Cairo’s al-Hilmiyyah neighbourhood has been shaped by extravagant palaces and powerful personalities, which,
although now long gone, still find their echo in the area’s modern street names. None, however, made as
strong an impact as Abbas Pasha’s al-Hilmiyyah Palace.

The sight before me in itself was not new; due to my interest in historic locations I often visit old mosques with their associated tombs, and am used to the sight of the general public kissing the walls of these tombs in reverence while asking for the blessing of the deceased with great humility. This only goes to show their profound and surprising faith in myths and superstitions.

What struck me as strange this particular time was that the image portrayed by the man in front of me was that of someone of higher education and social standing. This aroused my curiosity bit by bit, as I walked around the mosque and returned to find him in a state of submissive pleading. When I saw him cry out begging for the blessings of Sidi  Al Mas, I could contain my curiosity no longer.

‘Who is this?’ I asked him, pointing to the tomb. He answered, as most Egyptians do, with confident assurance, as if the deceased and himself were blood brothers,

A view of the old Hilmiyyah Palace overlooking Birket al-Fil (Lake of the Elephant)

‘It is Sidi  Al Mas al-Hageb’, he raised his hand to stress the elevated status of the man and gave me a look intended to chide me on my ignorance of the stature of sayidina (our master). He then added the traditional phrase that is meant to give scholarly authenticity to his words, ‘Radiya Allah anhu (may God be pleased with his deeds)’. Since I’d managed to show him how much he’d convinced me (absolute nonsense), and how impressed I was with his profound knowledge (if this man has passed primary school it would be a disaster), he continued in ever-growing confidence, ‘Sidi  Al Mas was a large strong man’ (as if he had seen him), ‘one of the friends of Amr Ibn al-‘As radiya Allah anhu’ (again), ‘he came with him when he conquered Egypt’ (probably on the same plane), ‘and he used to sit in this place every day to teach children the Quran’. The man let his imagination run wild and continued, ‘they called him “al-Mas” (the diamond) because dust turned to diamonds in his hands’ (he was probably going to tell me how many karats of diamonds as well), ‘he was holding the Quran in his hand when he suddenly died and it did not fall from his grip’ (yes, of course), ‘when he died, people prayed for him, led by the famous Imam Shafei radiya Allah anhu’” (again? Enough … please). He then fell silent as if remembering events that he had actually witnessed, but it seemed that his imagination had inspired a new myth, ‘May God have mercy on his soul, his death was after fourteen months of fasting and he died on lailat al-kadr (a holy night in the month of Ramadan)’. He spoke solemnly, as if mourning the death of a close friend, so I answered in the same vein, ‘There is no power or strength save in Allah’.

I had taken all I could of this nonsense and hurried out thinking of the true life story of  Al Mas. Unfortunately dear readers,  Al Mas was not a holy man. Rather, he was a corrupt degenerate who committed all manner of sins. His full name was Prince Seif al-Din  Al Mas al-Hageb. Al Mas is a Turkish name composed of two parts: Al means ‘to die’, Mas means ‘never’ and so his full name means ‘never dies’. It has no connection whatsoever with dust turning to diamonds in his hands! He was one of the Mamluks of Sultan al-Nasser Bin Qalawun, who promoted him to be his deputy. In 1334, the sultan went on pilgrimage and deputized him in his absence. On his return, he discovered that  Al Mas had publicly criticized him and had contacted Prince Gamal al-Din Akoosh, who had revolted against him. The sultan also learnt of all Al Mas’ immoral deeds, and so ordered him imprisoned and strangled three days later. He then had his body buried in the mosque that he had built. Amusingly enough, at Al Mas’ home they found 600,000 silver coins, 100,000 copper coins and 40,000 gold coins, along with other valuables and jewels. He had obviously stolen and plundered these jewels, they certainly hadn’t transformed from dust in his holy hands! Naturally, the sultan took all this wealth; he even took Al Mas’ palace, which had been adorned with expensive imported marble. The sultan ordered this marble be removed, and transferred it all to the citadel.

