The streets of Garden City have some peculiar names. Whether it is the Archery Arena, the Sugar Refinery, or the Milk Pool, every street was given its name for a reason, and each name has a story, sometimes centuries old.
As you walk through a street of impeccable, elegant buildings, that are a sight for sore eyes, and beautifully proportioned villas, and spectacular palaces that all take your breath away, you feel yourself walking through an enchanting ballroom filled with beautiful ladies competing in exquisiteness and elegance. The years may have taken their toll – colours fading, paintwork peeling – but the buildings still preserve their stateliness.
Ever since childhood, I have been obsessed with reading street names; and from them, gaining an insight to history. I would read the sign ‘Saad Pacha Zaghloul Street’ and enjoy the stories of the 1919 revolution recounted by older generations. The sign ‘Saray al-Guezira Street’ immersed me in the entertaining tales of that gorgeous Andalusian palace. Frequently I would ask different people about the same name, to enjoy different stories, or a different account of the same story. This ploy always worked; only when it came to the district of Garden City did it fail!
You walk through the streets I have described above, and come upon a sign that reads ‘al-Tulumbat’, even though there are no traces of any ‘tulumbat’ (pumps) to be seen, unless maybe on the water pipes of the buildings. You wonder where the ‘Saray Kobra’ (el-Kasr el- ‘Aali) is, and why did they build ‘Warshat ak-Timbak’ (metal workshop) in such a refined district, and what could be the relation of ‘Ma’amal al-Sukkar’ (sugar refinery) to such elegant buildings? You expect to find plant nurseries for example in ‘al-Nabatat Street’ (plants) or running water in ‘al-Faskia Street’ (fountain). You are at your wits end thinking about how they used ‘Howd al-Laban’ (milk pool), not to mention ‘al-Birgass Street’ which no one seems to know the meaning of anyway. If you are told by a better-informed friend that it alludes to a race course, it only deepens your confusion.
As you walk through the distinguished streets of Garden City, you recall its days of glory in the first half of the twentieth century. The palace of Ali Pacha Ibrahim, and his neighbor Naguib Pacha Mahfouz. In place of that ugly building was the palace of Adly Pacha Yakan, the house where Mostafa Pacha el-Nahas lived, and where one of the most famous assassination attempts took place: the perpetrators threw a hand grenade at his house, which could have taken his life, had it not been caught up in his mosquito net. Members of the Wafd Party at the time actually suspected he had supernatural powers!
The house lies in ‘Ahmed Pacha Street’, but who is Ahmed Pacha? Residents of the area reply by saying ‘God only knows’. I was told that the one person who could answer all my questions was Haj Massoud or ‘Sheikh al-Hay’ (a respected elder of the district with a community role); I went to see him full of hope that he would reveal all the secrets of the area. Haj Massoud replied in an all-knowing tone that ‘Ahmed Pacha was originally a foreigner who owned this land; he led a decadent life, until God showed him the way, and he became a Muslim and named himself Ahmed Pacha’. I decided to humour him, maybe I could come out of this awkward conversation with some useful information, so I asked him, ‘Who is Garden City?’ Shaking his head and clearing his throat, Haj Masoud replied, ‘Ahmed Pacha had a beautiful daughter, whom I used to see each afternoon riding on her white horse, when the land was still all fields…’ and he continued to elaborate of a princess – seemingly of the middle ages – until I interrupted him by asking, ‘Who are you referring to?’ Irritated by my interruption of his fantasies, he retorted ‘Mademoiselle Garden City’!
THE ARCHERY ARENA
Cairo was decorated and shone for seven nights and days to celebrate the victory of Ibrahim Pacha the son of Mohamed Ali over the Wahhabis. The victorious commander entered Cairo on Thursday, 9 December 1818, and on the next day, crossed the city at the head of a huge procession and made his way to his new palace – al-Kasr al-‘Aali or the Supreme Palace. I have not found in my readings any definitive date to the building of al-Kasr al-‘Aali. But al-Jabarti tells us that it was new when Ibrahim Pacha returned, so it is likely that he commissioned its building before he left on his campaign in 1816, to have it awaiting its master on his victorious return. However, Ibrahim Pacha was not the first to reside in the district; he was preceded by al-Nasser Mohamed Ibn Kalawoon in the fourteenth century, who developed the land to be used as a training ground for soldiers, as well as building an arena for archery training, parts of which still existed at the end of the nineteenth century.
