Heritage lovers in Egypt were recently shocked and saddened to learn that
Sakakini Palace in Dhaher, Cairo, had caught fire. The palace lies in a middle-class
district which had obviously seen better times. For its distinctive aesthetic value,
the dilapidated late-19th- century palace was scheduled for restoration, but no work
has been so far done on that score.
Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mustafa Amin reassured
all heritage lovers that Sakakini Palace in Dhaher, Cairo, was safe following a
limited fire that had erupted in the building the day before.
Dr Amin said the fire had started in the guardroom in the basement of the palace
owing to an electric shortcut, but that it did not affect the structural or architectural
condition of the palace. Only the first layer of the wooden roof of the guardroom
was damaged, he said, but all the structural timbre elements were sound.
As soon as the investigations by the prosecution are complete, Dr Amin said,
restoration work will be undertaken on the roof. Right now, studies are being
conducted on the projected restoration of the entire palace.
Knife-maker turned Count
Although the palace was placed under the care of the Supreme Council of
Antiquities (SCA) in 1997, it has only recently received real attention. The
building is now being considered for restoration and reuse as a museum. The
project has been launched and detailed studies are underway to assess the structural
stability of the palace, given that it suffered some extensive damage in the 1992
earthquake. If it is found to be stable, restoration will commence immediately. The
palace has been neglected for such a long time that many of its valuable
archaeological features have been lost; restoration will include removal of the
rubble inside the palace garden and surroundings, refurbishing the palace’s façades
and garden statutes, and illuminating the garden.
The palace was built in 1897 by Gabriel Habib Sakakini Pasha (1841 – 1923), a
Levantine businessman of Syrian descendant who came to Egypt at the age of 16.
In those days Egypt was officially a province of the Ottoman Empire and there
were no border restrictions to limit travel and trade. The Arabic name Sakakini can
be translated as ‘knife-maker’.
Count Sakakini worked his way up the financial ladder to become a very wealthy
man with influence not only in commerce but in the Church. Not only did he build
a church near the new villa, but he also founded the Roman Catholic Patriarchate
in Faggala and the Roman Catholic Cemetery in Old Cairo. Pope Leon XIII of
Rome conferred on him the papal title of Count in 1901.
Replica of a European palace
The Sakakini Palace displays features of the extravagant rococo style then
fashionable in Europe. It is now obscured amidst the forest of random buildings in
the busy area that surounds it, but it would have looked very different at the time of
Count Sakakini is said to have admired a palace he saw on a visit to Europe, and he
commissioned an Italian company to create a replica in Cairo. He chose an
impressive site for the construction, an elevated position at the hub of eight main
roads. His excellent connection to Khedive Abbas II meant it was easy for him to
acquire the site.
Architect and researcher Samir Rifaat says that the young Habib Sakakini’s career
was given a boost when he was charged with the daunting task of completing the
Khedivial Opera House, working under the Italian architect Pietro Avoscani. The
job was completed on time, and the Opera House opened with a grand ceremony to
accompany the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 with a performance of Verdi’s
Rigoletto in place of the intended Aida. In gratitude, Khedive Ismail awarded
Habib Sakakini the Ottoman title Bey at the age of 29.
In the midst of Cairo traffic
The architects who supervised the building of the palace stipulated that no
amendments were to be introduced to the palace unless under their supervision.
Today the palace, with its conical and onion shaped domes and its mediaeval
gargoyles and steeples, seems misplaced in the midst of the traffic and modern
buildings. Nevertheless, this invaluable architecture still stands proud, despite the
The apparent size of the exterior is misleading. From the outside it does not give
the impression of containing a vast interior, yet its five storeys have a combined
floor space of 2,698 square metres and contain 50 rooms and more than 400
windows and doors, as well as more than 300 busts and statues. The bust of Count
Sakakini himself is placed above the palace entrances. While the surrounding
gardens are not big, they help isolate the palace from the more modern
surroundings. The garden contains many statues and fountains, all created and
designed by Italian artists and architects to complete Sakakini’s vision of a
On Count Sakakini’s death in 1923 his property was divided among his heirs.
Eventually the family gave the palace to the government, although one of his
grandsons, a doctor, gave his share specifically to the Ministry of Health as his
way of contributing to the profession. For some years the palace was misused and
the building neglected, and the Ministry of Health was certainly not the best
caretaker of the palace.
The palace saw slightly brighter days during the reign of King Farouk in the 1940s,
who made some attempt to care for it and other archaeological buildings. After the
1952 Revolution most similar properties were nationalised, so Count Sakakini’s
heirs dedicated the palace to the Revolution rather than see it follow the same fate.
In 1997 it was taken over by the Supreme Council for Antiquities. One plan is to
create a museum of medicine in Egypt from the pharaonic era to the present time.
Sadly the place was plundered during its years of neglect. Statues of an angel and
of a girl wearing a crown, one of Count Sakakini’s favourites, have disappeared,
while others have been broken or destroyed.