In a wonderous alley branched out of Al-Mu’izz le Deen Allah street the hero of our article stands telling the story of what Cairo must have been like in its glorious past. There, lies an Ottoman gem, a historical treasure and one of the finest architectural pieces boasting with its embellished beauty. Yes, we’re talking about the House of Suhaymi or “Bayt Al-Suhaymi” and its architecture.
Towards Bayt Al-Suhaymi
Firstly, we passed through Bab El-Futuh or Gate of conquest which is an arched entrance gate to Al-Mu’izz street. Above all, the fine view of Al-Mu’izz street with its cluster of monuments and series of markets welcomed us. On our way, we splendidly met El-Hakim mosque, mosque and sabil of Soliman Agha Al-Selihdar. The cobblestone of Al-Mu’izz street guided us to a narrow alley named “Al Darb Al-Asfar”. After entering, we walked for a while to find Bayt Al-Suhaymi’s architecture ready to be unfolded.
History of Bayt Al-Suhaymi
Along the alleyway of Al Darb Al Asfar stands an example of gracious living, Bayt Al-Suhaymi. This house is the only complete surviving house representing Ottoman residential architecture in Egypt. Abdel Wahab Al-Tablawy built the southern section of the house in 1648, while Ismail Shalaby built the northern section in 1797. Most importantly, the house got its name from its last resident, Sheikh Muhammed Amin Al-Suhaymi, who was a sheikh in Al-Azhar mosque. Later, in 1930, King Fouad bought the house to annex it to the “comite de conservation des Monuments de l’art arabe”.
After the destructive earthquake of 1992, the Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development restored the whole area. To clarify this restoration included: the house, the alley and its houses, the monuments which include house of Mostafa Ga’afar and Sabil Qitas. In addition to other significant buildings as Kharazaty house.
Bayt Al-Suhaymi is a perfect model for residential ottoman architecture. It is where social patterns and climatic conditions are translated into spaces. To clarify, the spatial organization of the house is influenced directly by Islamic principles. In addition to that, some architectural elements are derived as a response to the distinctive climatic conditions of Egypt. Once we sat foot into the house, it’s stone took us on a tour of new keywords, meanings and values.
“Majaz” is basically an indirect or bent entrance passage of the house to provide a barrier between the public and the private. It doesn’t take long for the passage to lead you to the courtyard of the house where plants prevail and birds sing.
After entering, the architecture of Bayt Al-Suhaymi will greet you with its open courtyard that brims with pleasant plants. Above all, the courtyard is considered the main composition core of the process of Islamic house design. So, the whole design always starts with it. This courtyard doesn’t only function as a delightful or welcoming space for visitors. However, it also works as a temperature regulator, diffusing cool air retained from the night into the rooms of the house during the day.
Salamlik and Haramlik
Around the courtyard, you will find two sections that are strictly separated: the public spaces “selamlik” and private ones “haramlik”. To clarify, the salamlik is a room for men’s gathering and it lies on the ground floor. While the haramlik is that reserved for women and it lies in the first floor of the house.
The design of both spaces features deep recesses in the walls that function as sitting and storage areas. Also, “Mashrabiya” which is a wooden lattice alcove window is a common element in these rooms. Mashrabiyas control the passage of light and the air flow and ensure privacy. Along with high ceilings, thick walls, marble surfaces, these mashrabiya screens keep the interior of the cool in the summer.
In addition to the salamlik and haremlik that overlooks the courtyard, there is also the takhtabush. To clarify, this is large benched area which opens onto the courtyard where business transactions were carried out in the morning or when no outsider was around, women of the house could gather.
One of the main spaces in Al-Suhaymi house is the “Qa’a”. To illustrate, this is a room that has a high ceiling and a sunken center often furnished with a water basin. A fountain carries out the role of air-cooler and its sound acts as a background music.
One our way to one of the Qa’as, we spotted a “malqaf” or a wind catcher. The malqaf is a shaft rising high above the building with an opening facing the prevailing wind. It traps the cool air “like sails capturing the wind” and channels it down into the interior of the building.
On the second floor is the “maq’ad” or loggia. This is usually an arched open sitting area on the courtyard facing north to catch the breeze. It is where men could relax with their friends.
Just beyond the main courtyard stands another one. This one is larger, with a dome structure, a flour mill and an old well that work together to bring you back in time.
and another one
We wondered around the house to find ourselves in Bayt ElKharazty which is directly attached to Bayt Al-Suhaymi. Take a look to see what found…
Finally, the tour around the house is just full of history and Bayt Al-Suhaymi architecture is full of life! To read more about our trips in cairo and the old houses we explore check: Beit El-Sett Waseela