One of the streets in New Hilmiyyah still bears Al Mas’ name but in any case, it is not the first or the last street in Cairo to bear the name of a person such as him. Intrigued by the case of Al Mas, I decided to look deeper into the complex history of Hilmiyyah’s streets, into the lives of those that lived there, and the palaces where they spent their days. Who else there had the honour of a street name, like Al Mas, and who had vanished? And how was the area of Al Mas’ mosque changed forever by the construction of a large palace, the very palace from which New Hilmiyyah derives its name?

The Elephant Lake

Maybe most of Cairo’s residents do not know that Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi did not actually live in the citadel that bears his name – he died in 1176 before its completion – and that its first resident was actually his nephew, al-Kamel Nasir al-Din Mohamed Ibn al-Adel al-Ayyubi, who ruled Egypt from 1218 to 1238. At the time, Birket al-Fil (the Elephant Lake) – one of the oldest lakes in Cairo, dating back to the Islamic conquest – covered a large area, but its banks were uninhabited. When the ruler moved from Fatimid Cairo to the citadel, the nobility where keen on residing in its proximity. Consequently, the area around Birket al-Fil became a prime location for all the palaces of the nobility.

As for the origin of its name, opinions differ. Some say that Prince Khamaraweih Ibn Ahmed Ibn Tulun (ruled 884–896) had a garden located at the edge of the lake where he kept a variety of animals, including an elephant. Others say that the name belongs to one of the friends of Ahmed Ibn Tulun (ruled 868–884) who was called al-Fil (the elephant). After looking at a map of old Cairo drawn by the scholars of the French expedition, and noticing that the lake took the shape of an elephant’s head and trunk, I personally believe that this may be the origin of the name. At any rate, starting in 1218 the lake gradually changed from being an agricultural area to a residential one, until no plot of land was left undeveloped. The final untouched portion was used by Abbas Hilmi Pasha for his new palace, known as al-Hilmiyyah, from which the area would much later receive its name, leaving only a small area of water for the palace to overlook.

The Palace of a Military Leader                                                      

Upon returning to his Scottish homeland from his travels in 1835, Robert Hay suffered from a severe depression, quickly losing his enthusiasm for publishing his records of Egypt. At the time, he could not attract any public interest in his work, and the cost of publishing was excessive, slashing any hopes that he may have had of getting his research known. Historians believe that Hay’s legacy of drawings would have been the most significant description of Egypt at the time had they been published. However, he did write a very important description relevant to this research. He recorded three palaces in Cairo at the time: the palace of Mohamed Sherif Pasha Kavalaly, the ruler of the Levant, in Abdeen; the palace of Prince Ismail Pasha in Boulaq; and the third, which is of particular interest to us in this account, the Palace of Mahmoud Bek al-Arnaouty in Kaysoun. This palace is said to have been built in 1830, and had an enormous garden, while Didier described it as being the largest palace in Egypt, with an area of approximately three acres. It is on this site that al-Hilmiyyah Palace would eventually be built under Abbas Hilmi Pasha.

The Plan of Nour al-Zalam (Light of Darkness)

Abbas Hilmi Pasha resided in al-Khoronfesh Palace, but when he ascended the throne after the death of his uncle on 10 November 1848, his appetite for building and owning palaces grew; one of these was al-Hilmiyyah Palace. He is often accused in historical accounts of being an introvert and a hermit, a man who preferred to build his palaces in uninhabited isolated locations. However, my study of the palaces has proven the contrary, and al-Hilmiyyah is the best example. The area was highly populated, according to the standards of the time, with palaces and residences, some of which I shall mention here.

Abbas Hilmi I (1813–1854),

The ownership of the palace was transferred to Abbas Pasha in 1849, who might have purchased it or exchanged it. Ali Mubarak describes how Abbas Pasha built al-Hilmiyyah with extravagance; but the more accurate account of Abdel Rahman Bek Nafea tells us that Abbas Pasha demolished the original palace that existed on the spot and expanded the land, building a new grand palace, embellished with marble, carvings, fountains and lavish furnishings. Unfortunately Nafea Bek, who helped us with his accuracy, now goes on to confuse us – according to him, Abbas Pasha bought the original palace from his brother-in-law Abbas Pasha al-Arnaouty, although all other references concur that it was built by Mahmoud Bek. I can find no official record to back up Nafea Bek’s statement.

