Walking through Cairo’s ancient streets, looking at the houses, and mosques, you can’t help wondering how these people lived? What shaped their lives and how did they think? Well, what if I told you that we can know. Come with us to a truly special house. A place where we can journey into Cairo’s past and see how the Cairenes expressed their culture. This is “Beit EL-Sett Waseela” Architecture!
The Story of “Beit EL-Sett Waseela”
The house is in one of the oldest districts of historic Cairo, “Al-Azhar” area. It is directly behind the famous “Al-Azhar Mosque”. Around it, we can also find other historic houses such as “Beit ElHarrawy” and “Beit Zeinab Khatoon”.
The Founders and “El-Sett Waseela”
The house goes back to the Ottoman Era in Egypt and was built in 1646 by “Lotfy” and “Abdelhaq” the two sons of a rich Egyptian merchant. Then the house passed from an heir to another till it reached “El-Sett Waseela”. She was a servant of the last heir of the family and was the last one to own the house. Thus the people called it “Beit El-Sett Waseela” meaning “The house of lady Waseela”. We don’t know much about “Waseela” herself from history, but from the oral tradition in the area, we know that she was well respected and admired by all the inhabitants.
After the death of “EL-Sett Waseela”, the house was neglected and was in a terrible state. A restoration process started around 2003 and lasted two years. The restoration team had very little documented information about the house, so the process depended mainly on architecture and archeological evidence. Till finally, the team finished the restoration in 2005.
The House of Arabic Poetry
Then in 2010, the ministry of culture turned the house into “The House of Arabic Poetry”. The house became a venue for the poets to meet and revive this art. Since then it has hosted many cultural and artistic events to this day.
“Beit EL-Sett Waseela” Architecture: The Architecture of Privacy
If we had a look through the Islamic architecture in Cairo, and especially the residential typology we can easily point out the concept that moves the whole design process, which is “Privacy”. It was most important for the designer to guarantee the privacy of the house dwellers –The women in particular- and that they won’t be bothered by the passerby in the street or the guest at home. Thus when analyzing “Beit EL-Sett Waseela” architecture we must always refer to “Privacy” as being the main factor shaping the design process.
We have two entrances for the house. The main entrance leading to the reception area, and “Bab EL-Ser” or the secret door at the western end which leads to the “Haramlek” private zone. Both entrances are “Bent-Entrances” to guarantee the privacy of the house. So instead of directly entering into a reception space, we find that we face a wall in a lobby-like space called “Durkah”. It then re-orients us towards the interior spaces of the house. This helps in keeping away the noise and dust and prevents the passerby from seeing what’s happening inside.
The Central Court
In order to maintain the privacy of the house, the designer oriented the house towards the indoors. The house has a court which is the center for all the spaces. The court is also the lung of the house. It helps in the ventilation and natural lighting of the interior spaces. Also, it provides the home dwellers with an indoor “Outdoor” space for their leisure activities.
Since the house orients indoors, we find that most of the elevation design is on the internal facades of the court. Because they are the main scene that the users will be seeing most of the time. We find it decorated with arches and large “Mashrabeyat”. As for the exterior facades, the designer left them almost plain without many ornaments or eye-catching details.
The House of “El-Sett Waseela” consists of two floors in addition to the ground, separated into three zones: The Reception zone –Public-, The Haramlek zone –Private-, and the services. This separation starts from the entrances as explained earlier.
The Reception -Public- Zone
It is the parts of the house that the guests are allowed to enter including the court and “AL-Meq’aad” which is an open balcony overlooking the court. It’s facade consists of two pointed arches with a marble column with a lotus capital, and all over “AL-Meq’aad” we can find beautiful Ottoman ornaments.
As for the private zone, it is the part where the family lives. Only close friends and relatives may enter this zone. It consists of spaces for men like “AL-Mandara” and some other halls, and parts for women like the “Haramlek” hall. These halls usually have three spaces. First, the “Duqa’aa” in the middle with a high ceiling. Then two “Iwans” on both sides elevated in level and with lower ceilings. This change in levels helps in air circulation throughout the space.
Moreover, on the second floor, we find the bathing room with a small bathing pool, a changing room, and a heating room. It has beautiful stained-glass domes and pointed arches in the entrances.
The services zone is located on the ground floor all around the court having spaces with different functions such as the stable, the water well, the grinder, and several storage spaces.
The staircases in the house were very interesting in their positioning and their role in separating the different zones. In the house, we have three types of stairs.
Firstly, “Al-Meq’aad” stair. It is the stair that takes the user from the court to “Al-Meq’aad” directly and it is very emphasized and visible in the court, being a part of the public zone.
Secondly, continuous stairs. This one is connected with the secret entrance of the house and it reaches all the floors and is mainly for the women and the family to move freely throughout the house without the need to meet the guests.
Thirdly, the separate stairs. We also find that throughout the house we find stairs that connect the floors together, but they are never continuous. So in order to reach the next stairs, you have to horizontally pass through the living space. According to “The House of El-Sett Waseela” book by the ministry of culture, this could be intentional, as it makes moving through the house very difficult for a guest, adding more privacy for the inhabitants.
Architectural Elements and Details
In “Beit EL-Sett Waseela” we can almost find all the traditional features of the Islamic house. We have two “Shokhshekha” domes with a pyramid top having openings to bring in daylight and allow hot air to exit the space.
Also, a “Malqaf” or a Wind-catcher on the roof to bring in the fresh air.
In addition to the beautifully made large sets of “Mashrabeyat” overlooking the court from different spaces in the house.
And throughout the house, we find beautiful wooden ornaments in different spaces which show us how detail-oriented the design is.
A Very Unique Feature
Although on the architecture and design level “Beit El-Sett Waseela” is very remarkable, it has a feature that makes it unique from its historic neighbors, which is The Paintings. Usually, in Islamic homes, we find wooden ornaments or painted ceilings, but it is very rare to find a wall painting. “Beit El-Sett Waseela” is full of them.
Different Paintings From Around The House, Photo Courtesy: Linesmag
In different spaces of the house, we find paintings depicting holy Islamic places such as “Mekah”, “Al-Ka’baa”, and “The Prophet’s Mosque”, showing the whole context of these sacred places. We also have a very unique painting that shows the bay of Istanbul city, the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
A Fun Fact: The Love Spell!
During the restoration of the house, they found a special thing that tells us a lot about Egyptian culture. Deep within one of the walls of the house between the stones, they found a “Love Spell”. It consisted of two folded pieces of paper tied with a green string. All over the paper prayers, spells, and verses from the Quran were written. In the spell, a Woman called “Safeya” asks God for the protection and the love of her husband “Lotfy”, who is most probably one of the two founders of the house.
When we study history we mostly search for the major events: wars, castles, and enormous structures thinking that these were the things that shaped history. But when we take a closer look at the life of normal people we may find secrets that go far beyond our imagination. Secrets like those of “El-Sett Waseela’s” house.
If you want to know more about Cairo’s Historic buildings check out this article about The Magnificent Palace of Prince Taz, Here on Linesmag!