When back in September 2008 a huge fire consumed Egypt’s National Theatre, Egyptians were heartbroken. It was not the first time they had suffered such great loss; they had lost to the flames in 1971 their Opera House, burnt to the ground. The Opera House was built in 1869, fashioned after Milano’s La Scala, to host celebrations for the grand opening of the Suez Canal. In 1988, however, Egypt was fortunate enough to get a brand new opera house in an exceptional design as a gift from Japan. In 2008, the National Theatre appeared a lost cause.
But Egyptians need not have felt so despondent about their torched National Theatre; it would again rise from the ashes. The Culture Ministry declared it would rebuild the theatre and restore it to its former splendour no matter how much that cost.
On Egypt’s Heritage List
Directly after the fire, a committee of architects and construction engineers was assigned by the Culture Ministry to inspect what was left of the building. It was found that practically all the constructional elements of the building had suffered; many parts had shifted from their foundations, lost their balance, or buckled under the heat. The dome and the roof of the stage had completely collapsed, and the concrete and reinforcing bars were no longer in working condition.
The rebuilding and restoration of the National Theatre had to be carried out with the utmost precision and sensitivity. The Downtown Cairo building, which went back to 1920 but had a much older history that stretched as far back as the 15th century, was on Egypt’s Heritage List. It was a gem of a building that stood as the cornerstone of Egypt’s cultural life
Great effort and studies thus went into devising a plan for the rebuilding and restoration work to bring it back to what it originally was, while at the same time equipping it with state-of-the-art theatre technology and ensuring its future safety and the safety of the theatre goers. What was left of its splendid ornamentation had to be carefully cleaned, polished, fortified, and restored to its original glory. The façade, the only such relic left from buildings of that period, had to be saved and sensitively restored.
Last Saturday, 20 December, saw the opening of the National Theatre, rebuilt and restored at the cost of some EGP105 million. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, joined Culture Minister Gaber Asfour to open the iconic building, in attendance of a host of officials, ambassadors, and public figures especially from the cultural and arts domain.
In the 15th century, the site where the National Theatre today stands was a huge garden that surrounded al-Azbakiya Lake around which the elite of Egypt’s ruling Mameluks built their palaces. The place turned into a leisure area where vaudeville shows drew a large audience.
In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt; his military campaign lasted three years till it was defeated by Lord Nelson. The French built the first theatre in Azbakiya Gardens to entertain the soldiers, but this was burned down during what came to be known as the Cairo revolt against the French.
It took little less than a century later for a theatre to again emerge in Azbakiya. The Azbakiya Lake had been filled by orders of Egypt’s viceroy Muhammad Ali. In 1870 Khedive Ismail turned the Azbakiya Garden into a replica of the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris; he even imported similar vegetation to plant there. He erected nearby a small theatre that was used to stage performances by the Comedie Francaise—today the building is home to the Cairo Fire Fighting Depatment—and the Cairo Opera House. In the garden, he erected another theatre, the first to feature Egyptian theatre groups.
In 1885, the theatre known as al-Azbakiya Theatre hosted its first performances by an Egyptian theatre group. By 1935, the National Egyptian Group had been formed under the leadership of poet Khalil Motran, but this was disbanded in 1942 as a result of its anti-British performances. Following the 1952 Revolution which abolished the monarchy and turned Egypt into a republic, Al-Azbakiya Theatre became the National Theatre. It went on to spearhead a thriving theatre movement that spawned the greatest ever playwrights, actors, directors and theatre related figures on the Egyptian scene.
The theatre boasts two auditoriums, a rehearsal hall, a smaller building for actor dressing rooms, an administrative building, a youth theatre and spaces for the Puppet and Taliaa (Avant Garde) Theatres.
The scope of the restoration work was daunting, but it helped that old documents and photographs existed that showed what it looked like in its early years. Among the unique collection of paintings, artefacts, and antiques the building contained, one especially stands out. This is a huge crystal chandelier at the theatre’s entrance, which weighs 720kg, is five metres high and four metres wide, and includes 80,000 pieces of crystal. The original was destroyed by the fire but a replacement has been made. The huge size and width of the chandelier gives it special significance, since it helps absorb any sound could interfere with the performance.
23 December 2014