Al-Jabarti reinforces this information; it is said that when Mohamed Ali travelled to Alexandria on 16 July 1819 as he usually did for the summer, he appointed Ibrahim Pacha to take his place, and his residence was at the palace built on the shores of the Nile in the direction of ‘Madrab al-Nishab’, or the arrow shooters’ benches. Ali Pacha Mubarak claims that the palace was built in place of the residence of Mohamed Bek, but Mubarak did not specify who exactly Mohamed Bek was, and I did not dare ask Haj Masoud in case he told me that he was the fiancé of Mademoiselle Garden City, whose father would not allow her to marry.
Reading the history of the gardens of al-Kasr al-‘Aali solves much of the mystery of the names of the streets in the Garden City district.
When al-Kasr al-‘Aali was built, to its southern side was al-Kasr al-Ainy, to its western side was the Nile, to the east was the road that connected Misr al-Kadima (Old Cairo) to the shores of Bulak, what is today al-Kasr al-Ainy street. As for the northern side, there have been disputes, although most sources claim that it was bordered by the palace of Prince Ahmed Pacha Rifaat the son of Ibrahim Pacha. But the maps show that the palace of Ahmed Rifaat was at first a part of al-Kasr al-‘Aali itself; consequently the northern border of the palace would be where the British Embassy lies today, which means that the grounds of al-Kasr al-‘Aali practically covered what is known today as Garden City.
A FOUNTAIN WATERING GLASS PALMS
At the time of the building al-Kasr al-‘Aali, Ibrahim Pacha was inﬂuenced by his father’s residence at the Citadel; hence he wanted his palace to be both residential and official. He built the Salamlek where he met his guests to the south, and built the Haramlek to the north, as well as service buildings and offices. The kitchens that were annexed to the palace were equipped to serve meals for hundreds per day. He also built a palace for Abbas Pacha, the son of his late brother, who was still a boy. Al-Kasr al-‘Aali was built at a time when architecture in Egypt alternated between the contemporary European style and the Turkish style. You will find d’Estourmel for example describing the palace when he visited in 1833 as a ‘rural residence’, facing al-Roda island, with wide roads leading to it, and surrounded by large beautiful gardens, its layout and design similar to that of Mohamed Ali’s palace in Shubra, although al-Kasr al-‘Aali was more sophisticated in design. An orientalist who visited the palace in December 1855 was greatly impressed by the rooms that had no corridors but led one into the other, as was the case in the great palaces of Europe such as Versailles and the Hermitage. Each princess was allocated four or five rooms, furnished with precious carpets and pieces of European furnishings with beautiful carvings.
Ibrahim Pacha was infatuated with agriculture, and I personally appreciate his efforts whenever I enjoy eating the delicious olives he introduced to Egypt when he conquered the city of Kalamata during his campaigns.
Contrary to modern times, where houses that are built along the Nile face the river, d’Estourmel surprises us with the fact that the main front facet of the palace faced the Citadel and al-Mokkattam. Maybe Ibrahim Pacha chose to face his father’s palace and centre of rule. As for the rear of the palace, it faced the Nile, separated from its shores by a few hundred metres of shaded gardens. The shores were paved to enable the water to be seen from the ground ﬂoor, and these walks were planted with trees and decorated with marble statues that lent a decidedly European air to the garden. However, d’Estourmel also tells us that ‘even though the palace was more beautiful than its counterparts in Egypt at the time, it was built with discomforting Turkish taste’.
If you had visited Ibrahim Pacha at the time, you would have been greeted by a large marble staircase with fine crystal banisters suitable to the grandeur of the palace and its owner. Prince Mohamed Ali Tewfiq later moved parts of the banister to his palace at Manial. There is also a staircase at Abdin Palace with a crystal banister, although I cannot confirm whether it was moved from al-Kasr al-‘Aali, or is just a twin.
