Alaa El-Habashi’s Library of Rare Books in Beit Yakan: Treasures of Books and People

Amira Noshokaty , Monday 13 Jun 2022

Last week marked the opening of Alaa El-Habashi’s Public Library of Rare Books in El-Darb El-Ahmar District in historic Cairo.



At the premises of Beit Yakan — the 17th-century architectural gem that architect and professor Alaa El-Habashi safeguarded and restored with his own hands — lies a cultural hub for the community of El-Darb El-Ahmar.

The launch of the public library — which is supported by Barakat Trust — included highlights from collections that were presented by leading specialists in architecture, including Mona Zakaria, Mercedes Volait, and Dina Bakhoum.

El-Habashi — a professor of architecture and heritage conservation and head of the Department of Architecture in Menoufiya University — has been busy engaging with the community of the ancient district of historic Cairo over the past decade.

Treasure hunting!

After buying and restoring Beit Yakan — which was last owned by a local butcher who used it as his private barn — El-Habashi started his long journey to connect with the community that first suspected he bought the house because he was just another treasure hunter who wanted to excavate the mythical treasure buried under it.

El-Habashi recalls how after being reported several times by the community for “excavation”, he realised that the only solution was to engage the community right from the very beginning, inviting those that suspected him to watch him as he restored the foundations of the house, which required some digging.

Eventually, he told them: “I did find the treasure, you are the treasure,” and that was the start of the journey of transforming Beit Yakan into a cultural centre that for over ten years has been busy with young people from the community participating in workshops that would enhance their knowledge of intangible heritage and their artistic and cultural awareness

Books on Egyptian architecture

“The idea of establishing a public library for rare books on architecture is to make it accessible to the young generations of architects,” explained El-Habashi to Ahram Online, adding that Arabic books on architecture are especially underrated in comparison to the foreign publications.

Moreover, now that university libraries are being digitised, hard copies are being viewed as a burden and a waste of space.

“And so came the idea of putting all these collections in one place and giving the young architects of today access to their own history, so that when they build something new, they would be aware of the history of Egyptian architecture and its progress and not only the western.”

The story of the house

According to El-Habashi, Beit yakan was built in the 17th century in 1640 AD. It was owned by Hassan Agha Kokinial — a high-rank military officer — and it boasted a Mamluk style.

However, in the 19th century, Mohamed Ali confiscated all the houses of the Aghas and gave them to his relatives to ensure their loyalty, since these houses were very close to the Citadel — the ruling headquarters at the time.

“Mohamed Ali granted two adjacent houses to Ahmed and Ibrahim Pasha Yakan, and this house is what’s left of both,” added El-Habashi, noting that when the Yakans owned this house, they renovated it and hid all traces of the Mamluk architecture. Hence, the wooden hand-painted late Baroque style ceiling.

Consequently, the house stood as a vivid example of all such centuries’ socio-political and cultural changes and lived to tell its own narrative of such tales.

“The original furniture and ornaments of one of the rooms of the Yakan houses are on display in one of the rooms of Beit El-Keritleya — or ‘House of the Cretan Woman’ — which is known today as the Gayer Anderson House and Museum,” he said.

 Treasures found 

After 13 years of working with the community, El-Habashi reflected on the findings of his journey, only to realise that the most important one was the value of self-discovery and how living in a district characterised by its ancient heritage made him realise how much he was once detached from himself along with his neighbours and community — a popular downside of modernity.

“However, large houses are built with a concept of community engagement, a realisation that made me and my wife rethink the definition of what is private and public, and how traditional communities are based on a tight social network, which is the key to the livelihood of ancient districts. Indeed, the place is nothing without its inhabitants,” he concluded.

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