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A peaceful interlude in old Cairo

There is a part of old Cairo that is quite a hub for the arts, between Al-Azhar mosque and university and Al-Azhar Park. It has “bait al-shi’ar” or the House of Poetry and “bait al-‘aoud” or the House of the Lute, where readings and recitals are held respectively; a children’s art centre; one further town house, “bait Zeinab Khatun”* dating from the C15; and the small “madrassah” or religious school of Al-Ainy.

For a tiny urban square, that’s packing in quite a lot.

Grouped around a quiet space planted with trees and ornamented with a modernist fountain, the restored houses retain some fine details of their past decor and provide an intriguing glimpse into life in Cairo hundreds of years ago.


Old Cairo has not preserved the integrity of its medieval Mamluk or later Ottoman heritage to the same extent as, say, the old city in Damascus, but there are echoes of a similar urban style: stone buildings with narrow bands of ceramic above the lintel (typically Turkish), the exterior doorway leading into inner courtyards with verandahs on the upper floor where people could enjoy cooling summer breezes; and wooden latticework (“mashrabiyyat”) over the windows to preserve privacy while allowing a view of the street or the court below.

Yet according to our guide in one house, of more than 600 such buildings recorded in the “Description de l’Egypte” – the great survey of Egypt undertaken by Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition in the early C19 – only 26 remain.

Perhaps the piece de resistance was the House of Poetry, dating from 1664, with fine stonework and a beautiful courtyard, a little reminiscent of a certain house in Verona where the Capulet family reputedly lived. Such spaces were planted with anything from palm and orange trees to roses in towns across the region from Cairo to Damascus and on to the wind-tower homes of the Arabian Gulf.
Houseof Poetry

Here also we found frescoes almost unique in the city, showing garlands of roses and views of Istanbul crowded with houses and trees by the waterside, as well as of Mecca long ago.
Istanbul fresco

Rose fresco

The walk was a lovely interlude in otherwise fraught times. I cannot but pray for Syria and her people, and for the gentle, peaceful atmosphere of old Cairo to be preserved.

* According to our guide, the title “khatun” was equivalent to “hanem” the latter being the usual title accorded to a lady of the upper class in Ottoman times.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Magda #

    I read this post with growing delight, nostalgia, and, finally, sadness. What a wonderful description of a wonderful place. One of my students is a young Egyptian from Cairo (his mum is from Alexandria, he says) and I shared my thoughts on this post with him today, after class. As soon as I mentioned the place described here, he immediately knew what I was talking about. We then commented on the messy and very complex reality of this magnificent historic city and country, wishing, perhaps in vain, for more poetry and lute than war and looting.

    So, I can only join in your prayer, Sylvia, for Egypt as well as for Syria, where another student of mine was killed last July.


    November 5, 2013
    • “More poetry and Lute than war and looting” – beautifully put, Magda. I am so sorry about your student; this must have brought the waste of war home to you very graphically. I agree wholeheartedly with your comment: it is tragic to see what has happened in the Middle East in my lifetime. Damascus is one of the jewels of the region, the people of Syria wonderful, the country itself lovely, so it is heartbreaking to witness, from a distance, the carnage and destruction. And Egypt, as you know, fascinates me – its heritage from every period of history is astonishing. But we really do live in fraught times.

      Thinking about the discussion, I am reminded of reading, decades ago, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts”: quite apart from the charm and wonder of his writing, what was really brought home to me was how much Europe had lost in the horror of the mid-C20. If only mankind would learn from past mistakes.

      November 6, 2013
  2. Sadly, mankind doesn’t learn from past mistakes, but continues to produce books about them. It seems that, periodically, whole groups of people set out to destroy other groups of people for reasons that are usually not very reasonable. I wonder if you have read “Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder about the “killing fields” of Eastern Europe caught up between Hitler and Stalin – death and devastation, collective madness…

    But, to cheer us up as the conversation is moving towards death, here is a lovely quote from de Montaigne I came across recently: “I want death to find me planting my cabbages”. I also hope to be able to plant a few cabbages before I die – I have recently inherited my grandfather’s country cottage in Poland with a bit of a garden. The wooden house (uninhabited for decades because my grandparents lived with my aunt in a city) will need a lot of renovation work and the garden is probably either a jungle or a desert. I will be writing to you for gardening tips! 🙂


    November 8, 2013

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