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A Short History of the Mubarak Public Library Building

by Samir Raafat
Middle East Times, Sunday, January 12, 1997

villa Marcel Vincenot
Villa Credit Foncier

Facing the Nile, at some short distance south of Kasr Majlis al-Dawla (State Council) in Giza, stands the redbrick art nouveau villa of Marcel Vincenot (great-grandson e-mail Marcel Vincenot ) and Emile Minost, at No.4 Tahawia Street. They were the veteran French bankers who ran the Credit Foncier Bank on Abdel Khalek Sarwat Street (today the Arab International Bank building).

Following its nationalization in the late 1950s, Credit Foncier's fixed assets were turned over to the state. This included the building and garden at No.4 Tahawia Street, which at the time, was divided into two apartments of palatial proportions. Shortly thereafter, the villa was handed over, free-of-charge, to General Abdelhakim Amer, a prominent member of the Free Officers Movement. Originally from the small town of Estal in Upper Egypt, Amer, his first wife and their six children, lived at No. 4 Tahawia Street in regal splendor for the next decade. During their unencumbered tenancy, the two sumptuous apartments were merged into one. So in actual fact, the immeuble de rapport had been turned into an hotel particulier. But, like the proverbial house of cards, it all came tumbling down following the army's defeat in the June 1967 War.

Instead of delivering the expected victory, Egypt's No.2 man lost Egypt it's Sinai peninsula along with the country' s air force. The war had ended so quickly, neither Amer's Field Marshal baton nor his multiple decorations had had time to be put to the test! In search of a fallguy, the regime stripped al mushir of his munificent ranks and multiple positions. Ostracized by his peers, who only a few weeks earlier had hailed the minister of war as the Great Commander, the now ex-Field Marshal was on his own.

In view of these unexpected developments, the Credit Foncier villa became the venue of a temporary power struggle pitting Amer's dispirited supporters against the rest of the power elite. And since several grumpy army officers had taken refuge inside Amer's house, the villa and the surrounding area had turned into a temporary urban war zone.

The putsch never came. Instead, a downcast Amer died unexpectedly in mid-September 1967. Henceforth, Villa Credit Foncier became the "house of the wounded pride."

For the next two decades, Villa Credit Foncier remained in the custody of Amer's widow and their several children. It was only after Mrs. Amer's death that the house reverted back to the state to dispose of it as it pleased.

For some time, the Mubarak Government had been pondering with the idea of starting a children's library in Giza. The break came when Bertelsmann Foundation, a well-known German non-profit organization specializing in international cooperation, media management and culture, sought to expand overseas. It was ready to avail Egypt with a generous 8 million mark grant for the creation of a general community library. In return, Egypt would need to provide suitable premises.

And what better premises than Villa Credit Foncier. Not only could it provide 3,000 square meters of valuable space, but it also included a large garden fronting the Nile. An excellent location if there was ever one. The choice made, Bertelsmann and the competent Egyptian authorities set to work

By blending 19th century European with modern and so-called International Style, George Parcq, the villa's original architect, had brought together this typical Cairo diversity when he conceived Villa Credit Foncier in the early 1930s. Parcq, a self-styled guardian of history and continuity, sought to sustain the link between past and future generations. This is also evidenced in the fascinating French Embassy chancery (not the ambassador's residence) on Giza's newly renamed Charles de Gaulle Avenue. There, Parcq and his French compatriot, Jacques Hardy, went for the functional arabesque blended in beautifully with many of the other villas in the area.

However architecturally sound, Villa Credit Foncier had not been built to house a public library. Hence, the major structural changes needed to convert into one. These alterations had to comply with a library's functional needs, which today means multimedia rooms and conference halls, as well as with the minimum safety and security standards. Moreover, an entire new floor had to be added to the existing building.

To drive home the point that restoration and modernization are not mututally exclusive, these elaborate requirements had to be carried out without sacrificing the exterior of the house or it's ornate interior with its grand staircase. In other words, the restoration and modernization works could not, in any way, alter the buidling's aesthetics.

In early 1990, scaffoldings were erected both within and outside the villa under the supervision of architects Mamdouh al-Habashi and Achim Krekeler. They went at it all guns blazing. To both these gentleman this was not only a labor of love, but here was a rare opportunity to restore, refurbish and rehabilitate one of Cairo's belle époque homes. Should their endeavors prove successful, it would become the long waited for precedent.

Instead of the wrecker's ball, Villa Credit Foncier had its second chance. Its balustrades and wonderful high-relief stuccos depicting tropical vegetation were brought back to existence. The load-bearing beams were reinforced. The air-condition ducts were put in place. Wall carvings and parquet floorings were restored, groomed and cleaned to their orginal condition. It was as though a sleeping beauty had come back to life.

Passers-by, some of whom had never seen a belle époque house in full bloom, could now do so. Villa Credit Foncier had also become a tourist attraction evidencing that colonial relics are just as interesting to the foreign visitor as the Sakara pyramids.

On March 21, 1995, Villa Credit Foncier, now the Mubarak Public Library, was inaugurated by President Mubarak. With him to mark the occasion were Klaus Kinkel and Rita Susmuth, Germany's minister of foreign affairs and the Bundestag's president respectively.

Once the symbol of Franco-Egyptian cooperation, this belle époque landmark is now a symbol of collaboration between Egypt and Germany. More importantly, it a living testimonial that our architectural cultural heritage is worth preserving.

articles posted on were published in the following books by Samir W Raafat: THE EGYPTIAN BOURSE, Zeitouna, Cairo -- CAIRO THE GLORY YEARS, Harpocrates, Alexandria -- HISTORY & SOCIETY IN A CAIRO SUBURB; MAADI 1904-1962, Palm Press, Cairo -- PRIVILEGED FOR THREE CENTURIES, printed digitally and bound by Elias Printing, Egypt

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