Bayt el Suhaymi
The House of Suhaymi
by Seif Kamel
Most of the tour programs in Egypt include a visit to the Khan el Khalili market, one of the largest and most historic bazaars in Egypt, as well as Africa and the Middle East. However, very few programs include visits to the other Islamic monuments in the Fatimid area next to Khan el Khalili, although 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 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. After visiting the Gayer Anderson House last week, I had to visit Bayt el Suhaymi because suddenly found myself to be a fan of Arab Islamic art.
After looking at some maps, I knew that the Suhaymi House is located on Mu'iz Le Din Allah Street in Fatimid, Cairo (a section of Old Islamic Cairo). At first, I thought this street was like any other street, with cars, traffic and many people going here and there. But I soon found out it was only a small narrow lane near the Khan el Khalili Market.
Mu'iz Street is a rich place for Islamic monuments. It includes the Madrasa and Mausoleum of Sultan Nasser Mohamed, Qaser Beshtak, and the Madrasa of Sultan Barquq. These are only examples. There are a lot of other Islamic monuments in the area and on Mui'z Street in particular.
In the middle of the street, I saw an ancient mosque that grabbed my attention. It was Al Aqmar Mosque and it is very old. It was restored in 1396 in the reign of Sultan al Zahir Barquq, so long ago, that even with the restoration, it looks very ancient today. However, it has a lot of amazing Islamic decorations. The mosque is also called the Grey Mosque as it is famous for the use of that color.
After being lost along the street and its monuments for some time, a young man heard me asking about the way to the Suhaymi House. He told me that he lived beside it. After showing me the way, I was in front of the gates of the house. People are surprisingly friendly like this in Cairo, especially to tourists.
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, which I have become fond of, 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.
I started my tour of the house by going though the first door I found to my right. There was a young woman, who I believe worked as a guide. She didnt offer to guide me, and I was glad because I wanted to wander freely in the house. Sometimes during my visit, I got lost but it was very entertaining. I felt like I was exploring a new found treasure.
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, thedepressing. The ceilings in the past were works of art. private place. 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.
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. I really loved this hall.
Next, I went to the second floor, where I found myself on one of the 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.
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 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, I entered 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.many cupboards to hold their This room, in particular, was strictly for women. No men, other than sons and the father, were allowed inside.
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 I have ever seen, 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 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. After the tour, I was told by the guide that 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 last section I entered was 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
This room, in particular, was strictly for women. No men, other than sons and the father, were allowed inside.
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.
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.
This was the last place to visit in Bayt El Suhaymi because the third floor is in ill repair and nobody is allowed there. Also, the guide told me that it is empty and doesnt have any decorations or furniture. So 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. I believe it is being watered daily and it is well maintained. To the left, there are pictures of the house before and during the restoration period. 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. Above these pictures there is a new mashrabeya screen designed by the artists of the restoration. It records the restoration that took place between 1997 and 1999.
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.
I also enjoyed the very old trees that are spread all around the garden. Some of these trees are as old as the house itself. They give the garden a unique appearance.
After an amusing visit to the Suhaymi House, as I was leaving Darb El Asafar, I noticed to my right an amazing old mosque that looked different than other mosques in the area. It is designed like the Mohamed Ali Mosque in the Citadel, in the Turkish style. I found out that it was the Mosque of Suleiman Aga El-Silahdar which was built in 1839. It has appealing decoration on it's walls, as the Turkish style in mosques is very attractive.
The thing that really grabbed my attention was the minaret of the mosque, which looked like a sharp pencil and didnt have many decorations around it like most others in Egypt.
My visit to the Suhaymi House and my whole walk though Fatimid, Cairo was very enjoyable. The guide at Bayt El Suhaymi told me that this house represents the pinnacle of Islamic art in Egypt, and after my visit I knew she was correct. The house is the finest example of how a rich family once lived in Egypt during the 17th century. It also provides a good example of the architectural art of the period. The house is mainly in a very good state and most of the displays are well maintained. Many people visit the Khan el Khalili, so this house is very convenient to also visit at the same time, and well worth the effort.
Inside the dome in the garden
Last Updated: 03/02/2006