At the helm of Egypt’s Marmonil, a mother-daughter duo carry on a 60-year-old story etched in marble once sourced for the pharaohs.
Behind every great company is a story that encapsulates its ethos. Marmonil is no different, and the deep personal investment of its founding family is palpable in the breathtaking work they present. After facing unrest in Libya where he had already built a successful construction business, George Abdalla knew it was time to head home and start anew in his native Egypt. In 1963, he realized the gap in the market for premium marble products and set about establishing a company that would revolutionize a time-worn industry. And so Marmonil was born. Combining the Italian word for marble “marmo” with the Arabic word for the Nile “nil,” the name is a marriage of two ancient civilizations that are home to the finest natural and architectural wonders of the world.
“Innovation has always been a key part of the company’s ethos,” says Christiane Abdalla, owner and wife of Raouf Abdalla. “My fatherin- law was a visionary and always ahead of the game. When he started out, he was importing the latest machinery and marble from Carrara in Italy when the traders here were not even traveling.” Christiane married into the Abdalla family at 18 and at 21, joined the ranks of the family business after graduating from the American University in Cairo. “My mother-in-law played a big role in shaping me. I absorbed the original vision and work ethic.” Fernande Abdalla also played an integral role in the establishment and growth of Marmonil, contrary to the traditions of the time. As a French educated lady of refined society, Fernande’s zeal for the stone industry, and her hands-on support of her husband’s magnum opus came as a surprise to many. An authoritative and commanding figure, she made regular visits to the quarries, learned to work the machinery, and improved her Arabic – a language she was not proficient in – in order to communicate with the stonemasons, thus earning the respect of those around her.
Tragically, George Abdalla lost his life in a car accident, thrusting son Raouf into the forefront of the business at just 23 years old. In the 1980s, in an aim to strengthen local industries, the import of many essential materials was banned. “My husband immediately made the decision to invest in quarrying local granite and it took the company to the next level,” says Christiane. Marmonil brought in Italian experts to help reopen quarries that had laid dormant since the time of the Pharaohs, such as the Nero Aswan, the oldest active quarry in the world at more than 6 300 years old. A natural masterpiece, it has lent the beauty of its black-and-red granite to exquisite ancient Egyptian temples and countless monuments that have stood the test of time.
Soon antiquity experts and porphyry enthusiasts came flocking to Marmonil in search of the rare stones that were used to build the masterpieces of Rome and the Vatican. Italian architect and restorer Dario del Bufalo was one among these, and came looking for an Egyptian stone that he needed to restore a centuries-old church. “These archeologists had maps of where these stones can be found in the deserts, but with the ancient names,” reminisces Christiane. “Only the Bedouins know the old names and places, so they had to be taken as guides.” While Raouf and Christiane Abdalla remain at the helm of the business, their three children, Karen, Robin, and George, have joined forces to take the company’s entrepreneurial spirit into its third generation. “We’re really blessed that my grandparents left us such a wonderful reputation to uphold,” says Karen, the current director of sales and marketing. Immersed in the business from a young age, her school bus would drop her off at the factory, where her grandmother would give her jobs to do. “My brothers and I never felt pressured to work in the family business, but we all chose this path because we truly love it.” Despite the male dominance of the industry, female empowerment continues to play a significant role in Marmonil’s development. Thanks to Fernande Abdalla’s lasting legacy, the Cairo headquarters currently houses departments composed entirely of women driving the company forward.
This year, Marmonil is set to celebrate its 60th anniversary, having evolved from a small family business into the region’s largest vertically integrated, privately owned stone manufacturer. It brings together over 30 quarries, sister companies in Italy and the US (Marmi Natural Stones), and a 1 000-person strong workforce. From quarrying and product manufacture to installation, export, and wholesale, it sets itself apart as one of the few companies in the world to cover all aspects of operation. “Egypt’s astounding nature remains our primary source of inspiration,” says Karen. “There are significant geological differences in our stone. Unlike the bright white, Italian Carrara marble, our color palette is more earthy; beige, greige, and browns that evoke nature and light.”
According to the brand, bold texture is the new trend sweeping the industry. And thanks to its extremely hard formation, Egyptian stone takes on different textural applications with stunning results. “Some clients love a very distressed look, so we developed something called Moon Texture, which is five different finishes in one with craters that mimic the moon’s surface.” With the freedom to dream, the team works together to innovate previously unseen finishes such as their recently launched linen fabric texture. The brand took this one step further at Cairo Design Week, creating clothing made of stone – so realistic that passers-by were unable to differentiate them from the real thing. As a family, they are passionate art collectors and patrons of several art movements, such as Venetian Heritage, Art d’Égypte, and the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium. “We love collaborating with artists,” beams Christiane, the driving force behind the art division. “We donate blocks to artists and implement their visions. We collaborated with Adam Henein whose works are made from Egyptian granite, as well as British artist Stephen Cox, who’s known for his monolithic pieces. This year, we worked with Jwan Yosef, who used our Galala limestone to make his Vital Sands piece for Art d’Égypte.”
Unsurprisingly, Marmonil has proven its excellence in executing awe-inspiring large-scale projects at home and abroad with some of the largest brands in the world, such as The Four Seasons, the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, the National Museum of Korea, and Yas Mall in Abu Dhabi, which used over 100 000 square meters of pure Egyptian Galala stone.
The family’s anecdotes about their varied works captivate and excite the imagination. “One day we received a call from our Italian sister company telling us that the owner of The Westin in Milan would like to do the facade of the hotel in red Aswan granite,” says Christiane. “My father refused,” continues Karen. “He believed the result wouldn’t be of the required standard due to the variation in color caused by the cut of the stone. They called three separate times and on the third time we found out that the owner was the Aga Khan. His parents adored Aswan and he wanted to create this facade as an ode to his father whose tomb is also made of red granite. My father knew he had to do it and found a new way to cut the granite to avoid the color variation. We hand-picked the facade piece by piece to ensure a perfect result.”
However, one of the projects closest to their hearts is the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is set to open its doors later this year. “To me it was like being asked to work on the Louvre,” says Karen. “This museum will stand for generations and raise the flag for Egyptian stone worldwide.” Covering 70 000 square meters, Marmonil supplied the museum with Verdi Ghazal, a speckled, dark green granite that gives the colossal halls an unusual warmth. The internal walls are made of the soon-to-be-patented Sinai Pearl marble in the shade of greige, uniquely future-proofed in-house, to ensure that the stones last as long as the ancient moments that they house. Looking back, Christiane recalls the demanding nature of this project and the difficulties that they had to overcome. “When we first took it on, it was the time of the security issues in Sinai. The Egyptian security forces kept closing the borders and shutting down all work in our quarries. It was a real challenge to deliver the work on time.”
Egypt’s history is an intrinsic part of Marmonil’s story, but the company is moving towards a sustainable future at a steady pace. Raouf Abdalla adopted a zero-waste policy long before it became the fashion. The company avoids destructive practices in all stages of operation, avoiding the wasteful use of explosives in its quarries and opting instead for the use of precision extraction machines. Marmonil has also established water recycling plants in all its factories, recycling 97% of all water used. Broken pieces of stone are resized and stocked to be used in their mosaic line; and even the stone dust is repurposed and used to make bricks.
Marmonil began with George’s appreciation for the wonder of stone, passing on his vision to the next generations who have honed the intricacies of their craft. Fueled by the beauty of the perfectly imperfect marvels that the ancient quarries of Egypt have to offer, Marmonil is driving forward its mission to make the world a more beautiful place, one block at a time.
Originally published in the September 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia