By Mercedes Volait
Text by Ola Seif

The story of a building on Madabegh Street that played a pivotal role in Egypt’s nascent art scene. Built by a French entrepreneur and eventual home to Egypt’s first art society and to the era’s most important antiquities dealer, it stands witness to the birth of the modern art movement in Egypt.

Sandwiched between two towering structures on Sherif Street—long known as Madabegh Street in memory of the tanneries that occupied the neighbourhood until 1865—lies an unassuming two-storey building. The windows hang crookedly from their hinges, the gate is heavily padlocked, and gaping holes are all that remain of old air conditioning units. A small shop—an afterthought enshrined in masonry—survives, although it is difficult to discern its business. The architectural style is half-Islamic, half-gothic and an Arabic inscription, carved in bas-relief on the facade, provides just a glimpse of 27 Madabegh Street’s captivating past:  Insha’ hadhihi al-dâr li-nafsihi al-baron Dilur di Gliun— ‘This house was founded for his own use by Baron Delort de Gléon.’ (see image at the top of the page)

The Cercle artistique building on 27 Madabegh Street in 1897.

©MUSÉE D’ART ET D’HISTOIRE, VILLE DE GENÈVE, INV. N° A 2006-0029-340

The ‘Villa Medici’ of Cairo

Born to an aristocratic family and trained as a mining engineer, Alphonse Delort de Gléon (1843–1899), joined the prosperous Cairo and Alexandria Water Company in 1868. The company had been founded by his maternal uncle, the wealthy Jean-Antoine Cordier Bek, and in 1873, Delort de Gléon inherited his uncle’s shares and fortune. The young baron invested successfully in industry, finance and land in association with the banker Raphael Suarès, but he was also known as a bon vivant, immersed in culture and art, and was renowned for having replicated the ‘Villa Medici’—the home of the French Academy in Rome—in Cairo.  

Delort de Gléon commissioned French architect Ambroise Baudry to design a house in the ‘Arabic-style’, on land granted to him by Khedive Ismail in the new suburbs of the Egyptian capital. In the words of a contemporary, the property was a ‘very fine bachelor’s house’, where ‘exceptional entertainment and distraction was provided for young gentlemen’. In his garden, Delort de Gléon installed a workshop for visiting artists attracting some of the era’s most famous painters. Among the house’s regular visitors was Jean-Léon Gérôme, the renowned Orientalist artist who painted a portrait of the Baron in 1884, and whose students, French and otherwise, left a pictorial record of their passage through Egypt and of their hedonistic sojourn at the house of Delort de Gléon.

The Cercle Artistique

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Delort de Gléon started to spend more and more time in France. Having gotten rid of his grand villa, in 1890 he built a second, smaller, house as his pied-à-terre in Cairo, the one standing today on 27 Sherif Street. The house eventually became home to the Cercle artistique, the first art society to be established in Egypt. The society, headed by an old resident of Cairo, the Italian ophthalmologist Onofrio Abbate Pasha, settled in the building that had become known as the Casse Club after the name of its manager, Gustave Casse. Every year, during the month of Ramadan, the Cercle held an Exhibition of Fine Arts. In the absence of more appropriate locations, the exhibitions were initially held in a hall of the Khedivial Opera House. The event is first mentioned in the local press in 1896 but started five years earlier in February 1891 at the initiative of Greek painter Théodore Jacques Ralli. Ralli was another of Gérôme’s students and had settled in Cairo where he thrived as the official portraitist of the royal family and of the British authorities. He also founded an art school that offered classes to the public, in the morning to the ladies, and in the afternoon to the gentlemen. The 1898 exhibition catalogue was published in a supplement of the magazine L’arte, a periodical almost impossible to find today, founded by Gustavo Cenci, an Italian musician who promoted education for all and established a music institute in Cairo.

The cover of the weekly journal L’arte where French artist Emile Bernard wrote his critiques of the annual Salon du Caire’s artists.

