But that was then; now it is, like most of the city, a battered wreck of sixties concrete, dust, and, tucked here and there, little memories of what was. And one of those is the Dr. and Mrs. Mohamed Khalil Museum, housed in their bijou Beaux Arts mansion on the banks of the Nile.
It is Egypt's leading collection of Western art, all collected by a very cultured francophile businessman and his wife. She was, in a sense, part of the collection herself, having started out as a Parisienne named Emiline. Unlike most of Cairo's riches, the Khalil collection was willingly donated to the state, a decision of Mme. Khalil, likely in return for how her late husband's family had treated her.
In any case, it's really quite something, an assortment of the splendid and the forgotten (a whole room of a painter called Cottet springs to mind), displayed alongside the couple's magnifient collection of porcelain, bronzes, bibelots, and other treasures. Even today, dusty and half-forgotten (we were the first visitor of the day on a fine summer afternoon at 3:30), the palace and its collection give a vivid idea of how very pleasant life must have been for Cairo's upper crust in the days of Farouk.
There is a lucious small Winterhalter, identified as the Princesse de Wagram:
There are several lively Sisleys, riots of color in the dim gallery:
There is even, tucked away in his own room, a kind of murky shrine with two rows of theatre seats to enhance appreciation, a rather fine Van Gogh, which may be the only one in all of Africa:
Not to mention a pair of Gauguins, several uncharacteristic Delacroix, an Utrillo, an Ingres, a Houdon bust, a couple of Corots, and, dotted here and there, insinuating little portraits of Mme. Khalil, even after all these years our hostess.
Going back out into Cairo, past the lounging, napping staff at the entrance and through the remains of the formal gardens, gives one an odd feeling, as if one hasn't entirely shaken off the air of the past.
And then you try to hail a taxi, and it all comes, for better or worse, rushing back...