Whatever the case, the palace lay in the midst of a large garden surrounded by high walls, located to the north-west of al-Sultan Hassan Mosque, behind the Khedivial School in what is now al-Khaleej al-Masry Street. It ran the length of Mohamed Ali Street to the north and up to Darb al-Gamamiz Palace to the west (the Khedivial School today), and overlooked what remained of Birket al-Fil. In brief, the palace and its grounds covered the whole area of what is known today as New Hilmiyyah. Nafea recounts that the palace was part of the plan of Nour al-Zalam Street (light of darkness), but he did not manage to discover the secret behind the street’s name, or who it was that had illuminated the darkness and so had had the street named after him.

Give us your Blessings, Sheikh Sadouma!

If the grounds of Mahmoud Bek’s old palace were approximately three acres, then the new palace built to replace it must have been much larger. Abbas Pasha filled the lake, and bought many of the Mamluk residences and palaces in the area, only to demolish them so that he could include their land within his grounds. The Mamluks returned to the area in name only when al-Hilmiyyah Palace was later knocked down, and the municipality named each location after its former resident.  It is interesting that each one of them had a dramatic tale connected to his name.

The first was Ibrahim Bek al-Kabir al-Mohamady, who was originally one of the Mamluks of Mohamed Bek Aboul Dahab. He ruled from 1768 for forty years, until the tides turned with the French Campaign, when he fled to Sudan with members of his clan and lived in dire poverty off of tobacco agriculture until his death in 1816.

There is also still al-Shaboury Street in the area, because Abbas Pasha bought the house of Soliman Bek al-Shaboury and included the land in al-Hilmiyyah. He was a respectable distinguished man who died of the plague in 1791. Without a doubt if you asked any of the current residents who al-Shaboury was, no-one would remember, although he was much more worthy than Al Mas!

The municipality named each location after its former resident. It is interesting that each one of them had a dramatic tale connected to the name.

As for Abdel Rahman Bek Osman, he was also a Mamluk. He liked the company of scholars and played chess. He built himself a palace, and on the first Friday after its completion held a feast there for the scholars of al-Azhar. On his death, it was bought by Marzouk Bek Ibn Ibrahim Bek al-Kabir.  Marzouk was known for being cross-eyed, and was among those killed during the citadel massacre of 1811 before the death of his father. This palace was also demolished and its land included in the grounds of al-Hilmiyyah palace.

There was also the residence of Murad Bek who ruled with Ibrahim Bek after the death of their master, he died of the plague in Sohag in 1801. He had a wife named Nafisah who erected a tomb for him close to al-Imam al-Shafei but he was never moved there.

The residence of Youssef Bek al-Kabir was also included. He was a Mamluk of Mohamed Bek Aboul Dahab and married to his sister. Youssef Bek built a palace on Birket al-Fil, and then proceeded to expand his land by buying some neighboring plots and by taking others by force. Youssef Bek would start building, then change his mind, knock down the structure, and build again to a new design, to the extent that he once spent the proceeds of 6,400 tons of agricultural produce on a small building. Youssef Bek was a volatile man, easily angered and moody, who could not sit in peace for long. Al-Jabarti recounts that at the time there lived a famous soothsayer known as Sheikh Sadouma, who claimed that he had the power to move objects and communicate with spirits. Youssef Bek noticed some writing on the body of one of his slave girls; he questioned her about it and threatened to kill her until finally she admitted that Sheikh Sadouma had written it as a spell to bewitch her master and make him fall in love with her. Youssef Bek was enraged and ordered his men to murder Sadouma and throw his body in the Nile. As for Youssef Bek, he himself was murdered in 1777; it seems the saying “he who kills shall be killed…even if it takes time” is true!