You would have been escorted to one of the palace salons to wait for the Pacha, where numerous wide windows ran along the length of the room separated by narrow columns painted with beautiful landscapes, giving the impression that the rooms were in the open air with no walls, were it not for the heavy curtains made of rich fabrics. You would have also been impressed by a fountain built into one of the walls, six feet from the ﬂoor, spouting its water like a waterfall into a marble basin and through marble channels decorated with sculpted fish into a larger, deeper pool. If you were invited to dinner you would enter the large splendid dining room, with an enormous chandelier hanging from its ceiling, and four candle holders in the corners of the room in the shape of palm trees made of glass, with chandeliers placed on the walls behind them throwing a spectrum of light.
Ibrahim Pacha was infatuated with agriculture, and I personally appreciate his efforts whenever I enjoy eating the delicious olives he introduced to Egypt when he conquered the city of Kalamata during his campaigns. By 1835, he had planted more than five million trees of twenty-five different forest species and half a million fruit trees and plants bearing forty-one different kinds of fruit, the most important of which were the mango, citrus, strawberry and grape varieties. It was therefore a matter of course that the garden of his own palace would be exceptionally bountiful, so he commissioned the French engineer Francois Beaufort to plan his garden and started work on it in 1821, to the great admiration of all who saw it.
D’Estourmel tells the story of Beaufort taking him to the gardens of the Haramlek where he met the young prince walking in the gardens with his entourage. This in itself is not strange, nor was it strange for such a beautiful garden to have marble statues and fountains, but what was unique was the fact that it also had a small mausoleum. Ibrahim Pacha wanted to honour Mohamed Laz-Oghly Pacha, who was one of the most loyal subjects of Mohamed Ali, and one of the only four men he entrusted with the details of his plan to slay the Mamelukes, and so d’Estourmel found in one of the corners of the garden two small buildings with domes, the first being a mausoleum for Laz-Oghly and the second being a sabil of water in his name, which still exists today hiding in the corner of what is now the side entrance of a modern Garden City building.
Ibrahim Pacha spent his life improving and enlarging the palace, and exercising his favorite hobby of gardening. He opened many passageways in the gardens of the palace, where the princesses used to take their walks, escorted by the eunuchs, who used to call out ‘Halviet!’ (retirement) to warn men in the area that the princesses were approaching. Ibrahim Pacha’s interest in his palace was not confined to the gardens alone. An orientalist by the name of Garner Wilkinson who visited the palace in 1843 found a large library that Ibrahim Pacha had begun in the 1830s, which included many important Arabic and Turkish texts, as well as a museum of Egyptian artefacts, some of which he kept and others he gave as gifts to his visitors. Many of these are considered the basis of prominent private European collections today. Mohamed Ali himself visited his son’s palace many times, and resided there while Ibrahim Pacha was on campaign. The first great event witnessed by the palace was not a wedding or a ball or even a funeral, but was of a different and amusing nature, for in July 1819 the palace saw the celebration of the circumcision of the child Prince Abbas Hilmi.
Having visited the Haramlek where the Pacha lived with his family, let us now visit the Salamlek where he met his guests and saw to his official duties. I have before me the minutes of the meeting of the Consultative Council of 21 September 1829. It was decreed that on the day following this meeting every Egyptian citizen was to have a document stamped with the official stamp of Egypt if he wished to exit the country and stamped again on his return; thus, passports were born.
Reading the history of the gardens of al-Kasr al-‘Aali solves much of the mystery of the names of the streets in the Garden City district. ‘al-Tulumbat’ refers to the pumps which Ibrahim Pacha imported to lift the water needed for his garden. ‘Al-Birgass’ was for training the horses he brought from Arabia, with the palace stables housing around 400 thoroughbred steeds. ‘Al-Nabatat’ was the plant nursery of the palace, and from there the ‘Salamlek’, ‘al-Kasr al-‘Aali’, ‘Fountain’ and ‘Guards’ are easy to decipher. As for ‘Ma’amal al-Sukkar” this referred to the first of two sugar refineries built in Egypt; Ibrahim Pacha built the first in one of the corners of the palace in 1840, and the second in Farshout. Do not, however, attempt to ask about ‘Howd al-Laban’ or else I will be forced to tell you Haj Masoud’s story of Ibrahim Pacha bathing in it.
The young student passed his exams and was planning on joining the famous St. Seour school, but the death of his father on 10 November 1848 forced him to return. We might imagine that these are lines from the biography of a young student of modest means, but actually this refers to the great Ismail Pacha, future Khedive of Egypt.
Following the death of Ibrahim Pacha, al-Kasr al-‘Aali was overseen by the government. It is clear from the documents of sale and endowment dated November 7th 1849 that it was to be shared by his sons. The elder son Ahmed Rifaat was given the northern part and the Haramlek, which is the largest and grandest area of the palace. The middle son Ismail was given the southern part and the Salamlek in return for 5,160 pouches of gold sovereign. Al-Kobba Palace, meanwhile, was given to the younger son Prince Mostafa Bahgat Fadel. From that day onward, the name of al-Kasr al-‘Aali applied only to the part given to Ismail, especially after he began his rule of Egypt. Many historians attribute their information to documents and maps that belonged to the reign of Ismail, and thus fall into the trap of considering that the palace of Ahmed Pacha Rifaat is the northern boundary of al-Kasr al-‘Aali , whereas in actual fact it is not only part of the original palace, but the largest and most beautiful part.
On his return from France, Ismail took up many residences, one of which was his portion of al-Kasr al-‘Aali . I cannot, however, find evidence as to whether he built a new palace on the grounds, or if he improved and elaborated on the already existing structure. Aly Mubarak claims that ‘work continued on the palace’ but does not give further information. But it is known that he spent some time there on his return at al-Kasr al-‘Aali , and his eldest son Mohamed Tewfiq (later Khedive Tewfiq) was born there. A Swiss orientalist Charles Didier, during his trip to Cairo from September 1853 to January 1854, visited Ismail at the palace and described it as a palace built, decorated and furnished in European rather than Eastern style, its most beautiful attribute being its view of the Nile. Didier also made reference to the sugar refinery which he said Ismail ran himself.
“Forty years of age, with brown hair, elegant manners, and a beautiful intelligent face.” This was the description that Mrs Senior gave when she visited in 24 November 1855. Shafik Pacha insists that she was beautiful in her youth and remained so till the end of her life. I have never been able to find a picture of this lady: Khoshiar Kadin. But from studying the history of al-Kasr al-‘Aali it is obvious to me that she was the first to play the role of First Lady in Egyptian contemporary history. However, her active role in society was not during the reign of her husband, but rather during the reign of her son Ismail. When Ismail Pacha became khedive, she became the most important woman at the royal court. From this came the title al-Walda Pacha, in her honour, and for the entirety of her life her name was connected to the history of al-Kasr al-‘Aali .
At the start of his reign, Ismail issued a decree on 30 December 1863, ordering Mostafa Pacha al-Keredly the governor of Egypt, to endow al-Kasr al-‘Aali to his mother, al-Walda Pacha. Documentation shows that al-Walda Pacha was deeply attached to al-Kasr al-‘Aali , maybe in honour of her memories with her husband there, and although her son had allocated al-Zaafaran Palace for her use, she donated it to the government on 15 July 1876, and took up residence at al-Kasr al-‘Aali, where she moved her belongings and furnishings from al-Zaafaran.
The way of life in al-Kasr al-‘Aali adhered mostly to Turkish tradition with some European inﬂuences. Al-Walda Pacha would sit holding a diamond encrusted sceptre, with the princesses and visitors sitting around her in a circle on gold-threaded cushions. In the middle of the circle of ladies was a cushion on the ground on which was placed a silver tray laden with delicacies, which was all replaced by gold for official functions.
Al-Walda Pacha was interested in the arts and in music; she had a musical troupe in her palace accompanied by Egyptian and Turkish singers, as well as dancers and actors, who all wore gold-threaded trousers. During the celebrations for the religious feasts or formal functions, the musical troupe would sit in a wooden kiosk attached to the Haramlek to welcome guests with music and songs as they entered. Al-Walda Pacha chose the most beautiful of Circassian slaves and had them tutored by Egyptians, Turks and Europeans. It is said that the palace had more than a thousand of these slaves and their Sudanese helpers. Receiving guests in al-Kasr al-‘Aali followed the protocol of Abdin Palace. The guests would sit on high chairs and partake in coffee and sweets, and then would be introduced to al-Walda Pacha, who would welcome them to the palace. They would then retire to the salons for a drink of absinthe before taking their leave.
