Egyptian exhibition of deposed monarchy revisits the memories left after a coup
Egypt’s royalty, once demonised as despots, are now viewed with a mix of curiosity and nostalgia
For many years after army officers seized power in a 1952 coup that toppled the Egyptian monarchy, civilians were relentlessly bombarded with “revolutionary” propaganda that demonised the royal family as ruthless degenerates who treated ordinary Egyptians as serfs.
Delivered through movies, TV shows, newspaper articles, and radio programmes – all tightly controlled by the state authorities – the message was delivered in tandem with an equally important narrative: The “army’s blessed movement” – as the media first called the coup before bestowing upon it the label of revolution – restored Egyptian dignity, pride, and honour.
That vociferously anti-monarchy message changed, albeit slowly, after Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt’s nationalist leader for nearly two decades and the main force behind the coup, died in 1970. The anti-monarchy narrative has since slowly weakened, with Nasser’s successors restoring Egyptian citizenship to members of the royal family and inviting them to return home to live in in the country.
The latest landmark in that rehabilitation process came this year when the Culture Ministry decided to sponsor an exhibition of paintings and sculptures depicting the 19th-century founder of the Egyptian monarchy and his successors.
The exhibition – appropriately hosted in a 1907 mansion located in Zamalek, a residential Nile island that was once the exclusive domain of Egypt’s aristocracy – resonates with a small segment of Egyptian society that continues to this day to look nostalgically on the time of the monarchy.
It also resonated with another group of Egyptians who regularly use social media to post images of a quieter, tidier and more orderly pre-1952 Cairo, making the point that things have dramatically deteriorated since the end of the monarchy, but not directly calling for its restoration.
On the opposite end of that are Egyptian nationalists whose views of the monarchy are influenced by xenophobia – the royal family is of Turkish stock. They deplore the feudal system it allowed to flourish and they celebrate their country’s uncompromising anti-colonial policies under Nasser, especially the industrialization drive and agrarian reforms introduced by the charismatic leader.
“Whenever people are unhappy they remember better times and over romanticise the past,” said Yasmine El Dorghamy, who lectures on art at the American University in Cairo and publishes a magazine on Egyptian art.
“During the days of the monarchy, people were more relaxed, the streets were quieter and there was more time to reflect,” she said, citing Egypt’s rapid population growth – two million every year plus a current population of 100 million – as the root of the country’s problems.
Ms El Dorghamy said the current art exhibition of royal paintings is another landmark in the rehabilitation of Egypt’s royal family, but believes that a TV drama aired in 2000 about the life of King Farouq – Egypt’s last and most maligned monarch – had a significant impact on the conversation about whether the royal family was the unmitigated evil that the Nasser propaganda machine portrayed.
“That show sparked so much interest in the royal family. History groups on social media had overnight attracted tens of thousands of members. The price of old Egyptian magazines and vintage editions that had news about and photos of the royals went through the roof,” she said.
“An art show will have an impact, but it cannot compete with television,” she mused.
The exhibits, once the personal property of Egyptian royalty but confiscated by the post-1952 authorities, come from a museum at the southern end of Zamalek that has been shut for the past 35 years for renovations.
Significantly, the paintings and sculptures shown in the exhibition include works by famous French sculptors Charles Cordier and Henri Alfred Marie Jacquemart who sojourned in Egypt in the 1860s. While in Egypt, the pair enjoyed patronage and produced works that are among the best-known landmarks in the country today.
These include Cordier’s statue of Ibrahim Pasha on horseback that adorns downtown Cairo’s Opera Square. Ibrahim Pasha was a son of Mohammed Ali – founder of Egypt’s last monarchy – and an able general best known for his military conquests in the first half of the 19th century. There are also Jacquemart four, larger-than-life lions that majestically stand at both ends of Kasr El Nil bridge over the Nile in one of Cairo’s most scenic spots. Another famous work by Jacquemart, a statue of Mohammed Ali, stands on a main square in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.
Entitled “Features of an Era,” the exhibition also has paintings of royals by European artists like Hungarian-born Philipe De-Laszio and Frenchman Etienne Billet. One intriguing painting is an unfinished, unsigned work depicting King Farouq, who died in suspicious circumstances while in his exile in Italy in 1965.
The involvement and contributions by European artists were part of the drive by Mohammed Ali and his successors to rapidly modernise Egypt in the wake of the 1798-1801 French expedition to Egypt. The royal family also sent scores of promising Egyptian students to study in Europe during the 19th century, invited French and US Confederate generals to train Egyptian officers, and commissioned Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, which premiered in the Cairo Opera House in 1871.
Yasser Mongy, a prominent art critic and scholar, denies any link between the exhibition and contemporary Egyptian politics, arguing that the show is merely an attempt to examine an important part of the country’s modern history from an artistic perspective.
“The Mohammed Ali family was founded by a non-Egyptian, but with their residence here in Egypt and the accumulation of their actions they have become part of the cultural narrative of the country,” he said. “At the end, what concerns us is the artistic content. The exhibition displayed these works with tolerance and an open mind in a bid to plug holes in Egyptian history.”
Updated: March 10, 2019 09:01 PM