Mistress Amna’s Business

To complement the grandiosity of al-Hilmiyyah’s architecture, Abbas Pasha ordered Ali Pasha Mubarak, his public works and education minister, to build a large square leading up to the entrance of the palace. It was known as Hilmiyyah Palace Square, and it reached up to Kobbat al-Mozfer, on the opposite side of which lay Al Mas Mosque. To the southeast of the palace was Ali Pasha Mubarak ’s own residence, while to the south was the palace of Ahmed Pasha Talaat.

The marble door of al-Hilmiyyah Palace? A photo of the gate of the mausoleum of Khedive Tewfiq’s family, popularly known as Qubbet Affandina.


Abbas Pasha incorporated many houses and shops into the grounds of his palace. A great deal of correspondence from 25 October 1849 to 17 January 1851, duly stamped and authorized, shows the sale of shops, a coffee house (which was part of the Sidi Al Mas waqf), a business belonging to Mistress Amna, a house belonging to Mistress Hafeeza, and two plots from Hussein Effendi Fawzi. All of these were described as being ‘necessary to Kaysoun Palace (al-Hilmiyyah)’. All of this proves that it was actually a residential area even before Abbas Pasha chose it, which in turn negates the claims that he chose isolated uninhabited areas for his residence.

Tomn Kosoun (The Eighth of Kosoun)

Around 1850, Abbas completed his palace and moved in. It was built to Ottoman design: opulent and large, centered around a garden of rare and exquisite plants and trees from all over the world, and surrounded by a high wall. It included the salamlek and haramlek as well as other more simple buildings. Ali Pasha Mubarak was also ordered to build guard-houses as well as stables and a carriage house, (Abbas was renowned for his passion for horses). The palace even had its own dungeon.   

Up until the nineteenth century, the area was known as Tomn Kaysoun, before then it was just known as Kosoun, which was later pronounced as Kaysoun. At the time constabularies were known as tomn (eighth) because Mohamed Ali Pasha had divided Cairo into eight divisions or constabularies, and so tradition had it that each was known as tomn (an eighth). Abbas Pasha, however, decided to change the name after he completed his palace, and ordered his poet Sheikh Ali Darwish to come up with a name for him. The poet suggested a few and he chose ‘al-Hilmiyyah’ which referred to him. The poet also wrote a poem about the incident and the choice of the new name, and how it now befitted its honored and revered owner, a name taken from the official title of Abbas Pasha, a name more worthy of the palace and its occupants than the old name.

On 30 January 1851, a decree was issued by Abbas Pasha to the effect of changing the name of Kaysoun to al-Hilmiyyah and changing al-Haswa to Abbasiyyah, since he had also erected important buildings there.  Although no specific date for the building of the palace could be found, this decree proves that it was completed before that date. The name of the palace in all official documents changed after this date, and people gradually started using the new name, which is still used today. However, there are some documents that date up to 1883 that insist on calling the area ‘Tomn Kaysoun’.

Four Brooms

The citadel remained the official seat of government for the rulers of Egypt until the reign of Khedive Ismail, but once built, al-Hilmiyyah became of great importance. Nubar Pasha, who was a contemporary of Abbas, describes it as being the seat of government, and says that Abbas Pasha received his men on the ground floor in the large salon of the palace or at the salamlek. He also describes the large foyer of the palace.

There are numerous letters that describe life in the palace. When Abbas Pasha moved from one palace to another documents were sent to him by official courier, the official repository would then keep records of all documents sent. These documents show a great deal of interest in the minutest of details, often rather petty, such as letters to the Ministry of Finance about the fees for five people who moved houseware from the Kaysoun Palace to the citadel for five days on 7 August 1849. There are also letters sent to the armory in Boulaq about sending a workman to operate the burners of Kaysoun Palace; after many follow-ups and deliberations an Ahmed Raslan was appointed to do the job. We can also read letters dating back to November 1850 regarding the salary of the palace’s head eunuch and another about the ‘issue’ of the bread given to the workers in the palace on 27 October 1850. I could not discern how the workers’ bread was turned into an ‘issue’!