A WEDDING OF COINCIDENCE
One of the most interesting weddings that took place at al-Kasr al-‘Aali was that of Ibrahim Pacha Tewfiq in 1869. Empress Eugenie had expressed her desire – during her historic visit to Egypt – to witness an Egyptian wedding, so the khedive ordered one of his entourage, Ibrahim Tewfiq, to marry one of his slaves, and the wedding took place at al-Kasr al-‘Aali for the benefit of the empress. The bride received priceless jewels as a royal gift from the khedive.
Al-Kasr al-‘Aali witnessed many marriages of the Khedive’s family, the first being that of Princess Tawhida on 21 March 1869, and the most ﬂamboyant being the four weddings of the children of Khedive Ismail in January 1873. The wedding celebrations, which lasted for forty days and nights, were not only the most splendid to take place at the palace, but in the history of Egypt.
Khedive Ismail was forced to abdicate the throne in 1879. On 16 June 1880, Khedive Tewfiq issued a decree making many palaces, including al-Kasr al-‘Aali, government property. Several years later, the new khedive entered Egypt protected by the British army, and the buildings of Cairo, including al-Kasr al-‘Aali, were lit in ‘celebration’ of this sad event. The days passed, and al-Walda Pacha received the last of her guests at al-Kasr al-‘Aali on 20 June 1886. The following day she died, and her grand funeral march proceeded from the palace at six in the evening of the same day. The soldiers lined the roads under the command of Churchill Bek (the British Constable) from Abdin Square and on to al-Rifa’e Mosque, where the deceased was interred.
THE PALACES UNITE
As I have mentioned, al-Kasr al-‘Aali was divided between Ismail and Ahmed Rifaat. It seems that ‘Ahmed Pacha’ was not (as Haj Masoud would have us believe) a foreigner after all. He was Prince Ahmed Pacha Rifaat, the son of Ibrahim Pacha, who inherited the Haramlek, which is probably situated close to the street carrying his name. I have spoken a lot about the more famous part of the palace belonging to Ismail; as for the other part, it unfortunately witnessed mostly sad events.
We will, however, start our story with one of the few happy events. In 1873, the two families of the palace were united in marriage. Prince Ibrahim Ahmed, the son of Ahmed Pacha Rifaat, married Princess Zeinab the daughter of Khedive Ismail. On 4 May 1873, the Khedive purchased a palace built by Prince Ibrahim at 56,832 Sterling Pounds (a third of the price), to live in with his bride and his mother, Shams Hanem. However the young bride suffered from a heart condition and died in 1875, and Shams Hanem died at al-Kasr al-‘Aali in 1891. Prince Ibrahim married again, this time to Nougan Hanem, who gave birth to Chevikar, Ahmed Seif al-Din and Mohamed Wahid al-Din, who inherited the palace from their father Ibrahim Ahmed the son of Ahmed Rifaat. They lived at the palace after the death of their father in 1894.
On 13 February 1895, al-Kasr al-‘Aali witnessed the last of its very few happy days. Princess Chevikar held a celebration on the occasion of her betrothal to Prince Ahmed Fouad, and invited all the princesses and ladies of high society to attend a Henna Night as was common practice at the time. She received her guests sitting on a high chair similar to a throne, and was taken the next day in a procession to her husband’s palace at al-Zaafaran. At the time, al-Zaafaran was at its most splendid, which was not the
case with al-Kasr al-‘Aali, on which time had taken its toll.
A MYSTERIOUS WILL
The government decided to return the palace to its original owner, Khedive Ismail, in January 1888, nine years after his departure from Egypt. The palace had deteriorated after the death of al-Walda Pacha, with no one else wishing to reside in it, apart from Prince Hussein Kamel, who lived in the palace for a while in 1894. At the time, the former khedive was having financial difficulties, so he attempted to sell the palace but could not find a buyer.
During his last days, Ismail Pacha had plans for al-Kasr al-‘Aali. On 2 February 1895 news came from Istanbul that Ismail’s health was deteriorating rapidly, and he summoned Ahmed Bek Assaad, who travelled to Cairo taking with him the documents pertaining to al-Kasr al-‘Aali. Ismail Pacha’s intentions are unknown to this day; did he put a certain plan in action or did he die before doing so?
