Plans to restore Alexandria’s iconic Al-Al-Montazah Park and Palace have sparked mixed reactions among conservationists, writes Dina Al-Mahdy
Famous as the “Pearl of the Mediterranean”, the captivating city of Alexandria, the second capital of Egypt, still fascinates visitors with its blend of history and modernity.
Although very little remains of the ancient city, Alexandria still retains its Mediterranean ambiance and its early 20th-century residences, combined with its old cafés and Graeco-Roman monuments. It was for these reasons that the Arab League chose Alexandria in 2010 as the Capital of Arab Tourism.
Alexandria also has a special place in many Egyptians’ hearts, as they have a soft spot for a place where they have memories of being with families and friends while indulging in the city’s iconic ice cream, or feasting on seafood, or strolling on the Corniche. Enjoying the spectacular views of the Mediterranean starting from Ras Al-Tin Palace and stretching all the way to the Al-Montazah Park and Palace has always been a special treat for the city’s visitors.
Among the city’s more remarkable tourist attractions are the Antoniadis Gardens and Palace, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Qaitbay Citadel, Pompey’s Pillar, the Kom Al-Shoqafa Catacombs, the Mustafa Kamel and Shatby cemeteries, the Alexandria National Museum, the Royal Jewellery Museum, the Graeco-Roman Museum, the Opera House, the St Mena Monastery, and the Al-Montazah Park and Palace.
Al-Montazah is one of the most beautiful tourist attractions in Alexandria, with an array of rare palm trees soaring into the sky, a diverse collection of flowers, and large areas of enchanting greenery landscaped among the most exquisite gardens and the finest architectural designs. Al-Montazah also offers visitors a myriad of entertaining activities, including boat rides, waterskiing, scuba diving, snorkelling, and relaxing by the seashore.
Al-Montazah was once a royal summer residence, but after Egypt’s 1952 Revolution and subsequent change of regime, former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser transformed the Al-Montazah Park into a public resort, one of two with Mamoura. Since then, the Al-Montazah Park has been a public park and forest reserve, though the Al-Montazah Palace is closed to the public and is occasionally used as a presidential guesthouse.
Al-Montazah is located at the eastern edge of Alexandria, and the complex, occupying approximately 377 feddans, overlooks the Al-Montazah Gulf. It comprises three formerly royal palaces, the Al-Montazah Palace itself and the Salamlek and Haramlek palaces, as well as six beaches equipped for swimming, including the Aida, Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Vanessa, Semiramis, and the private Helnan Palestine Hotel. The site is currently maintained by 270 staff under the supervision of 15 horticulturalists and landscape designers managed by the Al-Montazah Company for Tourism and Investment.
Al-Montazah has recently been attracting increased attention. It started with a legal battle over the ownership of the Al-Montazah beach cabins in the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution in 2011, and it has increased with the government starting major plans to revamp the site as a whole and conserve its iconic park and architecture with a view to turning it into an international tourist hub.
The ambitious plans have been met with anxiety on the part of conservationists and some Alexandrians who fear that the historic allure of the area could fade in the process, a fear that officials insist is unfounded. They say that the park will be transformed into a globally renowned tourist hub and that all Egyptians will be able to make use of its exquisite beaches and enjoy its architectural and horticultural heritage.
Nevertheless, many Alexandria residents are looking backwards not forwards, their nostalgia causing them to dig deep into history in an attempt to recall a place that has stood for centuries. Many Alexandrians also have unforgettable memories about visits and picnics in the Al-Montazah Park and Gardens.
MEMORIES OF Al-MontazahJaidaa Gawad Hamada, a cabin owner and a professor of English at the Faculty of Arts at Alexandria University, has her own childhood memories of Al-Montazah.
“Some kind of mystical bond ties me to Al-Montazah. Although it is now in the realm of the inaccessible and the vanishing, it is still alive in my memories. Reminiscences about my childhood will always be bound up with this place,” she said.
“Al-Montazah had never been just a summer resort for me, nor has it been a mere spatial niche. Rather, it has always been, and will continue to be, an innate part of me and my family. It is part of the good old days that one cannot retrieve but will always be revivified by. Talking about Al-Montazah lets loose a flood of memories.”
