By Yomna El-Saeed
The Abdeen Palace is an iconic landmark that is frequently mentioned in the history books since it is witness to many significant occurrences in Egypt’s contemporary history. Perhaps the most famous event that took place at the palace was the Orabi revolution in 1881, which erupted in the very yard of the palace.
In 1872, after nine years of construction, the Abdeen Palace became the official seat of the Royal Family in Egypt until the 1952 coup d’état which overthrew King Farouk. Since that time it has been used to host kings and presidents from all over the world during their visits to Egypt. There are five important museums attached to the palace that are also frequently visited by foreign diplomats.
The function these historic venues fulfill is the reason why the administration of both the palace as well as the museums belongs to the presidency instead of the ministry of antiquities, thus making the security surrounding these venues tighter than that of any other museum in Egypt.
The museums were all closed in the early days of the 2011 uprising, specifically on 27 January 2011,one day before what has become known as the Friday of Fury, because of high security concerns due to their relative proximity to Tahrir Square. The museums have remained closed to date, but the Daily News Egypt learned from a high official connected to the palace that plans are in motion to open the locations within the next two months. The official preferred not be named but confirmed that proper security and precautions are being taken to ensure the museums will be able to welcome their guests back again.
The royal palace
Khedive Ismail, the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan, ordered building the palace to celebrate and commemorate the inauguration of the Suez Canal. However, the construction of the canal was finished before the completion of the palace so the inauguration ceremony took place in Marriot Hotel instead. The palace was then designated to be the official Royal palace, which up to that moment had been the Citadel, the location from which the sovereigns of Egypt had ruled since the era of Mohamed Ali Pasha.
The construction of Abdeen Palace started in 1863 and was it was officially opened in 1872. It is erected on 25 feddans, 75% of which is gardens, and at the time it cost the sum of 100,000 gold coins. Furnishing the palace took place over a two-year period and cost and additional 750,000 gold coins. The architect who designed the palace was Frenchman Rousseau, and Francois Linke, also from France, designed most of the furnishings, along with other Italian and Turkish designers.
The gate of the Abdeen Palace is called ‘Paris’, because it was especially built as the entrance for French empress Eugénie de Montijo in honour of her visit.
The balconies of the palace overlooked the river Nile at the time of construction, but Cairo’s exploding urban development has long since completely blocked the view.
The palace itself was never opened to visitors; the only building that they could enter was the tea kiosk. This kiosk is in fact a large separate building on a hummock built in 1921 where King Farouk used to drink his tea. The building and its location provide enough height so visitors could enjoy a view of the landscape and the palace itself from the balcony
The mosques around the palace were originally built for the labourers during the lengthy construction process, which were mainly Egyptian and Italian.
Five majestic museums
There are five Museums situated around the palace, which are, in their sequential historic order:
The Arms Museum
King Fouad founded this museum in 1928 to contain his special collection of different weapons from around the globe. It was not constructed as a museum that was open to public visitors, but rather as a sport for the king to meet friends during their visits.
The Foreign Dignitaries Museum
After King Farouk inherited the first museum, he founded a new one for all the weapons he received through foreign dignitaries, which were either gifts or commissioned by the king. It contained weapons from 48 countries; the number of the registered countries in the United Nations at that time. This museum has a special suite for King Farouk’s unique hunting weapons. His weapons were all handmade and designed especially to fit his height and his physique. Among the most famous is a weapon made by bespoke gun and rifle manufacturers Holland & Holland. The king did not intend to open this museum for visits of the public either.
The Presidential Gifts Museum
Former president Hosni Mubarak opened this third museum in 1998 to house all the gifts offered to him by kings and presidents. The gifts include a model of the expansion of the holy mosque Haram in Mecca, which is made of pure gold and silver and offered to him by the king of Saudi Arabia and a model of an Emirati castle in pure gold to name but a few. The museum also includes the more humble gifts that were offered to him by the general Egyptian population. The gifts that have been sent to the two presidents that have followed, Mohamed Morsi and the current interim president Adly Mansour, will automatically go to the museum and be displayed in separate halls that bear their names.
The Silver Museum
The former royal family owned a large collection of rare silver ornaments and utensils and the collections are housed in this museum. Additionally it displays rare china as well as precious vases that were designed and produced especially for the royal family as the signatures reveal. The museum first opened its doors in 1998.
The Historical Documents Museum
This museum opened its doors in 2004 to exhibit a large group of rare historical documents of Egyptian contemporary history. The collection includes imperial decrees, firmen, from Mohamed Aly Pasha’s era, as well as the marriage and divorce certificates of King Farouk, the marriage and divorce certificates of Princess Fawzeya and the Shah of Persia, and condolence letters from kings and presidents from around the world to King Farouk on his father’s death.
A sixth museum is currently under construction, which is designated to be The Royal Outfit Museum. It will house the clothes of the Royal Family, like the wedding suit of King Farouk and the wedding dress of Queen Nariman and the clothes of the princesses. In addition it will show some of their personal belongings, like King Farouk’s famous round eyeglasses, his perfume bottles and the princesses’ make-up.
All of the Abdeen museums are in one building, yet each one has its particular style of decorations, lighting and display. The museums and their contents, as well as the palace itself, are periodically repaired and cleaned.
There is no conservation department in the Abdeen museums, so the administration cooperates with the Ministry of Antiquities in caring for the displayed pieces, from restoration to consultation in the use of the proper lighting and choosing the cloth that is used as backgrounds to the pieces on display. All of the pieces in the collections are registered with Interpol, unlike many other valuable antiquities in Egypt, which would make it much easier to retrieve them if they would ever be stolen. It is obvious that the five Abdeen museums receive a higher level of care compared to any other museum in Egypt.
The museums are not only unique in their care for the displayed pieces, but also in the facilities offered to visitors. The museums employ a team of uniformed tour guides that accompany the guests during their visit. The guides offer information in three languages – Arabic, English and French – and there is no charge for this service unlike in other museums. To ensure that the elderly can enjoy the museums as well chairs are available throughout the halls and wheelchairs are on site in case of an emergency.
There is a small cinema close to the museums that shows a documentary about the different royal palaces: the Abdeen, Qobba, Al-Tahra palaces in Cairo and the Raas El-Teen palace in Alexandria. Pictures of the Royal Family from their private albums have been scanned and are shown on 40-inch plasma screens in the museums’ halls.
At the end of their tour visitors will find a guestbook in which they are invited to write their notes and/or criticism about the service in the museum services. These notes are all reviewed periodically and given serious consideration by the administrators.
The museums have a shop where a range of souvenirs and books about the palace in general and the museums in specific can be purchased. The books on the palace are very popular among students and enthusiasts of architecture as they provide a complete plan of the palace.
Parking in the museums’ parking lot is free. The prices of tickets for all of the museums are EGP 2 for Egyptian adults, EGP 1 for Egyptian students, EGP 15 for foreign adults and EGP 10 for foreign students. Photography is allowed throughout the museums. Before the closure in January 2011 the museums attracted 12,000 visitors per month.
But who is Abdeen?
When Ismail Pasha came back from Paris and decided to build the palace, he chose a largely empty, uncultivated area. The only building on the site was a small home owned by the heirs of Abdeen Bey, a late military officer. After long negotiations Abdeen’s widow accepted to leave her house to make way for the construction of the palace under the condition that the palace would be named after her husband. Once the palace was completed the surrounded district became consequently known as Abdeen, as it is until today.