Egypt's old colonial homes star in new architecture photobook

Award-winning photographer Xenia Nikolskaya shot a mix of private homes and government buildings, all built in varying styles imported to Egypt's during its colonisation by European powers

The entrance to Villa Casdagli, Garden City in Cairo, 2010. Photo: Xenia Nikolskaya
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Award-winning photographer Xenia Nikolskaya has always strived to find and capture the indefinable things in life.

Ten years after the release of the first edition of her highly-acclaimed debut photobook, Dust: Egypt’s Forgotten Architecture, which documented some of the remnants of colonial architecture in modern-day Egypt, the Russian-born jack-of-all-trades is back with a second edition set to release in July this year.

A multidisciplinary project with academic, documentary and artistic aspects, the revised book comprises 82 photographs of 35 curated locations scattered all across the Egyptian map.

Depicted in Dust is a mix of private homes and government-owned buildings, all built in varying styles imported into Egypt during its colonisation by European powers.

“The period I was most interested in documenting was between the construction of the Suez Canal in the mid 19th century and the first war with Israel in 1956,” Nikolskaya tells The National.

The construction of the Suez Canal sparked an economic boom in Egypt, she explains, which put the country on the world map and attracted millions of immigrants in search of better prospects. They arrived in Egypt and built homes in the styles of their home nations.

The majority of the private residences in the book are either villas or palaces whose owners, usually former aristocrats, had moved abroad long ago, Nikolskaya explains. However, sometimes the ownership of the homes was in dispute or there were disagreements between family members over what to do with them, so the homes were left in disrepair.

The state-owned locations, on the other hand, were a mix of museums that not many Egyptians knew about and older residences that had been converted into government buildings.

When she first came to Cairo in 2003 on an archaeological photography assignment, Nikolskaya was shocked to find that it deeply resembled her hometown of St Petersburg. She found that both cities’ architecture had been deeply moulded by foreign influences.

“When cities are constructed by colonists, what we find is that their architecture is incompatible with their climates. This is true in both St Petersburg and Cairo,” says Nikolskaya, “The Italian palazzo style, which works best in warm weather, is one of the most common colonial styles found in St Petersburg, a city that is covered in snow for half the year. I have witnessed the same thing in Cairo, where huge bay windows are popular, which is incompatible with how sunny the climate is.”

These buildings which were incongruent with their surroundings made up a specific heritage that Nikolskaya was very interested in preserving.

The photo collection, which was shot in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, Esna, Luxor and some villages in the Nile Delta, surpassed the purpose of simple documentation, veering into the political realm, an aspect of the project which Nikolskaya wanted to highlight.

“Architecture, like nothing else, illustrates the politics of any country, because of how public it is. You can write a political poem and stow it away and no one will ever see it, but to construct a building, you need government permissions, money, affiliations, support,” says Nikolskaya, “Karnak Temple, St Petersburg’s Winter Palace and many other buildings around the world, old and new, were constructed as a political statement first and foremost.”

Though she was born in Russia, where she spent the first half of her life, Nikolskaya’s long career has taken her all over the world where she witnessed life under different political systems and cultures. Her marriage to a Swedish national 18 years ago, and her subsequent move to the Scandinavian country diversified her references even more.

It was around this time that she began to see how uncomfortable people were when they couldn’t fit her into a neat category in their minds. Perhaps because she felt indefinable and out of place herself, she was particularly drawn to the locations in her book.

“I was interested in those places where time almost stops. Those places that seem to be in limbo between two worlds. Places that remind me of Hitchcock movies,” says Nikolskaya, “I was interested in all the structures that had escaped the uniformisation of their design. The ones that looked weird and out of place. Which is how I had often felt myself.”

Nikolskaya’s lens expertly captures an eerie forlornness in some of the places depicted in her book, most of which are rundown and ominous. However, what is perhaps most remarkable about her style is how she directs the viewer's eye to detail after detail, weaving a rich narrative.

Though she had intended to put the photo collection behind her with the release of the first edition in 2012 (which has since gone out of print), fate had other plans for her.

“It just turned into an ongoing project, despite my best efforts to put it behind me,” she says, “It’s bigger than me now and I just have to accept that.”

The second edition of her book will also include new photos she took between 2013 and 2021.

Dust went on to become the subject of Nikolskaya’s PhD, which she received from the University of Sunderland in 2020.

Updated: February 22, 2022, 1:36 PM