Sennari House In Cairo
by Seif Kamel
While Beit El-Sennari was built in 1794 by Ibrahim Katkhuda El-Sennari, a Sudanese occultist, it is famous for another reason. In 1798, Napoleon invaded Egypt bringing with him an army of scientists, scholars and artists to establish a French culture base in Egypt. Soon, they began their mission of making the first European study of Egypt which they published as Le description de l'Egypte. Beit El Sennari was used to house many of the French artists and scholars at the time. It became the center of the French study of Egypt, and therefore a very important monument to early Egyptology.
The house was allowed to deteriorate until, in 1995, the first restoration of it was undertaken. It had suffered much from neglect, air pollution and subterranean water damage. It was also severely damaged during an earthquake in 1992. However, because of the efforts of the Egyptian government with French assistance, it was faithfully restored and opened to the public in 2000, though some restoration work continues. Beit El Sennari is not well known by many tourists who visit Egypt. Situated on a small lane named Haret Monge, just off of a downtown street called Khairat, there are very few tourism attractions nearby. Perhaps the easiest way of reaching it is by using the metro to go to Sa'ed Zaghloul Station.
This was exactly what I did. After leaving the metro I had to walk for about 15 minutes before reaching the house. All the people I asked didnt know Beit El Sennari or even Haret Monge Street. I kept walking until I reached the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque and square. There, I found a very old man sitting on a chair next to a shoe store, who knew Beit El Sennari.
I walked in Haret Monge for a couple of minutes before I found myself next to a very beautiful mashrabeya window to my right. I knew then that I had reached Beit El Sennari because there arent any other older Islamic sites in the area. This mashrabeya screen looked older than many of the other screens I have seen. Under this screen, there is the original door to the house but it is closed these days. One must enter the house through a small door to the side of the mashrabeya screen.
Upon making my way through this door, I found myself in an old garden that I found out later was the main garden of the house. Here, I found many old palm trees, along with some construction work, as the museum is still under restoration. I began looking around and found many brown mashrabeya windows all around the house but I was lost as I didnt know where to begin my exploration.
Suddenly a cute girl appeared asking me what I wanted. I suppose, due to the small number of tourists visiting this place, she didnt understand that I just wanted to tour the house. I did have to buy a ticket, which costs one pound for Egyptians and five for foreign tourists. Then she showed me the way into the house.
Inside, what struck me first is that I was the only visitor. There wasn't another person in the house, so I was free to roam about, unimpeded by any tourists. At first, I found myself in the open air hall usually found in old Islamic houses and called a sahn. Typically, the rest of the house surrounds this open courtyard, and it was used, particularly in the mornings, as a reception place. The sahn of El Sennari House is very beautiful. There is a very old fountain in the middle that seems very ancient.
The sahn is an excellent place to see most of the mashrabeya screens of the house, as they are built to overlook the courtyard. These are some of the most beautiful ones I have seen in Cairo. There are many mashrabeya screens all around the house and in a very good state. They are of the finest variety, made of very small pieces of wood in tight patterns, and many have additional arabesque carvings within the wood. To the left on the second floor, one's eyes are drawn to a very attractive balcony with wood work all around it.
Under the balcony, there is a small display of pictures of the house as it appeared in the past. It gives one an idea of just how effectively the restoration process improved the condition of the house.
Afterwards, I entered a room near the main door of the house. This room has a hole in the ground at the end of it, which I believe was a water well or a place to keep water because this area is connected to all the other stores of the house. They used to transfer water all over the house from this place.
From here, I found myself on the same balcony I had seen from the sahn. It is a big open air space with the traditional Islamic decorated ceilings. Hanging from the ceiling are two charming lanterns much like the famous fanoos of Ramadan. Strikingly, there are few objects such as furniture within the house. Here, there was only a lonely wooden sofa where they used to sit in the summer beside the wooden cupboards one would normally find in many Islamic houses.
The next chamber is the main salamlek, the guest room of the house. It is similar in its design to the summer guest room in Beit El Suhaymi. It has a fountain and pillows to the right and left of it to sit on. It's window is covered by the largest mashrabeya screen in the house. It is one of those I spotted prior to entering the house and for those who love these screens, this one is a masterpiece. I spent a few moments admiring the mashrabeya and then I was off to see the rest of the house.
The bathroom was an interesting place. It has the same ceiling as in Beit El Suhaymi with the colored glass all above you with the sun rays lighting the place through them. There is a second bathroom, with rectangles cut into the ceiling and inset with small pieces of colored glass. It was lovely, appearing almost like an electric lamp pasted to the ceiling. Like the rest of the house, this bathroom was bare but for a big water container.
The next room was the main haremlek, a private room where the women of the house would have spent much of their time. It had two mashrabeya screens to the left overlooking the sahn. To the right, there are some wooden cupboards that were used by women to keep their precious items. Here, I really began to notice the interesting doors of the house, which are made of old wood and decorated beautifully in the Islamic style.
The third floor of the house wasnt really interesting as it only had a few empty rooms and a little open air hall in the middle. I soon found myself returning to the sahn, one of the most pleasing areas of the house, to explore it a bit more. Here, I found what almost seemed like a tunnel that leads to the old main door of the house.
I left the house feeling a bit empty, just as the house seems so empty of life, seeing very few tourists and having so little content. It was not an unpleasant visit. I very much enjoyed the mashrabeya screens and the old doors, but there is precious little else here. In the past, Beit El Sennari hosted many works from different Egyptian artists. In 1917, a permanent exhibition displaying Napoleon Bonaparte's personal collection was on display here, but that was removed in 1926. It also housed many other exhibits over the years.
And this is what this old, famous house is in need of today, along with some additional attention to its garden. It needs some content, and specifically items to remind us of its real importance. As both a historical house, and the center of work surrounding the scholars in the Napoleon expedition, it deserves, and will probably someday receive, more attention. But probably only then will it find an audience of tourists. Nevertheless, even today it does have its charm, but only those very interested in such places will appreciate its appeal.