Shubra Palace: The twinkling pearl that dispels the night’s darkness

by

Shubra is considered one of the largest and most populous districts in Cairo. Interestingly, this old district was originally an island in the Nile, then gradually became connected to the land due to environmental factors. The word “Shubra” is derived from the Coptic language and means “the village” or “the field” since the area was once famous for its rich fields, which were in close proximity to the Nile.

Entrance to the Palace of Mohamed Ali Pasha

Mohammed Ali Pasha started building his palace in Shubra in 1223 AH (1809 AD) on 50 acres of land where his engineer Zul Fuqar Katukhda supervised the building process. But the one who designed the complex was the French architect Pascal Coste, who later became the chief engineer for Lower Egypt. Mohamed Ali’s strong sense of security led him to choose this remote and calm spot in order to keep away from the conspiratorial misdeeds organised against him by the Mamluks and other enemies.

Mohamed Ali Pasha

Entrance to the Palace of Mohamed Ali Pasha

The architecture of Mohamed Ali’s palace in Shubra was designed in a style that had not been previously known in Egypt. The wide piece of land served as a perfect place to implement Turkish architectural designs, especilly garden palaces which prevailed in Turkey on the shores of Posfor, Dardanil and the Marmara Sea. Among the most famous palaces in Istanbul, which Mohamed Ali used as inspirational prototypes for his palace in Shubra, the Topkapi Palace, the seat of the Ottoman ruling for a very long period of time, was the archetype.

Topkapi Palace in Istanbul

Hans or saraya in the Turkish language or kiosks in the English language, a word which was originally imported from the Latin language.

The Fountain Villa was constructed over a piece of land that was 88 meters

What is particularly noticeable in this design is the large park surrounded by huge fence-walls with a only a handful of gates. Several buildings are scattered throughout the garden, and each has its specific architectural feature. First of those buildings was the residence palace, which was annexed with some wooden constructs set for employees and guards in addition to an anchorage for Nile boats. But this palace was removed at the end of the 1930s by King Farouk I when he chose to build an agricultural road.  In 1821, the “Fountain Palace” was added to the main palace. It was designed by a French architect and is still in existence today. Some years later another small palace was also added called the “Gabalaya (hill) Palace” which also exists today. This structure was constructed on top of an artificial scalar hill that had a square base with each side measuring 8 metres long. A small garden was planted in each step of this scalar hill, which was irrigated by a waterwheel tower that was constructed in 1811 AD to provide the gardens and the villa with fresh water.

Palace of Muhammad’ Ali Pasha at Shubra al-Khaymah , by Pascal Xavier Coste – French

One of the interesting characteristics of Mohamed Ali’s Shubra Palace was that it witnessed the first modern lighting system. England came to know the then-innovated system in 1820 by an engineer named Galaway, who was soon called by Mohammed Ali to accommodate the necessary preparations in his palace. This was considered a major qualitative change for Egypt. Therefore, a gas laboratory was built near the Nile to provide the palace with the cheap energy needed to stay lit with modern equipment. The whole project cost 2,500 piastres and was inaugurated in 1821 AD. It seems that this lighting system was what made the French author Gérard de Nerval describe the palace as “the twinkling pearl that dispels night darkness”.

The remaining buildings in the Shubra Palace are as follows:

The Waterwheel Tower

This is the oldest remaining building in the Shubra Palace complex. It was constructed in 1811 AD and is located 130 m to the east of the “Fountain Palace”, where fruit and vegetable gardens surround it. In the middle of the tower, there are four water wells where the waterwheels were installed to lift the water. These waterwheels operated using machines and not animals, the most prevalent system at the time. In fact, Mohamed Ali made use of all the expertise he could find to make this palace an architectural masterpiece, matching even the most illustrious locations in Turkey and Europe then.

The Fountain Palace

It was built in 1821 AD in the middle of the gardens and was designed by the consul of France in Egypt, who was a close friend of Mohamed Ali. The Fountain Palace consists of a rectangular structure with a number of doors along with marble steps in front of each door. These steps lead to different fountains that are founded on top of strong marble columns.

The Fountain

The interior design of the Fountain Palace is rather unique for Egypt. It consists of a central block with sections of the building surrounding it. This block consists of a large water basin that is 61 metres long, 45 metres wide, and 2.5 metres deep. This basin is coated by illustrious white marble and highlights a fountain situated in the middle of the basin, based upon statues of crocodiles with the water coming out of their mouths.

The other side of the fountain

Statue in the form of lion

the fountain

At each corner of the basin, there is a fountain which is circular with fish carved at its sides.

A fountain which is circular with fish carved at its sides

A large gallery is overlooking the fountain and includes a number of marble columns. The gallery is richly decorated with drawings and portraits of the Egyptian military fleet along with a handful of Roman and Greek thinkers and philosophers. The ceiling of this gallery is highlighted by marvelous oil paintings as well as the Ottoman Baroque architectural style that was prevalent in Turkey at the time.

The Fountain Palace has four corner halls that are quite astonishing in their decorations and architectural design.

The finest of these halls is the “Salon” or Walnuts Hall since the walls and the ground of this hall were lined with wood from Turkish walnut trees.This particular hall features a large mirror decorated in Morocco’s Andalusian motifs.

The ceiling of this hall has remarkable baroque style drawings in the golden colors.

the Salon or walnuts hall

the Salon or walnuts hall

There is also the Arabian Hall which has its walls decorated with green paintings of flowers and roses. The ceiling of this hall is embossed with its distinctive wooden arabesque ornaments on which the names of Mohamed Ali’s family members were written.

the Arabian Hall

The third hall is called the Billiard Hall and was full of many beautiful drawings reminiscent of 19th century French and Italian aesthetics. It is well known that Mohamed Ali hired French, Italian, Greek and Armenian artists to decorate this hall.

Finally, there is the dining hall which is very richly decorated. Actually, it is recognized as another masterpiece in the complex.

 Gabalaya (hill) palace

It is built on top of an artificial scalar hill that is 7.5 metres in height. The interior design of the palace contains a rectangular hall where a marble basin lies in the middle. Above the basin, there is a ceiling that takes the shape of a dome embossed with golden motifs.

Whether your niche is 19th century architecture or the modern history of Egypt, Mohamed Ali’s Shubra Palace is sure to astound you with its architectural prowess and enchanting environment.

Large mirror that is decorated in the fabulous Moroccan Andalusian style

one of Khedive Ismail’s wives