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.
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.