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Mercedes Volait, Maisons de France au Caire. Le remploi de grands décors mamelouks et ottomans dans une architecture moderne = Buyūt Faransā fi l-Qāhira. Al-Athār al-mamlūkiyya wa-l-ʿuthmāniyya fi l-ʿimāra al-adītha

Cairo: Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, 2012 (bilingual publication in French and Arabic)
Ralph Bodenstein
Référence(s) :

Mercedes Volait, Maisons de France au Caire. Le remploi de grands décors mamelouks et ottomans dans une architecture moderne = Buyūt Faransā fi l-Qāhira. Al-Athār al-mamlūkiyya wa-l-ʿuthmāniyya fi l-ʿimāra al-hadītha (bilingual publication in French and Arabic), photos by Blas Gimeno Ribelles, Arabic translation by Menha El Batraoui, Cairo: Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, 2012

Texte intégral

1When the French embassy in Egypt moved from the old premises in Downtown Cairo to the present premises across the Nile in Giza in 1938, the furniture lorries were not only loaded with the usual goods for relocation. Polychrome marble floors and dados, painted and gilded wooden ceilings, stained glass windows, doors with ivory inlay or bronze plating, panels with Arabic inscriptions, polychrome Turkish tiles, marble fountains–basically the entire architectural decoration of the old premises was carefully dismantled and transferred to be reused in the new French embassy building. In Maisons de France au Caire, Mercedes Volait tells the fascinating story of this outstanding collection of Mamluk- and Ottoman-period decoration, how it was created by a French aristocrat who fell in love with Islamic art in Cairo in the 1870s, how he built a neo-Islamic mansion as a home for himself and his collection, and how this collection was reused in a modern 1930s embassy building where it can still be admired today.

2What looks like a small coffee-table book in a handy landscape format with hardcover and high-quality colour illustrations on almost every page, is the fruit of painstaking research in numerous locations and collections. Volait bases her study on a successful combination of methods and sources: Detailed on-site documentation and analysis of the decoration of the present French embassy buildings is combined with research in archives that range from the well-known French Foreign Ministry archives in Nantes and La Courneuve and the Egyptian National Archives in Cairo, to lesser-known photographic and document collections in Paris, Florence and Helsinki. With a track record of earlier publications on related subjects, including L'Égypte d'un architecte: Ambroise Baudry 1838-1906 (1998), Architectes et architectures de l'Égypte moderne, 1830-1950 : Genèse et essor d'une expertise locale ( 2005), Fous du Caire : architectes, excentriques et amateurs d'art en Égypte (2009) and most recently the edited volume Le Caire dessiné et photographié au xixe siècle (2013), Volait can also draw on profound background knowledge and a command of sources that has clearly benefited this book.

3The documents presented—numerous historical and contemporary photographs in addition to historical plans, drawings, manuscripts, and even the Arabic inscriptions preserved in the decorations—do not simply serve as illustrations, but are scrutinized as elements in Volait's detective work to reconstruct the history of Saint-Maurice's collection, the way it was assembled in his Cairo mansion, and the way it was later reused in the new French embassy. Full source referencing is provided in explanatory notes at the end of each chapter and in the bibliography.

4The text is written in an accessible style, densely interwoven with image material explained in informative captions, and additionally animated by quotations from sources that provide illuminating (and often entertaining) glimpses into the moods, mindsets, and heated discussions of the period. All this makes the book attractive to specialist and non-specialist readers alike; that it is fully bilingual in French and Arabic gives the publication the particular merit to be easily accessible to an Egyptian and Arabic-speaking readership as well.

5In her introduction, Volait takes the reader on a first visit to the chancery building in the French embassy complex in Giza—a building centred on a large and lavishly decorated cruciform vestibule that looks like the reception hall (qāʿa) known from the grand houses of Mamluk- and Ottoman-period Cairo, complete with marble-mosaic floors and walls, ivory-inlaid doors, and polychrome wooden ceilings. These architectural elements and decorations are not only recognisably historical, but—in Volait's words—the “product of a double history”: The pieces originate from older buildings that were demolished in the course of Cairo's urban modernisation in the 1860s and 1870s, and they had all been previously installed in the house of Gaston de Saint-Maurice, one of the first large mansions in what was then Cairo's new urban extension Ismailiyya, and what is now Downtown Cairo. From today's perspective, the French chancery—dating from the 1930s and representing particular political and architectural choices of that time—is now an historical building in its own right, and can thus be considered what Volait aptly calls a “triple-historical architecture.”