©BIBLIOTHÈQUE DE L'INHA. COLLECTIONS JACQUES-DOUCET

In 1898, L’arte hired French painter Emile Bernard (1868–1941) as its art critic. After founding the Pont-Aven school with his friend Paul Gauguin, Bernard had left France in search of exotic inspiration to breathe new life into his art and had been living in Cairo since 1893. Egypt, urban, cosmopolitan, industrious and forward-looking but also miserable and fragmented – a fact he discovered only when he arrived— was a far cry from the eternal, mystic land he had imagined. He turned to theosophy and his work took a decidedly anti-modern turn. He claimed to be working towards creating in Egypt ‘an artistic movement, a refuge for spirits hungry for art’. His articles for L’arte were quite harsh in their criticism of the painters who exhibited in the Cercle’s salons and soon, Cairo’s nascent art scene became highly polarized.

In January 1911, the automobile enthusiasts welcomed in their 27 Madabegh Street quarters the exhibition of the first students of the Ecole des beaux-arts.

Emile Bernard and Théodore Ralli both left Cairo in 1904. This date coincides with the end of the Cercle artistique, whose trace is lost thereafter. The house on Madabegh Street nevertheless continued to host art exhibitions, under the auspices of the Automobile Club of Egypt, founded on the premises in 1906 by princes Aziz Hassan and Ibrahim Halim. Intending to ‘cause or ensure the creation and maintenance of practical roads’, the club should not be confused with the Royal Automobile Club (created in 1924 under the patronage of King Fouad) at the heart of Alaa el-Aswany’s book Nadi el-Sayyarat (The Automobile Club). The club of the novel, in which the author sought to evoke the atmosphere of the post-war period, abounds with clichés and is essentially based on viewpoints and positions that have more in common with Nasser’s decolonization efforts after the 1952 Free Officers’ coup than with the Cairo of the 1940s.

In January 1911, the automobile enthusiasts welcomed in their 27 Madabegh Street quarters the exhibition of the first students of the Ecole des beaux-arts. The school was founded in 1908 as a private institution for art education with the financial support of another member of the Khedivial family, art enthusiast and hunting amateur, Prince Youssef Kamal. The idea germinated during conversations with Guillaume Laplagne, a French sculptor based in Cairo who was working on a bust of the prince at the time. With Laplagne as its first director, the school was aimed primarily at young Egyptians, who would form the overwhelming majority of applicants admitted to the school. Several works stood out during that first exhibition of 1911, most notable among them the bronze of Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891–1934), the future soul of Egyptian artistic life, and the paintings of Ragheb Ayad (1892–1982), another notable figure of this generation of pioneers of modern Egyptian art.

From Canvases to Antiques

Maurice Nahman took over the house after the days of the Cercle artistique and the Automobile Club of Egypt were over. He had begun to trade in antiquities while working at the Credit foncier egyptien. He eventually started a business in 1890 with an antiquities trading license issued by the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. The picture shows a 1939 advertisement for his gallery in Le Mondain Egyptien.

©ARCHIVES CEALEX/CNRS

Shortly after, 27 Madabegh Street changed hands again, this time playing host to a different type of art lover. The new owner was the antiquities dealer Maurice Nahman (1868–1948). An Egyptian Jew of Macedonian origin, Nahman had begun to trade in antiquities while working at the Credit foncier egyptien (Egyptian Land Bank) as head cashier. He eventually started a business in his own name in 1890 with an antiquities trading license issued by the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. The business grew and soon he was the most famous antiquarian in town. The Nahman Gallery became the definitive Cairo destination for curators of the world’s largest museums, thanks to the exceptional quality of the Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman pieces on display and the superb collections of papyri and Coptic fabrics. The intimate knowledge of fakes and copies acquired by the dealer during a long career in contact with objets d’art made him an expert sought by specialists worldwide. Some believe that it was Nahman who inspired the enigmatic character of the antiquarian Ayoub featured in Shadi Abdel Salam’s seminal film The Mummy (also known as The Night of Counting the Years, 1969). Set in 1881, one year before the British occupation of Egypt, the haunting film tells the story of an Egyptian family involved in the looting of tombs in the Valley of the Kings during the early days of Egyptology, and examines the torment and guilt that can follow those torn between the future and the past.

