Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The House of Suhaymi: Bayt el Suhaymi

Have you visited Khan el Khalili, Cairo, before? 

The Khan el Khalili market is one of the largest and most historic bazaars in Egypt, as well as Africa and the Middle East. Have you visited the other Islamic monuments in the Fatimid area next to Khan el Khalili?

In That area, there are a lot of interesting places. One of these is Bayt el Suhaymi. Bayt means "house" in Arabic, so this is a historic, restored house. 

The Suhaymi House is located on Mu'iz Le Din Allah Street in Fatimid, Cairo (a section of Old Islamic Cairo). This street is only a small narrow lane near the Khan el Khalili Market.

The oldest section was built by Abdel Wahab el Tablawy in 1648 A.D. The house was purchased in 1796 by Sheikh Ahmed as-Suhaymi, who extended it by integrating several of the adjacent houses. Nowadays Bayt el Suhaymi, especially after its restoration process, is the best example of a rich private house dating to seventeenth century Egypt. The house also demonstrates a lot about the art of the period and how people used to live in the Ottoman period.

Bayt el Suhaymi is the first building on the left hand side of Darb El Asafar, a narrow corridor in Fatimid, Cairo. From the outside, the building seems to be in a very good state. This is because it was restored in 1997 under the auspices of the Arab Fund for Economic Development as part of the Bayt El Suhaymi Area Documentation and Restoration. Many mashrabeya windows, can be seen from outside the house.

Mashrabeya windows, can be seen from outside the house


Once you enter the house, you are inside the sahn of the house. The sahn is an interior open space in the middle of the house, a courtyard. It is usually a rectangular or square shape. It is used to gain fresh air in the house, and in the morning some simple activities once took place in the sahn. In the middle of this open hall, there is a small and very healthy garden full of small trees and palms. The house was built around this area and many brown mashrabeya windows can be seen all around it on the upper floors. At the end of this hall, there is a place for sitting beside some windows where residents of the house would relax in the summer.

 The sahn of the house
Immediately after entering the doorway, I found many small rooms with huge wooden doors. They were used for servants to stay in and cook or do anything needed in the house. One of the rooms to the left had a fascinating mashrabeya screen with small windows in it to enable the people inside the room to view the sahn.

   At the end of this corridor full of small rooms, there is the first guest room or salamlek. It was used by El Suhaymi to welcome his male guests. It is a small hall that has brown wooden cupboards all around the left part with an alabaster table in the middle and many beautifully decorated carpets on the floor. To the right, there is a sitting area with a small Mashrabeya screen. This hall is a good example of the salamlek, or public place, as opposed to the haremlek, the depressing. The ceilings in the past were works of art. Most of the Salamlek area is on the ground floor, while the haremlek is on the upper floor. This was because in the Islamic culture, house were "Sakan" a word deprived from "Sekoon" which means quietness and privacy. This notion was well respected during the archaic Islamic period.

Salamlek : It was used by El Suhaymi to welcome his male guests.
Haremlek :  It was used by the females to welcome their female guests.

The next hall is the summer salamlek guest room. It was built at the end of the corridor and overlooks the street in order to benefit from the cool air during the summer. Most of the spaces within the house are not designed around functionality, as houses are today, but around climatic considerations. This hall has one of the most remarkable mashrabeya screens in the house, overlooking the street.It is a very big screen with three different decorative shapes and stained glass at the very top of the screen. People would sit on the pillows on the floor and chat in the summer. There are also the wooden brown cupboards all around just like the first guest room.


The second floor:
There are balconies which was also used on hot days. During the heat of the day, shaded courtyards, balconies and roofs became the living areas, while in the cool of the night, the family would move indoors. Many people even today continue to live like this, particularly in more rural areas. This balcony overlooks the sahn and the whole house around it.The seating was on pillows on the floor as well. One significant aspect of this balcony is the Islamic decorations on the walls. There are many Qur'an verses around the balcony written in a gold color with a brown background. The balcony is also a wonderful place to view the mashrabeya windows of the house from outside, and view the open air hall.

The maq'ad of the house

Next, I entered is the maq'ad of the house, which is a rectangular or square room where the owner of the house would sit with his family, sons and daughters, and very close friends. This more private space, a part of the haremlek, is like any other section of the house, full of brown cupboards and another amazing mashrabeya screen, with tables in the middle and sofas all around. The Suhaymi House is famous for it's many halls, especially the haremlek.

