Tag Archives: Xenia Nikolskaya

Nights at the palace

46-57_cairo_2 PC(LT)-9

I’ve just written a story on the Baron’s Palace for Eight, a magazine that is distributed through the Dusit Thani hotels. The editors asked if I could contribute something from Cairo on a theme of myths and legends. I was tempted to write about Lord Carnarvon’s tragic end in a room at the Continental-Savoy, or about the well in the courtyard of the Gayer-Anderson house that leads down to the domain of Sultan al-Watawit (the Sultan of the Bats), but I’ve always had a fascination with the Baron’s Palace, a building with more than its share of tall tales. Back in the late 1980s, when I worked up in Heliopolis for a spell, I used to make nocturnal visits to the palace with friends. As I write in the story, there was only an old watchman as security. He occupied a small wooden hut the size of a garden shed, over on the north side of the grounds, towards the Airport Road. If you approached from the southeast, the bulk of the palace was between you and him and, unless he was out on patrol, which was rare, you wouldn’t be seen. The fence was just barbed wire and easily slipped through. Then it was just a quick dash of a couple of hundred metres across the hard, dry ground to the sheltering shadow of the building.

It was easy enough to get in. Somebody had already removed one of the boards covering a window at lower-ground level. You crouched down, squeezed through and dropped. That was scary – it was a short drop but you landed in the pitch black. We never thought to bring a torch. After a few minutes, your eyes adjusted a little bit and then you could make out a doorway across the room, but you still couldn’t see where you were stepping and we were always afraid of snakes. You went out into an equally dark corridor at the end of which were some stairs. As you went up, there were some windows, which the moon just about strained through.

64.	 Baron Palace in Heliopolis, Cairo, 2011

46-57_cairo_2 PC(LT)-7

The light didn’t penetrate far. We could just make out that the rooms and halls on this, the ground floor, were completely empty except for filthy rags, crumpled newspapers and the sort of garbage, covered by a solid layer of dust, that suggested hobos had at some point long ago sheltered here. Once we braved the darkness of a corridor only to trigger a squealing whirlwind as a colony of bats loosed itself from the ceiling and swarmed us. After that we just stuck to the stairs and directed our explorations upwards.

46-57_cairo_2 PC(LT)-4

46-57_cairo_2 PC(LT)-8

There were only two floors above basement level but the staircase continued up into the tower, splitting in two, curving in two directions around the walls. Where they rejoined, one narrow, ladder-like flight extended out across the void to an upper gallery. We once took a few steps on it but our nerve wouldn’t take us any further. Instead, we found a door that exited to the roof and there we used to hang out, larking around and looking over at the nightlights of Cairo in the company of stone-carved temple dancers, dragons and elephant gods.

46-57_cairo_2 PC(LT)-6

The rest of my story deals with the various legends associated with the palace, some of which are true – the son of the original builder did throw lavish parties and did marry a former burlesque dancer who used to appear naked except for a coat of gold paint – but most of which are not: the revolving sun room, the Satanist rituals, the suicides and ghosts. But you can hardly blame people for making up tales about the old palace – just look at it. Could you conceive of a better model for a haunted house?

I read recently that work was supposed to be beginning on the first phase of an architectural rescue of the building. As I haven’t been in Cairo for a little while now, I don’t know if this is happening. But as with all stories connected with the myth-shrouded Baron’s Palace, I will believe it when I see it.

All the photographs, by the way, are from Xenia Nikolskaya’s book Dust, which I have previously blogged about here.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Lost Egypt, My journalism

The beauty of Dust

30. Sarageldine Palace, Cairo, 2006

In Cairo in May I caught up with photographer Xenia Nikolskaya. She had an exhibition at the Townhouse gallery in support of her new book Dust. I wrote the following short piece about her work for Voyager magazine:

On a side street lined with a shanty town of car mechanics’ workshops, the ruined Palace of Prince Said Halim stands like a marooned set from a grand Italian opera. It’s been derelict for decades and access to it is denied by a rusting padlocked iron gate. But photographer Xenia Nikolskaya knows who has the key and a little baksheesh gets the gate opened. We enter and wander through halls scattered with the debris of collapsing ceilings and wind-blown trash.

Russian-born Nikolskaya spent six years visiting and photographing similarly forgotten spaces in cities around Egypt. The rooms she portrays are empty, but her painterly compositions and lambent lighting (which in most cases is natural) serve to give the impression that these are stage sets, only waiting for the arrival of the actors.

The reality is that most of the buildings she has photographed are doomed. They are relics of a time when central Cairo was home to princes and pashas; today’s teeming, overpopulated city has no use for the ornate marbled palaces and playthings of its former aristocracy. So they stand empty, unsuitable for purpose, stagnating – although not entirely impervious to change. Nikolskaya points to a spot above a door in one of the rooms in Said Halim’s palace: ‘When I first came here in 2007, there was a picture of President Mubarak hanging there. Now he’s gone.’

61. Tiring  Department  Store, Cairo, 2010

31. Stage of Radio Cinema, Cairo, 2010

8. Tiring Department Store, Cairo, 2010

3. Sarageldine Palace , Cairo, 2006

35. Villa Casdagli, Garden City, Cairo, 2010

21.	 Staircase of Kluvich House, Port Said, 2010

Dust by Xenia Nikolskaya is published by Dewi Lewis, £30.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Book reviews, Lost Egypt