The Birth of a National Collection of Contemporary Art

​As the art scene in Egypt became more sophisticated, the focal point gradually shifted away from 27 Madabegh Street. During the spring of 1922 or 1923 a group of French and Egyptian amateurs created the Société des amis de l’art headed by Prince Youssef Kamal with the preeminent Cairene collector Senator Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Bek as the society’s secretary. Its objective was to promote the works of Egyptian artists, both at home and abroad, and to introduce foreign artists to the Egyptian public. The first Salon du Caire, dedicated to the French book and to the art of engraving, was held the following spring in a large hotel. The society subsequently took up residence in an abandoned palace on Antikhana Street across from the Egyptian Museum. Originally built in 1898 to house the French archaeological mission, the vast building included a print house and drawing studios left behind after the mission deserted the premises in favour of a more advantageous location away from the bustle of downtown.

The second Salon du Caire was held on the premises while the third was held at another deserted palace, that of Tigrane Pasha on Nubar Street. In 1928, the society held an exhibition of both classical and contemporary French art, the former on loan from prominent Parisian galleries and from the collection of Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Bek—who surprised the Louvre curators with the breadth of his acquisitions—and the latter including famous artists such as Picasso, Braque and Matisse. The works sold during that exhibition show a burgeoning art collection culture among Egypt’s elite. Buyers ranged from industrialists such as Grégoire Sarkissian, a member of the Société des amis de l’art d’Alexandrie, and Albert Rothbart, a visiting American collector, to the prominent feminist Hoda Shaarawi, who bought the pensive, nude female bronze L’ètè by Henry Dropsy, and King Fouad, who chose an animal sculpture. Most importantly, however, the Ministry of Public Instruction acquired twenty-two lots by renowned artists such as Auguste Rodin, Antoine Bourdelle, Maurice Denis, Georges Sabbagh and others. These works were destined to form the nucleus for a museum of modern art provisionally established at the palace of Tigrane Pasha.

Fragments of a Lost World

A 2016 shot of the building which was built to serve as French entrepreneur Alphonse Delort de Gléon’s Cairo pied-à-terre after he sold his first home, the famous ‘Villa Medici’ of Cairo. Over the years it housed the Cercle artistique and its exhibitions, the first Automobile Club of Egypt and the Nahman antiquities gallery. Today, its address is 27 Sherif Street.

PHOTO: KHALED EL SAMMAN

By the mid-twentieth century, Madabegh Street had become Sherif Street and the heyday of Delort de Gléon’s downtown pied-à-terre had long since passed. Sold by Nahman’s heirs to an Italian bank, the property was nationalized in the 1960s, like many other foreign establishments. The Bank of Alexandria occupied the premises for some time, but it also eventually moved out. Rumours of hidden treasures surfaced periodically adding to the building’s air of mystery. Baron Delort de Gléon’s name was recently invoked in a Cairo court as evidence attesting to the age of the building, and history was solicited to prove that the Baron had indeed existed. In 1995, the owners of a shop which had taken over part of the building applied to have the property listed as a historic monument. Their initiative was most likely for the purpose of establishing some sort of formal connection to the building, possibly paving the way for a legal claim to assume ownership of the property. Since the spring of 2014, a demolition permit has replaced the panel of the Supreme Council of Antiquities at the entrance of the building and will make the fortune of those who have lived for years with the ghosts of Delort de Gléon, Nahman and the many artists and art lovers who passed through the halls of 27 Madabegh Street.

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This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 8, 2016