6Volait's declared aim is to trace and unfold these “entangled histories.” In the first three chapters, she reconstructs the three main phases of these histories in chronological order. Chapter 1 deals with the construction of Saint-Maurice's “oriental residence” and its background story (1875–1879); chapter 2 discusses the period in which Saint-Maurice's home was taken over and re-used by the French diplomatic mission (1884–1934); and chapter 3 traces the construction of the new embassy premises in Giza and the re-installation of the historical decorations (1934–1938). Chapter 4 is a catalogue of the Arabic inscriptions found in the French chancery building, presenting photos, a reading, a translation, and a critical discussion of each inscription—allowing Volait to exploit the inscriptions as meaningful sources in themselves for her reconstruction of the history of the collection and Saint-Maurice's house. Finally, chapter 5 presents a catalogue of attractive full-page photos showing details of the reused decorations.

7One particular quality of Volait's study is the way she weaves her micro-historical subject into its multifaceted macro-historical context. By reading the story of the two buildings and their re-used furnishings, the reader also learns about Cairo's urban modernisation and expansion in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the accompanying abandonment and demolition of the old city quarters, and the beginnings of conservation efforts for “Arab monuments” in Cairo, eventually formalised by the creation of the Comité de conservation des monuments de l'art arabe in 1881 (a predecessor of today's Ministry of Antiquity Affairs). In this period of construction sites and abundance of debris of old buildings, the French aristocrat and art-lover Gaston de Saint-Maurice arrived in Cairo to enter the services of Khedive Ismail in 1868. He received a plot of land in the new quarter of Ismailiyya and decided to build himself a luxurious mansion freely inspired by old Cairene architecture, and to reuse the growing collection of parts and pieces that he gathered from demolition sites with increasing experience and expertise. In doing so, he actually became one of the first collectors of “Arab art” (the term then used for what later came to be called Islamic art). Here again, Volait provides background that helps the reader understand that this was not an isolated idiosyncrasy: In France, on the one hand, post-revolutionary social opportunities had induced the aristocracy to seek new means of distinction, and one of them was the fashion of decorating homes with reused parts from historical buildings. In Cairo, on the other hand, the French architect Ambroise Baudry had just designed a mansion in the “purest Arab style” for another French aristocrat, Baron Adolphe Delort de Gléon, on a plot of land right next to where Saint-Maurice was to build his. And we learn that Saint-Maurice asked the same Baudry to draw up plans for his house as well. Volait, though, shows that there were many more people—French architects and engineers, Italian decorators, craftsmen (including a specialist carpenter from Syria)—involved in the design and construction of the house, and that the construction took many years (from 1875 to 1879 at least). Through a close analysis of historical construction drawings and photos, using clues like the presence of scaffolding and the growth of trees, she is able to prove that there were changes of plan to accommodate later additions to Saint-Maurice's collection. Applying similar detective methods, she also traces the possible origins of some of the pieces recycled for his home, she identifies pieces that were newly made in the old style to complement the collection, and she traces pieces that Saint-Maurice did not use and instead sold to European museums. The uncovering of such details and their local-global interconnections make Volait's book a fascinating read.

8As Volait shows, Saint-Maurice's neo-Islamic “folly” became famous as soon as it was built, and triggered diverse reactions and appreciations over the following decades. It was lauded as a “masterpiece of Arab restoration,” was used (and ridiculed) as a kind of theatre stage decoration for Oriental costume photography, was even labelled as (supposedly real) “Arab house” in a photo postcard of the period. Local photo studios like Bonfils and Sebah produced pictures of the house for tourists, and its interior featured as a backdrop in late-nineteenth century Orientalist paintings. In the mid-1930s, the building was deemed by the prominent scholar and then director of the Museum of Arab Art in Cairo, Gaston Wiet, to be “one of the most popular monuments” of Cairo. The transposition of the spolia from old Cairene houses had thus succeeded in conferring on the modern building of the 1870s the quality of a monument of its own. Conversely, through their extraction from their original context and integration into Saint-Maurice's collection, the historical decorative elements had acquired a value as artistic artefacts that they did not have—or that could not be appreciated or consumed as easily—when they were still part of decaying Cairene buildings.

