The Pomegranate Blog

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture' - An Insightful Book

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture' - An Insightful Book

As you may be aware, I’m of Egyptian and Lebanese descent and, although we moved to England when I was very young, I’ve always really valued the history, culture and rich heritage of both these countries. And of the two, I’m more familiar with Egypt as we used to live there when I was younger and have visited countless times on trips and holidays over the years.

One of the things I love about Cairo and other large cities in Egypt is the amazing architectural heritage. I'm not talking about the architecture of the Pharaohs and ancient Egyptians, as important as this is of course, but rather of buildings, palaces and villas built during the latter part of 19th and early 20th centuries. Whenever friends visit, I always encourage them to ‘look up’ at the buildings and try to see past the layers of dust accumulated over decades, to attempt to visualise what these streets and buildings might have once looked like. From what I’ve heard, I imagine they were quite spectacular!

There is an extraordinary mix of architectural styles, from Art Nouveaux, Beaux-Arts and Moorish revival, but I’ve always found one of the strongest influences to be that of the Paris of Haussmann.

My grandmother used to live in a building like this, with an amazingly impressive entrance lobby, a sweeping staircase with a brass handrail that my mother tells me was polished every morning when she was little, and one of those gorgeous lifts with decorated glass panels and intricate metalwork. The rooms in her flat were enormous and the ceiling high enough to easily put a second floor in! I remember that the doors and windows were very tall, with those Mediterranean roller shutters and balconies with wrought-iron balustrades…wonderful buildings.

Unfortunately, with the passing of time and years of cultural and socio-economic change, so many of those glorious buildings became run down and eventually began to decay.

There are also areas of Cairo full of beautiful large villas with lovely walled gardens, which started life as impressive private residences. But with time, as with the buildings, many of these sadly became vacant, abandoned by the affluent families who once lived and thrived in them. Some were ‘rescued’ and given a new lease of life as schools, banks, embassies or consulates.

But I’ve often wondered what these gorgeous old houses once looked and felt like inside…

So you can imagine how thrilled I was when friends, visiting from Cairo, offered us the most lovely and moving book on just this subject. It is called ‘DUST: Egypt’s Forgotten Architecture’ and is a collection of beautiful, moving and, actually, rather haunting photographs taken by Russian-born photographer Xenia Nikolskaya.

Here is a little excerpt from the opening paragraph written by Xenia:

“We entered by the back door, into complete darkness. My heart was beating loudly, I felt scared, but when the caretaker switched on the light, I saw a magical place – totally untouched and covered with a soft layer of dust – a wonderful marble-paved hall dating back to the early 20th century. Here was Sleeping Beauty’s palace. Yet it looked as if it was still occupied, as if the owners had only just left.”

Xenia spent over five years working on this project, photographing and documenting these amazing, old, extraordinary palaces, villas and buildings built during a now long forgotten bygone era. I imagine it was quite an endeavour to be involved in and one which must have been at once thrilling and emotional.

Below is a selection of the photographs featured in the book, which Xenia has kindly given me permission to reproduce here. Since she began the project, it seems that some of the spaces she features have been demolished whilst others have gone through repair and modernisation.

Egypt is an amazing country with an incredible history. The book was completed immediately prior to the uprising of January 2012 and priorities for many Egyptians most likely lie elsewhere right now than in the preservation of old buildings and villas.

However, let’s hope that projects like this book and others like it, serve to raise awareness of the importance of remembering and preserving these little architectural snippets of modern Egyptian history, so they are not forgotten for good.

Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture, Serageldin Palace

Serageldin Palace, Cairo

Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture, Serageldin Palace

Serageldin Palace, Cairo

Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture, Serageldin Palace

Serageldin Palace, Cairo

Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture, Sakakini Palace

Sakakini Palace, Cairo

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Mohamed Al Qarniya Palace, Cairo

Mohamed Al Qarniya Palace, Cairo

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Mohamed al Qarniya Palace, Cairo

Mohamed Al Qarniya Palace, Cairo

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Amin Hagagy Palace, Esna

Amin Hagagy Palace, Esna

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Amin Hagagy Palace, Esna

Amin Hagagy Palace, Esna

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Al Gawhara Palace, Citadel, Cairo

Al Gawhara Palace, Citadel, Cairo

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Villa Casdagli, Garden City, Cairo

Villa Casdagli, Garden City, Cairo

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Atelier 20

Atelier 20, Cairo

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Radio Cinema, Cairo

Radio Cinema, Cairo

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Radio Cinema, Cairo

Radio Cinema, Cairo

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Abandoned Palace, Manial, Cairo

Abandoned Palace, Manial, Cairo

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Bagous Palace

Bagous Palace, Cairo

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Bagous Palace

Bagous Palace, Cairo

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Simon Arzt Department Store, Port Said

Simon Arzt Department Store, Port Said

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Tiring Department Store, Cairo

Tiring Department Store, Cairo

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Tiring Department Store, Cairo

Tiring Department Store, Cairo

'Dust: Egypt's Forgotten Architecture', Casdagli Villa, Barbie Room, Cairo

Casdagli Villa, Barbie Room, Cairo

If you’d like to take a closer look at the book or to buy it yourself, please click here.

‘til next time…

All images by Xenia Nikolskaya, reproduced here with permission.

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