Mysteries of modern Egypt

Michael Haag is the author of "Alexandria: City of Memory."

SHIRLEY JOHNSTON has produced magnificently photographed volumes on Malta, the French Riviera and Florida's Palm Beach. Now after spending five years in Egypt, she has outdone herself with this lavishly illustrated new book, "Egyptian Palaces and Villas," which opens a door on Egypt's sumptuous but rarely revealed golden age of 19th and 20th century architecture.

For background to that world, we should return to 1869, when Khedive Ismail officially opened the Suez Canal amid magnificent festivities in the presence of his guest of honor, Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, and scores of European princes and rulers. As ships from numerous nations passed through the canal from the Mediterranean en route to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea, Egypt found itself again at the crossroads of international trade.

For 300 years, Egypt had been a neglected province of the Ottoman Empire, a stagnating backwater outside the mainstream of events and ideas. But all that changed under Ismail's father, Mohamed Ali Pasha, who in 1805 made himself its ruler. An admirer of the West, he devoted his energies to modernization. He established government schools and hospitals, and a new generation of teachers, doctors and engineers was trained. He overhauled the irrigation system and planted Egyptian fields with a superior variety of cotton that proved an immediate commercial success and was exported throughout the world from Alexandria, the Mediterranean port he re-founded on the site of Cleopatra's famous city.

By the end of his reign in 1848, Mohamed Ali had all but eliminated plague and smallpox in Egypt, set the economy booming and put in place the basic infrastructure of a modern state. He achieved this with the help of European expertise and capital, which he attracted by encouraging foreign immigration, especially of Greeks and Italians, but also Armenians and Syro-Lebanese Christians, and Jews from all over the Mediterranean and throughout the Middle East. The completion of an Alexandria-to-Cairo railway, the first in Africa and the Middle East, made Egypt even more attractive to outside investment, a project capped by the construction of the Suez Canal, one of the great engineering triumphs of the 19th century.

The palaces and villas of this book are the fruits of these endeavors, which inaugurated a cosmopolitan period of unprecedented prosperity during which kings, khedives, pashas, cotton barons and entrepreneurs, together with their ladies, gave exuberant expression to their exotic and eclectic tastes in architecture and interior design.

But only the most fortunate visitors to Egypt, those with the right connections and introductions, are likely to set foot inside more than a few of these 41 jewels of Egypt's 19th and 20th century architectural era. Many of these exquisite buildings are hidden and forgotten, and most are privately owned or serve as foreign embassies and governmental residences. Indeed, much of Johnston's sojourn in Egypt was devoted to tracking down these treasures, and her surprise and delight at her remarkable discoveries (she says she sometimes felt like Egyptologists Jean-Francois Champollion and Howard Carter) is evident in her sparkling photographs and felicitous text.

Johnston introduces us, for example, to an improbable palazzo, copied from an original on the Grand Canal in Venice, that she came upon at Sohag in Upper Egypt where the building overlooks the Nile, its owners an ancient Coptic family who also built a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in their back garden. And she tells us about the Belgian millionaire with a morbid fear of viruses who retreated to the clean air of the desert, where he built a gigantic villa in the form of a Hindu temple. She has also photographed inside and out the remarkable confection of a German cotton baron. His immense villa is a reimagining of the Parthenon and the Erechtheion, joined into one, on a rise above the Mediterranean in vain expectation, it was said, of the imminent arrival of the kaiser (if not a god).

But there are some things in this book that we can see for ourselves. Khedive Ismail intended to impress, and though he lamented that he had been able to build only eight palaces to house the many sovereigns and princes visiting Egypt for the opening of the canal, he certainly succeeded in impressing the Empress Eugenie, whom he took to visit Gezira Palace on an island in the Nile. "I've never seen anything like it in my life," she wrote to her husband. Later, Ismail showed her another architectural marvel, his newly built hunting lodge overlooking the pyramids at Giza.

If you go to Egypt today, you can book a room at Ismail's Gezira Palace, now the Cairo Marriott Hotel, or at his hunting lodge, now the Mena House Oberoi and far more palatial than even Eugenie knew it. These and the Salamlik at Montaza Palace, built at the turn of the century by Khedive Abbas Hilmi II for his Austrian mistress, are five-star hotels where, after being seduced by Johnston's book, you can actually get a bed for a couple of hundred dollars a night.

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