9One important value that soon accrued to the building and its historical artefacts was political. As Volait demonstrates by means of contemporary correspondence, the rationale behind the take-over of Saint-Maurice's house by the French state in 1884 was that by installing the French diplomatic mission in “Cairo's most beautiful building,” France would send a clear signal to the British and the Egyptians that it was determined to defend its political and commercial interests in Egypt after the British occupation of 1882. In the 1930s, changing requirements and tastes had made the ageing building appear unsuitable as an embassy building. When the new premises in Giza were being planned, political considerations led to the decision to preserve and transfer almost the entire architectural decoration of Saint-Maurice's house, against the critical archaeological approach of expert advisor Gaston Wiet who advised that only the historical pieces should be preserved, while those newly made for Saint-Maurice were to be discarded. But ambitions went further: In contrast to the picturesque neo-Mamluk appearance of Saint-Maurice's mansion, the exterior of the new chancery building in Giza, purpose-built to house the reused pieces, was designed in a sober and simplified neo-Arab style developed in French Morocco. As Volait shows, this reproduction of a French colonial style in Egypt was by no means arbitrary: The responsible French ambassador, Pierre de Witasse, had served in Morocco before coming to Egypt. The style, closely associated with maréchal Hubert Lyautey's politics of preservation in the French protectorate, was considered as a perfect marriage between modern requirements and respect for the traditions of Arab art. Volait beautifully demonstrates that this choice of style was, on the one hand, a reflection of an ongoing debate in France, promoting sober and thus “timeless” lines against the outdated exuberant Moorish architectures of French Algeria and the Côte d'Azur as well as the “hostile and angular rigidity” of modernist architecture appearing in France at the time. On the other hand, it was meant as a contribution to a similar debate in Egypt that called for the “creation of a style that corresponds to the needs of contemporary Egypt while taking inspiration from the traditions of the past millennium” and—in the words of one Egyptian author quoted by Volait—even called on Egyptians to do in Egypt what Lyautey had achieved in Morocco. The irony of colonial France posing, and being proposed, as a model for Egyptians to learn from at a time when Egypt was struggling against British tutelage, will not escape the reader, and it points to the complex political antagonisms in which the architecture of the embassy was inevitably a political instrument. Eventually, as Volait keenly observes, the new chancery building with its free rearrangement of reused decorations and its arcaded patio opening onto garden terraces overlooking the Nile, was reminiscent of the show-architectures designed to represent nations at world fairs or universal exhibitions, and as such presented no less a “décor de théâtre” than Saint-Maurice's mansion had before. Whether, and in which way, this French contribution to the architectural debate in Egypt had an actual influence on architectural production in the country, would be a question worth exploring; but it is beyond the scope of Volait's book.

10In her conclusion, Volait highlights the exceptional character of both Saint-Maurice's house and the Giza chancery as two of the very few attempts to revivent Mamluk and Ottoman art through a reuse of historical fragments. She points out that the earliest known attempts of this kind were born from within the same small circle of aesthetes—all hailing from France—who had discovered the monuments of Cairo at the time of the city's modernisation in the late 1860s, and built their constructions in Cairo and France, sometimes as complete houses, sometimes limited to apartments or rooms. Later in the nineteenth and twentieth century, similar creations with reused fragments can be found all over the world, including prominent examples like Doris Duke's Shangri-La on Hawaii or Henry Pharaon's mansion in Beirut.

11Volait concedes that today this kind of reuse as a way of dealing with historical fragments and architectural elements might appear frivolous in view of a predominant credo of in situ conservation. The concept is charged with the memories of colonial and imperialist looting and the heated discussions on cultural heritage theft and restitution claims. But reuse is an age-old tradition of its own, and—as Volait rightfully points out—has also been a consistent part of the official conservation policy and practice regarding the Islamic monuments of Cairo, where throughout the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries intact parts of some monuments have been transferred in order to substitute or complement missing parts in other monuments. Volait ends her study with an argument that is meant to vindicate reuse, as one possible conservation strategy among others: In the age of an ongoing museification of heritage that threatens to overburden societies, we cannot afford to completely neglect the durability, and the creative potential, offered by the reuse of historical fragments. As a thoroughly researched and beautifully presented case-study, Volait's book is definitely a strong contribution to the discussion, and deserves special credit for making Saint-Maurice's collection and its fascinating story known to the public.

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Ralph Bodenstein, « Mercedes Volait, Maisons de France au Caire. Le remploi de grands décors mamelouks et ottomans dans une architecture moderne = Buyūt Faransā fi l-Qāhira. Al-Athār al-mamlūkiyya wa-l-ʿuthmāniyya fi l-ʿimāra al-adītha »ABE Journal [En ligne], 4 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2014, consulté le 02 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Ralph Bodenstein

DAAD-Visiting Professor in History of Islamic Architecture at Cairo University, Faculty of Archaeology, Dept. of Islamic Archaeology and Senior research fellow at German Archaeological Institute, Cairo Dept. Egypt, Cairo, Egypt

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