On 2 March 1895 telegraphs were received bearing the news of Ismail’s death. It was decided he would be buried in Cairo, and the wake would be held at al-Kasr al-‘Aali. The two princes, Hussein Kamel and Ahmed Fouad, received condolences at the palace, which was filled with the elite of Egyptian society for the last time. Everyone assembled then stood as the Khedive Abbass Hilmi entered to offer his condolences to his uncles – the Khedive’s sons – and his three wives. This was the last time the palace welcomed a ruler of Egypt.
When the days of mourning were over, the princes met with their nephew Khedive Abbass to study the will of Ismail Pacha, and found that although the palace was in his name, it was owned by his three wives. The heirs all accepted the terms of the will, apart from Prince Ahmed Fouad and his sister Princess Gamila. On their side, the three wives were not happy with the legacy since it forced them to pay off a debt of 200,000 pounds.
THE PALACE STILL REMAINS
The first attempt at selling the palace was in 1898 to a German company that wished to convert it into a hotel, however, the deal was cancelled when they discovered that the palace was mortgaged. In the same year all the marble, furnishings, doors and wood of the palace was sold at auction, the palace was stripped and the garden left to decay.
On 1 November 1898, al-Kasr al-‘Aali was sold to al-Dayrah al-Sania which attempted to sell it again in March 1899 for 85,000 pounds to the company of Philippart, Simon, Tamvaco & Co. but Prince Ahmed Kamal and his nieces Princess Chevikar and her sister obtained a court decree giving them first right in the purchase of the palace. And so, on 29 May 1899 the palace was back in the family after half a century of estrangement.
In 1903, the end came, with the demolition of first the Salamlek, then the Haramlek. When the Haramlek was knocked down, the Ritz hotel company attempted to buy the land, but the British government beat them to it, and enlarged the embassy. In September 1905, the remains of al-Kasr al-‘Aali were put on sale, with Khedive Abbas and his family purchasing much of it. Princess Chevikar, who built her own palace after al-Kasr al-‘Aali was knocked down, used the marble as well as other items, most important of which was the fountain that was given to Ibrahim Pacha during a visit to Europe. The fountain was placed in the garden of the palace which is now the location of the Cabinet; there is a fountain there still, probably the same historic one taken from al-Kasr al-‘Aali.
Al-Kasr al-‘Aali is unique in that some of its walls still stand in other locations, although the palace itself ceased to exist a century ago. A man by the name of Aly al-Wakkad bought remnants of al-Kasr al-‘Aali and used them to build a family burial plot. His enthusiasm for the palace was obviously great since he built with care to put the blocks in their original structure and shape. A fire burnt the place down in 1924 and most of the remains were destroyed; however, the doors survived and there are still walls with the initials of Khedive Ismail carved on them.
In 1904, the Egyptian Enterprise and Development company was established, managed by Mansour Naguib Shakour Pacha.
The land was divided into streets, and in May 1906 the development authority asked for a promenade to be built from the walls of the British embassy up to al-Kasr al-Ainy. The promenade was inaugurated in September 1910.
In 1906 the plot was sold for 700,000 pounds to the Nile Land & Agriculture Company, which founded the district of Garden City. The contract was drawn up between the company representative and the heirs of Prince Ahmed Rifaat. Although the land was still empty in 1907, there was an approval for 2,976 pounds to be used for the sweeping of the new streets, many of which were within the boundaries of al-Kasr al-‘Aali.
After taking this trip, you are free to give your own opinions about the mysteries behind the names of the streets of Garden City. You can point out with great confidence – just like Haj Masoud – that al-Birgass Street was built on the site of the old archery arena. May God bless Ismail Pacha, Ahmed Pacha and al-Walda Pacha, and all those I have mentioned, and above all, of course, Haj Masoud. However, I strongly feel that the one who deserves our prayers for mercy and our pity… is Mademoiselle Garden City.
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Amr S. Talaat ,DBA, is a historian specialized in Egypt’s modern history. He has conducted extensive research on many significant events and personalities of that era. In addition to his many articles, he has published Saadeyoun ‘am Adleyoun (Sherouk Press, 2010), a book on the relationship between two prominent politicians of the early twentieth century. Sherouk Press, 2010.