Horse-drawn carriages never fail to evoke images of a romantic past when fine people rode them to destinations of work or leisure, driven by masterful horsemen through cobbled streets. A few of these carriages still run around Egypt’s streets, but they are a mere tourist attraction, more often than not rather cranky vehicles drawn by ill-kept horses. Yet they are vestiges of the glorious past of fine, shiny carriages and splendid horses.
Egypt, as elsewhere in the world, had its fair share of lavish carriages. Distinct among them were those which belonged to the royal family—Egypt’s monarchy began with Muhammad Ali Pasha in 1805, widely recognised as the founder of modern Egypt, and ended in 1953 with the establishment of a republic. The Royal Carriages Museum in Cairo houses many of the fine carriages that were used by the royal family on occasions that ranged from weddings to official errands or processions and funerals.
Despite its historical interest, the Royal Carriages Museum is currently not open to the public. It lies in Beaulac, one of Cairo’s overcrowded, impoverished neighbourhoods. Yet Beaulac was not always like that. As its name implies, it was once a luxuriant, wealthy district bordering the Nile on the northern outskirts of Cairo. Sadly, it is today neglected and its randomly built, crowded housing is home to a mostly vulgar populace, making it one of the unpleasant parts of the city.
The museum, however, is of real importance to the nation, so its curators were shocked when, instead of cleaning up the vicinity, more random activity was allowed to invade it. This was especially glaring when Egypt suffered a breakdown in security in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. That activity was not only by the neighbourhood residents who increasingly occupied the sidewalks and area around the museum to peddle their ware, park animals, and block traffic; but by official entities such as Cairo Governorate. In one instance in 2012 the governorate, in an attempt to bring some order to the area, began a project to construct wooden kiosks in an area adjacent to the museum, for the street vendors to rent and legalise their activity. The project was quickly stopped, however, once the Ministry of State for Antiquities reported the matter to the general prosecutor. The area where the kiosks would have been built belonged to the museum and was used as a park for tour buses. It stood directly behind a gallery that houses some of the rarest carriages in the world.
Tourism officials are actively demanding that the Royal Carriages Museum be placed on the tourist map of Egypt, meaning that it gets included in tourist itineraries. This way it would get more visitors and begin to thrive. The most visited places in Cairo are the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, the Islamic Museum, the Coptic Museum, the Pyramids and the Citadel.
“Beaulac Abul-Ela used to be an area for the élite, the centre of entertainment for princes,” says Nasser Mekkawi, professor of antiquities at Cairo University. The golden age of Beaulac was in the days of Mohamed Ali Pasha, who built a road to connect it with Cairo. The new road led to Beaulac’s port area and was an important element in enabling transport by land as well as river. The first Egyptian museum for antiquities was founded there in 1863, opening with an official ceremony attended by the highest ranks of government and society and marking an appreciation of the efforts of the founder of modern archaeological excavations and the preserver of Egypt’s monuments, the Frenchman Auguste Mariette. It saw greater development when Khedive Abbas II opened Beaulac Bridge in 1912. The first major printing house in the Middle East was founded there, and later it became a huge industrial zone with factories, foundries, workshops and printing houses.
One of three in the world
The Royal Carriages Museum is one of three worldwide, the others being in the United Kingdom and Austria. The Egyptian government had in 2003 allocated some EGP70 million to restore the museum, but the extensive restoration work was discontinued after the Arab Spring. Some 80 per cent of the restoration work had been accomplished.
The museum façade rises 15 metres and is decorated with imposing architectural elements in the form of horses heads. The building was erected by Khedive Ismail in the mid-19th century to house the royal carriages and stables, had a large courtyard in front to prepare the carriages and horses for riding. It also housed a veterinary clinic and ambulance, as well as workers’ living and sleeping quarters.
The museum contains several galleries, among them the Hadiya (Gift), the Tashrifa (Procession), the Hussaan (Horse), and the Markaba al-Rasmiya (Official Carriage). Many of the royal carriages on show are of special historical interest, especially those that were received as gifts from abroad. The carriages were acquired from the reign of Khedive Ismail through to King Farouk, Egypt’s last effective monarch. Among the most important of the carriages that were presented to the rulers of Egypt as gifts is the carriage given by Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie to Khedive Ismail for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Khedive Ismail used this royal carriage in his wedding ceremony.
Another notable example is the Cuban carriage that was used by royal family members at the opening session of parliament.
All in all, the museum displays 78 royal carriages, 6,000 pieces of the livery and costumes of the carriages drivers, whips, horse saddles and trappings, and carriage lamps, and also includes accounts of the care of the carriages and horses in the royal stables.
18 February 2015