Sherine Said, a researcher at Alexandria’s Centre for Social Research, recalls her family outings in the park. “Al-Montazah crystalises what a picnic is. This was the place that I used to go to along with my family and have a proper picnic, like the ones I used to read about in children’s stories. We used to play football and hide and seek, walk around the greenery, and marvel at rare flowers and the enormous trees during sunny weekends in winter,” she said.
“I recall the famous palace, the bridge, and the sea. In summer, we used to go to the Vanessa and other beaches at Al-Montazah.”
It was in 1892 that Abbas Helmi II, the then khedive of Egypt, discovered the area’s potential. Every summer, he would ride in Alexandria with his companions, and one summer night he ordered his men to prepare 80 horses for a ride with a band of musicians.
When they reached Sidi Bishr, an area of the city, the khedive was so fascinated by the beautiful crystal-clear waters and surrounding natural bays that he decided to build a palace on the hill between two outcrops with a small island to the north where he later spent summer every year. Influenced by his education in Vienna, he instructed Dimitri Fabricious Pasha, the architect of the khedival palaces, to build him a palace inspired by an Austrian hunting lodge in a forest landscape.
He also transformed the vast surrounding area into flourishing parks and gardens. On top of one of the outcrops there are cannons going back to the reign of Mohamed Ali who placed them there to protect the northern coast of Egypt. These cannons are located in the exact same spot today, and the khedive Helmi II had the Salamlek Palace built in front of them.
The khedive followed the construction of the palaces himself, and he named the entire complex “the Al-Montazah”, or “the garden”, a name suggested to him by Mahmoud Shoukri Pasha, head of the Ottoman Divan in Egypt.
Al-Montazah Park, developed by an Italian company, was designed by renowned Italian landscape architect Pietro Porcinai. The work on site was supervised by resident architect Pietro Verbinscak. The resort was later accessible by three gates, the first built by king Fouad in the 1920s and used by the king and his entourage. The second gate separates the Mamoura area from the palace and was allocated for servants, and the third is located next to the railway station for the royal train that used to transport the king from the palace.
The royal train was a significant feature of the palace until the 1960s and was established in 1851 when the khedive Abbas I had started building a railway line to link Cairo and Alexandria. He negotiated with the British Stephenson Company to carry out the project, and the company made him a present of a royal locomotive.
The Al-Montazah Palace itself was built in 1892 in an eclectic Austrian Baroque style, and it later saw many historical events. On 28 February 1910, the wedding of the khedive Helmi II and the Hungarian countess May Torok von Szendro was held there, the countess converting to Islam and taking the name of the princess Djavidan Hanem. During World War I, the palace became a Red Cross Hospital where thousands of convalescent British soldiers were transferred to receive treatment.
The Salamlek Palace was built in 1892 and was used as a hunting lodge and residence for the khedive Abbas II’s new wife. The word “salamlek” means a place where men are allowed to meet, contrary to “haramlek” which refers to a place for women’s gatherings. The building, located on a plateau with a beautiful seascape at one end and a garden that extends over a huge area on the other, has an interesting design, and it was later used as royal offices and a meeting hall.
The Haramlek Palace was built by King Fouad in 1927 in an architectural design that combines Ottoman and Florentine styles and includes Gothic, classical, Islamic and Byzantine elements. The palace and the royal gardens were added to the Al-Montazah Palace as the former royal family’s summer residence.
During the reign of King Farouk, the bridge, water tower, police station, royal train station, and the tea pavilion, all designed by Egyptian architect Mustafa Fahmi Pasha, were added. In 1934, King Fouad established the Royal Greenhouses, a magnificent nature reserve. Located on the eastern side of the Al-Montazah Palace, these are one feddan in size and 10 metres high and contain rare species of palm, climbing vines and ornamental plants.
The nearby Helnan Palestine Hotel was built in six months in 1964 to accommodate the Arab leaders participating in the Second Arab Summit meeting in Alexandria. The hotel’s location was chosen by former president Nasser and was built within the 350 acres of the Al-Montazah Park close to the beaches.
It has 217 spacious rooms and suites, each luxuriously appointed and furnished with views overlooking the sea and park. The hotel has undergone several renovations, including a complete refurbishment. In October 2002, it hosted world leaders attending the inauguration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
Following the 1952 Revolution, around 896 cabins were built along the beaches in the area. Although the gardens and beaches were opened to the public following the revolution, much of the site was reserved for Egypt’s elite. Former ministers and famous public figures were among the tenants of the cabins that extended over six exclusive beaches in Al-Montazah, and they were mainly passed down from one generation to the next.
