Why I Keep Coming Back to Cairo

The French artist, known for his tapestries depicting bodybuilders on the Nile banks, shares the places in the Egyptian capital which stimulate his ideas and fire up his creativity.

For French illustrator and textile designer Louis Barthélemy, it’s the hectic melee of Downtown Cairo that keeps him coming back to the city he now calls his second home. “In Paris we resist it, but in Cairo they accept chaos with a sense of humor and softness that I find liberating,” the 30-year-old says. “The city is a puzzle; you go from one world to the next in one day, from the old Cairo and its grand boulevards to the contemporary Cairo and its shiny Starbucks to the Islamic Cairo with its hammams, souks and minarets.”

When in Cairo, which he visits several times a year, Barthélemy searches out fragments of Egypt’s past and uses those images to stitch together his own fantasy tableau of the city’s most carefree gilded era during the late 1800s and early 1900s. “I picture in my mind the blissful frivolous scenes and parties that happened over a century ago in these grand buildings and lush gardens, now faded and overgrown, and those images often find themselves into my tapestries.”

Barthélemy gave PRIOR his list of the historic buildings and social spaces that intrigue and inspire him in the Egyptian capital and beyond.

My favorite two neighborhoods in Cairo are Downtown and Zamalek. The urban development of the city has been so manic in the last few decades with its population boom and the sprawl of concrete high-rises that unfortunately much of the most charming architecture in the historic center, such as Darb el Ahmar and El Gamalia quarters, have been destroyed. But exploring Downtown, with its grand boulevards and faded Belle Epoque European-inspired architecture, and leafy Zamalek, an island in the Nile that was originally developed in the 1860s with the Gezira Palace by Khedive Ismail (the viceroy overseeing Egypt and Sudan in the second half of 19th century until he was removed by the British), feels like travelling back in time.

Zamalek is full of banyan and jacaranda trees and the buildings have incredible frescoes; it is one of the few neighborhoods that you can actually stroll around. Often, when I wander its streets, I think about the Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon II, (it was rumored that Ismail was infatuated with her) and her visit to Cairo in 1869 to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal.

Photographs by Sabry Khaled

I love the faded grandeur of the lobby of the Marriott near the Opera House in Zamalek, with its pistachio-painted stairway. The central wing was at one point part of the Gezira Palace, which had been converted to a luxury hotel at the end of the 19th century. It’s very nostalgic and charming. To escape the extreme heat in the summer I often go here for a cocktail—something one can rarely find in Cairo. I love to sit under a pergola in the haunted gardens and listen to live jazz. It’s such an oasis in the middle of the dusty Kafkaesque city, popular with upper class locals–gossiping Egyptian matrons-and expats with a fascination for history.

Not far from the Marriott is a very cute place called the Holm Café. It’s not easy to eat well in Cairo because the best food is often found in private homes, but Holm is an exception, serving fresh things like tartines slathered with labneh and za’atar, salads and a kind of Oriental take on a smoothie (a drink made of dates, nuts, bananas and honey). I use it as a hub to work and relax, and often stay for lunch or read a book.

Photographs by Sabry Khaled

An elegant Coptic woman I know named Leila Benamatalla has a boutique in an apartment in an historic building called Siwa Creations where she sells a beautiful selection of votive candles of all sizes, and furniture carved from blocks of salt, as well as bed linens embroidered with desert landscapes under stars, made by craftswomen in the Egyptian oasis of Siwa close to the border with Libya. This is often where I go to buy special gifts for friends.

Another favorite in Zamalek is the Ubuntu art gallery, also located in an historic apartment building. It’s on two levels: the lower floor shows young contemporary Egyptian artists working in all mediums, and the upper floor features curated culturally themed exhibitions such as a recent one that was about Persian carpets and their influence on Egyptian kilims. There is always an interesting topic that often sparks deeper research or ideas.

In Downtown I love the Museum of Antiquities, specifically the rooms of mummified animals. The Egyptians used to mummify cats and kittens and other animals, allowing them an afterlife as well. I will then pass by L’Orientaliste, a charming bookshop that specializes in Egyptian history, run in the last few years by Hassan Kamy, an opera singer who sadly passed away last year. I’d ask him about a specific subject, like fish images, and he would pull out tons of things, from faded, written-upon postcards to original painted lithographs of sealife. Despite the death of the owner, it’s still an inspiring place, full of old dusty books and hidden gems. These precious old documents often inspire my drawings. I might translate a print of an ancient temple or hieroglyphs onto the loincloth I draw on one of my male figures. Somehow this bookstore is like a microcosm of the country itself: nothing is organized and it’s all a jumble of images from a mix of eras. The chaos of it allows me to play around, pick and choose various details and invent my own tableaux.

My first ever meal in Cairo was at Café Riche, late one evening. It was raining and the city felt deserted but there was a crowd of middle-aged people speaking a mix of French and Arabic and I felt like I had dropped into a Youssef Chahine film from the 50s. Pictures of Egyptian intelligentsia like Naguib Mahfouz and singers such as Umm Kalthoum line the wall.

Photographs by Sabry Khaled

I love to go to the restaurant Eish+Malh, especially for brunch and a pizza on Sundays when they host a little artisanal market that sells organic honeys, dried fruits, handmade soaps and hand-stitched tasseled leather slippers by local maker, Bulga. It has high ceilings and big windows that look out over a stunning Art Deco synagogue with beautiful frescos. I love the bright red, retro wrought-iron chairs. It’s a quirky detail that I really like. The crowd is local and lively, mostly young students with a sense of style.

Elsewhere in the city, I have to mention two other favorites. I came across the the Gayer-Anderson Museum on my first day in Cairo and it was a beautiful surprise. Made up of two adjoining 16th-century houses, it was the home of an Irishman serving in the British army in Africa who ended up staying in Cairo with his male servant who was also his lover. He travelled all over the Middle East, from Lebanon to Libya and collected the most amazing furniture, from a mechanical singing bird from a Turkish harem to a throne chair which is said to date back to the time of Ismail Pasha, and architectural details such as a mashrabiya (projecting window on the upper floor) in ornately carved latticework. The Damascus bedroom is my favorite, covered with the most divine Syrian marquetry. The atmosphere, with its 17th-century architecture and the intimate drawings he made of his lover, all layered in dust, is very cinematic. It’s located next to the Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun.

The Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre was founded by the mid-20th century Egyptian architect it is named after. He opened the center in the early 1950s to support the teaching of traditional Egyptian tapestry weaving, as well as help educate disadvantaged locals. After his death it passed to his daughter Susanne and son-in-law Ikram Nosshi who are equally passionate about the project. Make an appointment with Ikram and he will take you around and introduce you to the craftspeople working on looms. Wassef was of course a talented architect so the architecture of the space itself—it’s a complex made of rammed earth and capped with small domes, like a hammam. The ateliers are sometimes on top of each other so you climb a ladder or narrow set of stairs to reach them. The setting is so peaceful and welcoming with its trees and gardens and dogs, it’s a lovely sanctuary of creativity.

Louis Barthélemy
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