Cairenes can have an iftar or suhoor fit for royalty this Ramadan in the dining room of the 19th-century Abdeen Palace, along with an exclusive tour of the venue.
Mawlay, a cultural and culinary experience, is back for a third year after launching in 2021 alongside the mummies exhibition at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation.
Last year the setting was the Citadel, the medieval fortress complex built by Salah ad-Din, with panoramic views of the city.
“My concept is around going to different historical places in Egypt where I can give an experience to people. They don’t only get iftar and suhoor, they don’t only get a tasty, good meal … they see something that is unique and amazing,” Dina El Sabban, founder and chief executive of Mawlay Experience, tells The National.
Mawlay comes from the Arabic word “wali”, which means “to be close to or connected with something or someone”.
Guests are, in a sense, connecting with the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, the Islamic rulers of the middle ages and now the kings and queens of the modern Egyptian era.
Abdeen Palace was built by Khedive Ismail, ruler of Egypt from 1863 to 1879. It was part of his ambitious plan to make Cairo “the Paris of the East”.
The 500-room palace spread across 22,000 square metres was designed by the French architect Leon Rousseau in a neoclassical style.
Scroll through the gallery below for more images from the Mawlay experience iftar at Abdeen Palace
It served as Egypt’s seat of government from 1874 until the monarchy was overthrown in a 1952 coup by nationalist army officers.
Today it is one of the presidential palaces and a museum, but access is normally restricted to tour groups and private functions with special permission. The minimum price for hour-long tours, depending on group size, is 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($32) for Egyptians and $100 for foreigners.
El Sabban says that it was difficult to get approval for the venue, but she finally managed to secure 16 days of Ramadan from March 29 to April 13.
Mawlay offers the tour at 1,000 pounds after iftar or before suhoor. That is in addition to the price of the meal, catered by Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, which costs 1,600 to 1,800 pounds per person.
The booking requires a minimum of four people, although organisers recently announced they would open it up to bookings for two.
When adding in 14 per cent vat, 12 per cent service and booking fees, the whole experience with the tour works out to more than $100 a person — not a small amount given Egypt’s economic crisis and soaring inflation.
“The difference in prices between last year and this year is more than double in everything,” El Sabban says. “Abdeen is the most expensive venue in Egypt. And Four Seasons is the most expensive food in Egypt. But everything has become more expensive, so people understand that.”
In the previous two years, El Sabban hosted a charity meal for 200 children from three orphanages at the venue on the last day of Ramadan. This year she plans to do the same, but has not yet decided on the place.
The royal dining hall is made up of three large rooms with 33 round tables, most fitting eight to 10 guests each.
On a recent weekday, the venue was about half full. However, the weekends are busier and some coming dates are already fully booked.
At the museum and the Citadel, about 45 per cent of clients were corporate. This year, El Sabban says, companies are reserving for smaller groups as they cut budgets.
A few of the tables were reserved by the management teams of multinational companies, while others by the adult members of families — as the minimum age is 16 — groups of friends and a couple celebrating the husband’s 36th birthday.
High-profile guests included the Presidential Secretary and actor Omar El Shenawy, the grandson of the late actor Kamal El Shenawy.
As people trickled in before sunset, a four-piece band played oriental background music until the adhan signalled the moment to break one’s fast.
The music was replaced with the sound of chatter and a flurry of attentive waiters serving creamy chicken mushroom soup and pouring glasses of mint or apple-flavoured water.
El Sabban, a chef who earned her master's degree at the Institut Paul Bocuse in France, was a former catering sales manager for Four Seasons. When designing the menu, she decided she would use the brand this year with its reputation as “a very trusted name and the best catering in Egypt”.
The portions are very generous and meant for sharing. The table is covered with plates of cold mezze, such as burrata, hummus and moutabel, and hot mezze, including kibbeh and sambousek.
Following the soup, diners are presented with a fabulously flaky pigeon pastilla before the main courses come out in quick succession.
The shrimp curry is a must-try, making up for the slightly dry stuffed chicken. There is more than enough variety to please meat lovers — from Egyptian fattah with veal moza to beef medallion.
For desserts, the traditional Umm Ali and mixed oriental delights are always a popular choice during Ramadan.
After tea and coffee, an Arabic-speaking guide leads those who booked the tour to select areas of the palace.
Highlights include the theatre, throne hall, white salon and Queen Nazli’s wing.
Visitors seemed to be in awe of the elaborate and exquisite details of each room, taking in the mosaic tiling and intricate geometric designs.
Maha Gamal, a pre-school teacher who invited her mother, mother-in-law and aunt, said “the experience of Mawlay, Four Seasons and the tour was worth every penny”.
Some of the guests were repeat customers from previous years.
“We’re following Dina all the way,” said Ghada El Nashar, executive director of the Education for Life Charitable Fund. “This is our third year and I think it’s the best so far.”
Fida Chemaly, who is Lebanese and lives in Cairo, said: “It’s a shame that it’s just in Ramadan … when we have visitors, we always take them to the same places, like Khan Khalili. It’s too bad they can’t see a place like this.”
El Sabban is exploring the idea of hosting pop-up dinners at historical buildings in downtown Cairo as her next project. When this Ramadan is over, she will also have to think of a venue for next year.
“The first year I wanted to go to the Citadel the year after. The second year, I wanted to go to Abdeen the year after,” she says. “I really don’t know what’s next because I’ve got the best locations so far.”