After the 2011 Revolution, the Al-Montazah Company decided to requisition 681 cabins from their former owners, as their rent was not proportionate to their real value.
The decision was made after an administrative order by former tourism minister Hisham Zazou in February 2014, but since then there has been a legal battle between the Al-Montazah Company and the cabins’ tenants. The former minister’s decision was appealed at the Administrative Court, and former interim president Adli Mansour intervened by forming a committee of the ministries of tourism and finance and the Al-Montazah Company to resolve the crisis and set a fair rent.
The committee set the provisional value of the cabins’ rent at LE1,000 per metre, according to cabinet decision 788 of 2016. However, Zaazou made another decision in October 2014 demanding that the Ministry of Interior evacuate the cabins. When the owners resorted to the courts to halt the decision and filed complaints with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, former prime minister Ibrahim Mehleb postponed the implementation of the decision in an attempt to resolve the issue.
There was outrage on social media, as the cabins held cherished childhood memories for many people. Some of the tenants were also artistic, political, and diplomatic figures. Actor Hassan Youssef said he had been renting his cabin since 1967 and had paid the rent until 2013. He expressed his shock at the former minister’s decision ordering the confiscation of the cabins and instructing state security to forcibly evict the tenants.
“At the beginning, the injustice of the whole thing made me think it was a rumour, but when it turned out to be true it was more like a nightmare. We felt, and still do feel, very wronged, let alone our sense of frustration that such a historical place has lost its character. It is a real wrench to part with such a place,” Jaidaa Gawad Hamada commented.
Some angry tenants staged vigils against the former minister, filing lawsuits at the courts of Cairo and Alexandria and claiming that their contracts were legal and could not be nullified.However, Zazou said that he had to abide by the law and that he had sent the tenants’ contracts to experts at the ministry who had said that the contracts were administrative matters.
In 2017, the Al-Montazah Company hired a consultant to prepare an engineering report on the cabins. After inspections from October 2017 to April 2018, it was found that the cabins were not structurally sound and that many of them were in danger of collapse. Based on this report, the Company closed the Semiramis cabins. It warned the owners about the danger, saying that the cabins required demolition and requesting the owners to evacuate them. The cabin owners refused, claiming that the decisions of the Company were a ploy to expel them without a court verdict.
The legal conflict has meant that the status of the entire Al-Montazah site, particularly the cabins located by the six beaches, the chalet of late president Anwar Al-Sadat, and the royal train and station, is in doubt. No maintenance measures have been taken to protect the area.
The abandoned chalet once used by Sadat, designed by architect Gamal Bakri in 1974, is now a ruin, and the former royal train station was taken over by squatters.
CONSERVATION PLANSAfter the death of the khedive Abbas Helmi II, the former royal family used the Al-Montazah Palace until the reign of the last king of Egypt Farouk I.
In the 1970s, during the rule of Sadat, the first conservation project was implemented to transform both the Haramlek and Salamlek palaces into official guest houses and a hotel and casino, respectively. An Italian company was appointed to develop and manage the site.
In 2016, an archaeological committee under the supervision of the Antiquities Ministry started work on a conservation project to transform the former Salamlek Palace into a new hotel celebrating its fine historical architecture.
“The architectural heritage is one of the most significant components of a nation’s memory. The Egyptian government has finally decided to make better use of Egypt’s rich architectural heritage and to encourage conservation projects all over the country. One successful conservation approach is the rehabilitation or re-usage of buildings to bring them back to life,” said one urban-development expert speaking on condition of anonymity.
In 2018, the Al-Montazah Company carried out renovation work on the Palaces, the Royal Greenhouses, and the gardens to preserve their original features and recapture their ancient spirit. In January 2019, due to the deterioration of the area and wanting to develop the site and transform it into a tourist destination, President Al-Sisi called for a report on the best ways to optimise the use of the Al-Montazah neighbourhood as a tourist destination, while preserving its unique heritage, historical masterpieces, and distinguished location and beaches.
President Al-Sisi met with Presidential Assistant for National and Strategic Projects Sherif Ismail, Minister of Tourism Rania Al-Mashat, head of the Al-Montazah Company for Tourism and Investment Bahaa Tahoun, and Presidential Adviser for Urban Planning Amir Sayed, among others, asking for a comprehensive development plan to be prepared for the area. Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi said that Al-Sisi had tasked the officials with completing the studies required to develop the district and promote services to attract tourists.
