The Story Behind AUC’s Historic Palace
January 21, 2019
AUC’s oldest building is the Khairy Pasha Palace, which has overlooked Cairo’s downtown area for nearly 150 years.
The palace was constructed in the 1870s by Khedive Ismail to house his confidant and Minister of Education Ahmed Khairy Pasha, for whom the building is named. Sold to Greek businessman Naestor Gianaclis after Khairy’s death, the palace was briefly used as a cigarette factory, where Gianaclis made and packaged his famous Helmar tobacco products.
The building returned to its educational roots in 1908, when the Egyptian University, soon to be renamed King Fouad University and later Cairo University, rented the building. The palace housed the Egyptian University until it was bought by Charles Watson, AUC’s founding president, in 1919.
Though Watson originally wanted to build the University by the Giza pyramids, he abandoned the idea in 1917 in favor of the historical complex nestled near Cairo’s downtown. Not only was the palace more centrally located, but also the land around it was not yet developed, providing ample room for the fledgling University to expand.
When the American College of Arts and Sciences opened on October 5, 1920, this coincided with the palace’s first major renovation that included a replacement of the pasha’s Turkish bath with showers that students could use after athletics training.
In a letter to President Watson, Robert McClenahan, one of AUC’s founders and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences from 1920 to 1937, boasted the success of the restoration. “I wish you might see the entrance of the building. The colors, and especially the subdued lights make it, I believe, the most beautiful place in Cairo.”
The building’s second major renovation included the addition of Oriental Hall and Ewart Memorial Hall in 1928 and 1932. This renovation marked the beginning of the palace’s second life as a cultural center in Cairo’s downtown.
Over the next 80 years, the palace hosted prominent figures in the local and international communities, including a host of humanitarians, academics, Nobel laureates, artists and politicians, among others.