On the 7 September 1852, Abbas Hilmi Pasha sent an order to the military commander to make a boiler to replace the one ‘in our palace in Hilmiyyah’. There was also a letter sent to the ministry of state about conveying the required tobacco to Kaysoun Palace on 12 November 1850. You can read requests for sending necessary medicines from military pharmacies to the pharmacy of Kaysoun Palace on 4 November 1850, as well as an order from Abbas to appoint Diamenti as the palace doctor at al-Hilmiyyah and Abbasiyyah on 23 January 1854. As for the strangest thing that I came across in my readings, these were numerous letters written in October 1849 to the Ministry of Finance regarding the issuing of necessary items for the garrison of Kaysoun Palace, namely four brooms!

The Opera’s Architect

Pietro Avoscani was born in Livorno, Italy, in 1816, the son of Count Fransisco. He came to Egypt on 8 March 1837. It did not take long for his reputation as an architect to thrive and his works to flourish, and he was commissioned to supervise the building of Ras al-Tin Palace; there, he himself did the ornamental engravings. In 1862, Count Zizinia commissioned him to build a theatre in his name, and it turned out to be one of the greatest theatres in Alexandria, built along the design of La Scal in Milan. Unfortunately, damage to the foundations caused severe cracks and it was demolished in 1916.  In 1869, Avoscani was commissioned, along with Mario Russi, to plan the Corniche from Ras al-Tin to al-Raml Station. He also designed a beautiful fountain in Qabbary Palace and the Cotton Bourse in al-Basal port in 1871. Avoscani’s most important work was designing the Opera House in 1869. Khedive Ismail commissioned him to finish it in six months, which is probably what led him to build it from wood; this in turn led to it being an easy target for the flames that consumed it in 1971. Avoscani died in Alexandria at the beginning of March 1891.

Obviously I am telling you all of this because I am going to say what he built at al-Hilmiyyah Palace.

The Gift of a Palace

Mahoush, Shaz Del, Hamdam, Howait and Berlante were Abbas Hilmi I’s five child-bearers, all of them concubines.  He did not marry one of the daughters of the family like his peers. Mahoush bore his eldest son, Prince Ibrahim Elhamy, on 3 January 1836, and then he was blessed with two daughters and two sons who all sadly died in infancy. This is perhaps why he was so attached to his only son.

Abbas Pasha took great care in his upbringing of Elhamy: a letter dated to 19 February 1852, written by Abbas, says ‘since our son His Highness Elhamy Pasha has reached puberty he should pray the ordained five prayers daily, consequently ensure that my orders are carried out and that he is encouraged to do so’.

In 1853, when Prince Elhamy was seventeen years old, his father gave him al-Hilmiyyah Palace as a gift, even though it was his favorite and his chosen location as the seat of government.  It seems that Elhamy was greatly pleased with his gift, and he commenced expanding it and refurbishing it.  In 1853, Avoscani was commissioned to renew the palace façade, as well as to work on the interiors. He also added an Italian tower from which he could see the whole of Cairo.

Scared to Death

Abbas I was intent on changing the established system of inheritance in order to pass on the throne to his son; he took steps to broker a marriage alliance with the sultan and succeeded. Elhamy married Princess Mounira Sultan, the daughter of Sultan Abdel Meguid, on 31 July 1857. This alliance gave him the title of damat a formal title in the Ottoman Empire given to those allied by marriage to the Sultan. Elhamy was seventeen when he married and his bride was just thirteen years of age. Elhamy was not much luckier than his father when it came to offspring; he only had one child with Mounira who died in infancy. Afterwards he had three child-bearers, and had a daughter from each of them: Princesses Emineh, Zeinab and Hamida.

On 13 July 1854, the death of Abbas Hilmi ignited an intriguing conflict over the throne between his faithful followers on the one hand, whose aim was for Prince Elhamy to reign, and the supporters of Mohamed Said Pasha on the other, who believed that he was the rightful heir to the throne as per the established system of inheritance. When morning came and Abbas Pasha did not rise, two of his men – Ahmed Pasha Yakan and Ibrahim Bek al-Alfi – entered his chambers and found him dead. The two men agreed to conceal the news. They dressed him, placed him in his carriage, and took him on a formal procession through Cairo to negate any news or rumors about his death.