A team of engineers, archaeologists, and conservators was given access to the site to report on the project. It then obtained the approval of the country’s Permanent Antiquities Committee, an official disclosed to Al-Masrawy newspaper.
Work began to demolish 206 cabins and cut down trees in Al-Montazah Park, and pictures went viral on social-media platforms. Tahoun, head of the Al-Montazah Company, explained that some of the trees in the Al-Montazah Park were infected with various diseases and threatened others. It was for this reason that the company had followed the recommendations of the ministry of agriculture in removing the trees, he said. “The company will plant the same kind of trees to compensate for those that have been lost,” he added.
In February this year, former governor of Alexandria Abdel-Aziz Konsowa said that the Armed Forces Engineering Authority and the North Military Region, as well as the Al-Montazah Tourism Company, had been assigned to develop the Al-Montazah Gardens. The development plan aimed at transforming the Gardens into a globally renowned tourist destination open to Egyptians and visitors from all over the world, with numerous international events planned to be held in the area in the coming years.
The Al-Montazah Tourism Company in cooperation with the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces also announced the launch of an architectural competition for the entire Al-Montazah area. The competition will make the best use of the Al-Montazah area, while preserving its horticultural and architectural heritage, and the first, second, and third winners will receive prizes of LE500,000, LE300,000, and LE150,000, respectively.
The company has recently ended the selling off of the Al-Montazah cabins, and it halted the development of the Salamlek Palace following the bankruptcy of the Stanley Real Estate Investment Company, which had been awarded the contract to renovate the palace at a cost of LE120 million.
Renovation work at the site is well underway, but officials have not revealed final designs or the name of the company that will execute the next phase of the renovation work.
MIXED REACTIONSThe decisions have been met with mixed reactions ranging from enthusiasm to scepticism. Photographs of the iconic venue being demolished have been circulating on social media since the authorities began to evacuate and demolish the 206 cabins.
“I am too aghast and distraught to have any positive take on the new project that is likely to be implemented. Even if it will be financially lucrative, it will be at the expense of losing an unrivalled place that had long characterised Alexandria. Nothing can rival the glory of bygone Al-Montazah,” said Hamada.
“I have nothing against progress and development. And I think this is everybody’s view. No one hates development, but everyone hates deterioration. Al-Montazah is important not only for Alexandrians, but also for all Egyptians. Aside from the history of the site, Al-Montazah is the largest historical green space in Alexandria that is open to more than 10 million inhabitants,” Said said.
“There is a need for more green spaces, especially since the Khalideen Gardens at the Al-Qaed Ibrahim Mosque, the Mahmoudiya Canal Gardens, and the Antoniadis Gardens are all under development. There aren’t any new green spaces being made available, while the city is being extended. If they cannot provide citizens with enough green spaces, they should at least keep the current ones,” she added.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one urban-development expert said that the renovation and development projects were the way forward, however, adding that there was a need for a strategic vision for the area so that new and older constructions blended smoothly. The plans required sensitive structural treatments to restore the old buildings and meet modern requirements, he said.
“The heritage buildings need rehabilitation and restoration to meet the needs of current and future generations, while respecting their heritage value. Due to physical, functional and/or economic reasons, heritage buildings require additions in adapting them to contemporary conditions. But these new additions should be compatible with the original construction and the appearance of the original building after additions,” commented Mohamed Al-Awwad, an Alexandria conservation architect.
The overall plan of the site should be retained, along with the rare plants and forest in the park, he said, since the latter had long been an integral part of the identity of Al-Montazah. Moreover, any new additions to the site should be of appropriate height without blocking sea views and should be in harmony with the heritage buildings at the site. The park and gardens had an important social aspect as a public park opened after the 1952 Revolution, and the environmental dimension should be borne in mind, particularly when planning new construction.
A team of specialists in architecture, heritage, the environment and landscape planning should be assigned, Al-Awwad said, adding that despite rumours various officials had assured the public that the renovation project would preserve the rich architectural and horticultural heritage of the Al-Montazah site, retaining it for future generations.
It is to be hoped that the renovation work now underway will help to revive the glorious past of the area, while creating a smooth blend between new and old construction and maintaining the irreplaceable identity of this part of Alexandria.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.