Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo: Echoes of an omnipresent past

Amira Noshokaty , Wednesday 11 Dec 2013

As Egypt celebrates the birth anniversary of renowned writer and Nobel Prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz, Ahram Online explores the neighbourhood which provided the inspiration, and the setting, of his most prominent works

 Al Sit Wasila
Al Sit Wasila (Photo: Amira El-Noshokaty)

Mahfouz's captivating Cairo Trilogy -- Bein Al-Qasrein (Palace Walk), Al-Sukkariya (Sugar Street) and Qasr Al-Showq (Palace of Desire) – is kindled by an even more captivating reality, as treading in the footsteps of Fatimid sultans and merchants proves to be.

According to Hamdi Abu Goliel's latest book Al-Qahera: Shaware' wa Hekayat (Cairo: Streets and Stories), the famous handicraft market Khan Al-Khalili is "a trademark touristic sight, with its coy hamlets and allies reflecting the charms of the Arabian Nights, which led some to believe it was the original setting of all the Arabian Nights tales because of the matching details found in old Cairo's alleys... where, casting jinn aside, the real heroes of the stories were mostly merchants or store owners."


Khan El-Khalili
Khan El-Khalili (Photo: Al-Ahram Weekly)

When Djaharks Al-Khalili created the caravanserai named after him, he constructed it on the ruins of the lavish Fatimid saga. The khan's current setting, encompassing Al-Hussein Mosque, Al-Azhar institution and Al-Muezz Street, was once the heart of Fatimid reign. It is where the great Eastside palace, with its nine golden doors encrusted with precious stones, was erected by the fourth Fatimid Caliph Al-Muezz Ledin Allah Al-Fatemy.

Although, with the rule of Saladin Al-Ayyoubi the court was relocated to the citadel and away from Fatimid Cairo, a legacy of architectural gems remains, preserving the neighbourhood's historic tales within its walls.

Beyond the handicrafts and jewellery shops, a walk around Khan Al-Khalili today still captures the essence of the Fatimid market, where the merchants' spirit, dealings and footsteps are easily imagined echoing in the winding alleyways. 


(Photo: Firas Al-Samad)

Nine doors and their bewitching stories

Directly behind Al-Azhar Mosque, Al-Sitt Wasila's residence – turned into the House of Arabic Poetry by the Ministry of Culture – shares the same courtyard as Zeinab Khatoun and Al-Harawy Houses opposite the Khan Al-Khalili market.

According to the inscription on the house, it was constructed in 1664 by El-Kanany brothers Lutfi and Abdel-Haq, one of whom was married to Al-Sitt Wasila (Lady Wasila).

A perfect testimony to architectural genius combining grace and ultimate space management, the 17th century house is well preserved. Typical of 17th century residences, the wooden door opens onto a small stone wall leading into a short passage to the right. "It’s a stone [screen] to prevent strangers from walking into the lives of the residents," our tour guide explained. 


(Photo: Firas Al-Samad)

All the mashrabiya windows (oriels screened by wooden latticework) overlook the spacious and sunny inner courtyard of the house. The mandara (reception area), located on the first floor, serves as the official performing room where poetry evenings are regularly hosted. The spacious room is crowned with a wooden shokhshekha (rattle) – a construction so named for being designed to rattle incoming wind with the aim of producing air currents which enhance the cooling and ventilation of the room. A marble fountain is located immediately below the shokhshekha to clear incoming air from dust particles.

Mashrabiya windows adorn the façade of the top floor, named Al-Haramlek for being reserved for female residents and visitors. It is also provided with an internal balcony overlooking the inner yard, where poetry verses and scenes from Istanbul are depicted on the walls. The house also includes a Turkish bath, with characteristic colourful stained glass domes and benches.

Inside, a room softly lit by intertwining rays of light "is Al-Sitt Wasila's singing room," explained the guide, detailing how she would sing from behind the arabesque mashrabiya to her grateful audience below.

Al-Sitt Wasila was also keen on her husband's affections. During the restoration of the house in the 1990s, a hijab mahabba (love charm), was found hidden on the internal chimney. "She made it so her husband would continue to love her and never take another wife. And he never did," the guide said. 

To the right of Beit Al-Sitt Wasila is Beit Al-Harawy, now dubbed 'the Arab House of Oud' under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture. First constructed by Ahmed El-Serafi in 1731 in accordance with the neighbourhood's prevalent architecture, the house was later owned by Egypt’s renowned physician Abdel-Rahman El-Harawy.

The mandara of that house displays unique inscriptions from the Quran and Sufi poetry. Verses from Burdat Al-Boseiry -- 999 verses written by Al-Boseiry in the 11th century in praise of Prophet Mohamed -- waltz from wall to ceiling, where Quranic verses crown the house. Al-Boseiry was instantly cured from paralysis upon completing this burda (poem). Captivating oud tunes are now heard wafting in the air daily after 5pm, as talented oud students engage in their evening rehearsals.


(Photo: Firas Al-Samad)

Across the yard lies Beit Zeinab Khatoun, built in 1486 and first owned by Princess Shaqraa Hanem, granddaughter of the Mameluk Sultan Al-Nasser Hassan Qalawoun. According to our guide, a remarkable discovery was made during its restorations in the 1990s when the Ministry of Culture stumbled upon a treasure of pure gold buried under one of its walls.

Proprietors of the house changed with the years until ownership went to Zeinab Khatoun (Khatoun meaning lady in Turkish). Zeinab was a slave freed by her owner Mohamed El-Alfi, who became the wife of the then prince of Hajj, El-Sharif Hamza El-Kharboutly. Following her husband's death, she became the owner of the house, and so it acquired her name. 

Zeinab Khatoun was a patriotic lady who made of her house a safe haven open to Egyptian revolutionaries during the French expedition.

Mafouz's Cairo
Mafouz's Cairo
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