At the time, Elhamy Pasha had just sailed to Europe, sent by his father to visit the royal families. Al-Alfi attempted to recall him in haste to take his place on the throne. However, the supporters of Said Pasha had already heard the news and relayed it to him, whereupon he headed to Ras al-Tin Palace where he formally announced the death of Abbas. Cannons were fired and a coronation was held, and then Said Pasha travelled to Cairo in the company of the princes of the family; he reached the citadel and was crowned.

It is interesting that some references say that al-Alfi Bek fell down dead of fear when he heard the cannons signaling the advent of Said Pasha to the throne!  After deliberating this fact, I found that official records do show that al-Alfi died one month after the death of Abbas Pasha, which shows that there might be some truth to the tale, even it was slightly exaggerated for emphasis.

The Prince’s Disaster

Although Elhamy did not inherit the throne, he did inherit eighty million francs as well as palaces, vast lands and jewels. He was eighteen at the time and entrusted some investors to manage his money, but unfortunately most of them were dishonest. He also mingled with bad company and was surrounded by many parasites. Due to bad management and extravagance, his eighty million francs were soon squandered. Dr. Burguieres, the family physician, noted that Elhamy was overly fond of women, and lost both his money and his health!

Bad fortune continued for this sad prince: he had contracted Oppenheim Bank (one of the largest banking institutions of German-Jewish origin in the nineteenth century with branches in all European capitals) to manage his lands. He signed an arbitrary contract, handing over his lands to the bank, which proceeded to take excessive commissions on the purchase and sale of agricultural machinery and produce.

Festivities showing Princess Emineh Elhamy leaving her father’s house, al-Hilmiyyah Palace, for her wedding to Prince (later Khedive) Tewfiq on 19 January 1873.

The matter reached a head when Oppenheim took out a loan from another bank using Elhamy’s lands as collateral and was unable to repay the loan; the bank in turn foreclosed and claimed the land. Oppenheim managed to get Elhamy’s signature on a document relieving them of all responsibility, and saving them from any accusations of malpractice and mismanagement of the funds, while the other bank began selling the land off at extremely low prices to pay off the incurred debts.

We often read these days about people fleeing the country because they cannot pay off their debts, Elhamy travelled to Istanbul in 1860, after he had sunk into debt and was on the brink of bankruptcy.  He died on 9 September 1860 at the age of twenty-four. Documents from December 1862 and January 1863 detail the procedures taken in settling his legacy. One year after his death, his first wife Princess Mounira married Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Reda Pasha, a military commander in the Ottoman army, but she died on 29 July 1862 before reaching twenty-two years of age.

It is strange, however, that the governorate of Cairo removed the name of Elhamy from one of the streets of Cairo and replaced it with the name of Al Mas al-Hageb… Our Master!

The Palace of Abbas’s Harem

Abbas Hilmi I’s granddaughter, Princess Emineh Elhamy (1858-1931), who lived with her mother at al-Hilmiyyah Palace

After the death of Elhamy Pasha, Panba Kadin the mother of Abbas I and Mahosh Kadin, the mother of Elhamy, as well as his wives and daughters, remained at al-Hilmiyyah, and so it became known as ‘The Palace of Abbas’s Harem’. According to the evidence, the most important celebration that took place at al-Hilmiyyah was on 12 January 1873, when Khedive Ismail attended the marriage of his eldest son Mohamed Tewfiq to Princess Emineh Elhamy, the eldest daughter of Prince Elhamy, who lived with her mother at al-Hilmiyyah Palace.  All the princes and statesmen attended the wedding, as well as a military band to salute the couple.