The ceiling 
The interesting thing in this hall is it's high and very pretty decorated ceiling which allowed the warmer air to rise and then to be swept away by the north facing maq'ad (wind scoops) in the upper walls, which caught the prevailing breezes and circulated the cool air throughout the house. There is also the charming wooden carved dome of the hall. The ceilings of these houses are usually very interesting. It makes the ceilings we live in these days seem boring and depressing. The ceilings in the past were works of art.

Afterwards, there is another hall of the haremlek area with more unique mashrabeya screens. The pieces of wood in these screens are designed to be very close to each other, making it impossible for anyone from outside to see through it while enabling the women of the house to look at the street and the sahn. This room was used for women to welcome their guests and friends. Most of the room is decorated with brown and dark red colors, which seemed very feminine and suited the women's section. This area is restricted to women and young children. When a male child got older, it was preferred that he would not enter the room. This hall contained some objects that the women used, such as alabaster dishes and plates. There are two high, stained glass windows that are very attractive.

The next room I entered is another haremlek section where the women would rest. It is a smaller hall with less light. The whole atmosphere in this room is relaxing. The room has many pillows on the floor for women to rest on and many cupboards to hold their necessities.

This room, in particular, was strictly for women. No men, other than sons and the father, were allowed inside.

The bathroom section: is the most interesting place in the house. It is divided into three sections. 
*The first section is the cold water section. It is a very small room with a wooden cupboard inside where they used to keep the cold water in a huge container. This room has no ceiling so that the gold wind could come and cool down the water in the cupboard.

*The second section of the bathroom is the massage section. It is also a very small room with only a big wooden bed to the right. It has the most amazing ceiling , with small, star shaped openings in it which are covered with blue, orange, and white glass. When the sun light enters the room through these openings, it is like looking at the stars in the sky on a very clear night. I have seen massage halls in five stars hotels and in health clubs all over Egypt, but nothing like this room. Having a massage in this room while looking at the sky would be like gazing into heaven.

The hot water section
*The third section of the bathroom is the hot water section. It has the same amazing ceiling as the massage room. In the middle, there is a water tap, and to the right there is a big container that was used for keeping hot water. There is also a cupboard behind the tap that was used to keep the bathing items.This room was used as a sauna. They used to let the hot water fall on the floor, where three small openings in the wall enabled the water flow out of the room. There is also a toilet section, which is like most of the "Balady" toilets we still have in some places in Egypt. It is just a small hall in the ground that takes the waste into pipes and out of the house.

The blue hall

The last section is the main rest and sleeping room of Al Suhaymi and his wife. Some people call this room the blue hall because of its many blue decorations. On the right hand side, there is a sitting area with pillows beside the many mashrabeya screens spread around the room. The room is ornamented with the most elegant blue tiles on the walls. This room is really suited to a king, with all its the marvelous decorations. Even the mashrabeya screens in.

In the middle, there is a table which was used for drinking coffee, and the coffee jar and mugs are still there. There are also a lot of blue, decorated plates in the room. They are atop the many brown wooden cupboards that once again fill this room. There are also some plates that were actually used for food, and not just decoration. 

The ceiling is designed in a Persian style, which makes it look as though there are steps above one's head. It is similar to the sleeping room in the Gayer Anderson house. There are many old lanterns in the room, hanging from the high ceiling. One of them is very unique, looking like a tower of lights.

The small room 

There is also a small room that one may enter from the main bedroom of the house. This room only contains two very strange objects. I'm not sure if they are made of wood or alabaster. There is an interesting myth that if a woman wants to become pregnant, she would circle these two objects seven times, and then God will send her a baby. It is a very strange concept, but Egypt in the 17th century had a lot of strange myths and legends.

The third floor is in ill repair and nobody is allowed there. It is empty and doesn't have any decorations or furniture. 

Now it was time to visit the garden of the house, which is next to the sahn.

The garden is big and full of very beautiful greenery. It is being watered daily and it is well maintained. The house was in bad shape, but due to the efforts the Egyptian government, it is now very elegant and as it was in the past.

The rooms around the garden were mainly used by servants for sleeping and for cooking meals for the family. In the garden, there is a very attractive summer dome that was used for shade. It has the same ceiling I fell in love with in the bathrooms. There is also the old waterwheel of the house known as a "Sakia". A donkey would have been tied to this waterwheel to enable the circulation of the water. Beside it, there is the place where they once milled crops to make food, known as a "Mathana". This mathana looked usable and the guide informed me that indeed it is.

There are very old trees spread all around the garden. Some of these trees are as old as the house itself. They give the garden a unique appearance. 

Copied and prepared for you, by
Manal Raafat 

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