,” Magdi says. “He had spoiled her.”
The Italians indulged their rococo tastes for finely carved and finished woodwork and exquisitely plastered and painted walls in the main reception salons. “Few believed that this could exist outside of Cairo,” Magdi says. A formal sitting room offered visitors what in Upper Egypt was a surprising combination of pastel pink and green lacquered walls with matching fabrics for upholstered side chairs. A dining room with a coffered ceiling “was a smaller version of Abdin palace”.
“My great-grandfather was one of the last to have slaves,” Magdi says. Of the 13, about nine worked as house servants, helping host as many as 100 guests during election campaigns. Two Sudanese cooks, “like Cordon Bleu chefs”, worked off big charcoal ranges, serving Egyptian and continental dishes. “My great-grandfather liked grilled pigeons flambéed in imported cognac – Rémy-Martin,” Magdi says. He also built many houses for the birds.
Imitating an old-world European look in 1924 did not mean Bishai skimped on modern conveniences. An Italian mechanic living in Meir installed a generator for electricity and a boiler in the basement provided heat to a house, which would eventually have its own power station.
Yet that was not to be the only “miracle”. The lacquered walls would remain as fresh as new over the years, leaving everyone to wonder if they too had been blessed.
Loufty Mansour House, Alexandria, circa 1910
Nazli Hanem was firm in her decision. She would put her trust and faith in another man.
Not that anything had gone wrong with her marriage. It was just that in 1952 her brilliant young husband, Mahmoud Loufty Mansour, had started his own company, the first in Egypt for exporting cotton, thus obliging them and their boys to move to Alexandria from Cairo.
He was so absorbed by his new venture that he had given her a free hand to do as she pleased with their new house in suburban Gianaclis, one of two nearly identical Italianate villas built in the 1910s by a Greek contractor. And Nazli did not have to think twice about whom to call in to help with the decorating: Victor Lehmann.
“He was Jansen Egypt,” Mansour explains, speaking in French. Indeed, Lehmann was last in a line of branch managers for the famed Paris decorating house and furniture maker that had been favoured by the rich and famous since the 1880s. With his spacious showroom on Sharia Fuad in Alexandria and workshops both there and in Cairo the Frenchman with German-Jewish roots was a legend.
Arriving in 1939 at age 40 or so, Lehmann made a splashy debut by adapting Jansen’s classy old-world European style to the needs of a newly arrived cotton mogul and press magnate Oswald Finney. Lehmann would transform several floors of Finney’s city-centre apartment building into a renaissance palace of oak boiseries, rococo stucco work, and terraces of European marble statuary.
His reputation was made. Europe might have been at war but in Egypt there was no stopping the demand for Lehmann’s custom-made versions of Louis XIV, XV and XVI, even French Empire, Italian Rococo, Chippendale and Queen Anne.
What was good enough for the Alexandria governor’s office or a new Arab League headquarters in Cairo was certainly good enough for Nazli. She took immediately to Lehmann’s ancien fransawi look, with his preference for decorating with Gobelins and Aubussons. “The cachepot in the living room weighted 300lbs,” she notes.
Some of the objects came from the houses of Sherif Sabri. “The government was nationalising and people were unloading whatever they had,” Nazli explains.
Nazli’s house would be Lehmann’s last in Egypt. With the revolution, it was time for him too to pack his bags and return to Paris.
Shirley Johnston is the author of Egyptian Palaces and Villas (Abrams, £29.95). To buy this book at a 20 per cent discount, plus p&p, phone the FT ordering service on +44 0870-429 5884 or go to http://www.ft.com/bookshop
- PVC King