On the afternoon of Sunday, 19 January 1873, Princess Emineh Elhamy rode in a grand procession from al-Hilmiyyah Palace to the High Palace to attend celebrations till the following Thursday – the celebrations known as Afrah al-Angal (weddings of the offspring) – at which point she would head for her marital abode – al-Qubba Palace. I was not able to ascertain whether Emineh’s two sisters were also married at al-Hilmiyyah, but it is most probable that they were. In any case the youngest sister, Princess Tawhida Elhamy, was married to Dawoud Pasha Yakan in 1880 while the middle sister, Princess Zeinab Elhamy, was married to Prince Mahmoud Hilmi on 28 March 1883. At the time it was not strange that Princess Tawhida died two years later in the prime of youth, however, what was very strange was that the youngest sister was married before the elder!

Extracting a Garden

The ownership of al-Hilmiyyah Palace went to Princess Emineh Elhamy after the death of her husband Khedive Tewfiq in 1892. She used to occasionally reside at the palace, amid the memories of her childhood, and spend time with her grandfather’s wives and her father’s wives who still lived there. Princess Emineh also converted one of the buildings, and it was from there that her estate was managed.

The palace then stood fighting the effects and travesties of time, its walls now adjacent to the gardens of al-Tajheeziya School. In 1894, Khedive Abbas Hilmi II took permission from Princess Emineh Elhamy to transform the palace’s garden into building plots. From that day onwards the new area of land that had been divided was known as al-Hilmiyyah al-Gadeeda (New Hilmiyyah), to differentiate it from al-Hilmiyyah al-Kadeema (Old Hilmiyyah) which existed at the time around the palace.

Work proceeded on al-Hilmiyyah al-Gadeeda in 1894, lasting for two years. I have in front of me a document written by Hussein Pasha Wassef requesting that he be allowed to buy a plot of land taken from the palace garden to the sum of four hundred pounds; I do not know, however, how large the piece of land was, to be able to calculate the price per metre and compare it to the prices today in the same area. However, it seems his request was granted and Wassef Pasha built a palace in al-Hilmiyyah al-Gadeeda , and to this day there is a street in the area named after him.

Al-Hilmiyyah al-Gadeeda became an area where people wanted to live, even though it did not reach the status of the more elite neighbourhoods of the time, such as al-Qubba or al-Mounira. Nevertheless, it remained popular until the 1940s, and you can read in the newspapers dating back to that era that it was under high demand!

Seventy Not a Hundred

Despite the division of the enormous garden, the palace still retained a small area of land, and the Elephant Lake (Birket al-Fil) still existed and was used by women to wash their clothes. The ladies of the family of Abbas Pasha remained in residence at al-Hilmiyyah until the end of the nineteenth century. The eldest and most important of them at the time was Mahoush Kadin, who was the first child-bearer and mother of Prince Elhamy, and was known as ‘Kadin Effendi al-Hilmiyyah’.

The second child-bearer, Shaz Dal Kadin, also preferred living at al-Hilmiyyah. Although living in Helwan when she fell severely ill and felt that she was dying, she asked to be taken back to al-Hilmiyyah, where she passed away at the age of ninety-nine in December 1897. She was a generous and charitable woman, and was extensively mourned by the newspapers that detailed her good deeds. They also mentioned that she must have been greatly loved by God Almighty since she died on a Friday night. The newspapers however, probably out of respect, put her age as approaching seventy! Shaz Dal Kadin was the last of Abbas’s ladies to die; leaving only one of the wives of Elhamy, since all his three daughters had married. Al-Hilmiyyah Palace was now lonely and empty.

The building that housed the Ministry of Justice at the time was in a feeble condition, so Princess Emineh granted them the palace as a temporary location. In 1902 the palace was demolished and its lands included in al-Hilmiyyah al-Gadeeda. It is said that Princess Emineh ordered the carved marble fixture of the palace door to be moved to the graves of al-Afifi; although this cannot be verified, there is, however, a beautiful carved marble doorway to this day crowning the graveside.

Time is a strange thing; gone are al-Hilmiyyah Palace, Kaysoun, Elhamy, Abbas and his harem and all the rest… but Sayidna Al Mas remains… ‘May God be pleased with his works’ … and ours!

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 2, 2011