Reviving traditional carpentry in Egypt

Mai Samih , Tuesday 14 Feb 2023

Al-ahram Weekly visits the Beit Yakan in Historic Cairo that is hosting a project to rejuvenate traditional carpentry in Egypt with Japanese assistance.

The project of revitalisation of traditional crafts and carpentry at Beit Yakan
The project of revitalisation of traditional crafts and carpentry at Beit Yakan


The Beit Yakan is situated in one of the most famous neighbourhoods of Historic Cairo, Al-Darb Al-Ahmar, a district full of mosques, palaces, and mausoleums, along with streets named after the craftsman that once worked in them, such as Darb Saada, Al-Khayamiya (tent-makers), and Al-Meghrabelin.

Its markets feature many ancient industries, one of the best-known being traditional carpentry. While this has been in danger of dying out in recent years, a new project has now been training members of the younger generation in this major traditional craft.

In late 2022, Ambassador of Japan in Cairo Oka Hiroshi and Salah Zaki, a member of the board of the Qasr Al-Nil Charitable Foundation, attended the inauguration of a project to establish a centre for revitalisation and training in traditional crafts at Beit Yakan. The project was implemented by the foundation using Japanese grants of $85,749.

It contributes to the promotion of traditional industries in Historic Cairo by providing vocational training in traditional crafts for about 40 young men and women living in the area and enabling about 150 local residents and students to participate in economic activities, including participating in product exhibitions and seminars.

The opening ceremony of the new centre was also attended by two Japanese carpenters, Morita and Yasuda from Kanazawa, who exchanged their knowledge and experience with young Egyptian carpenters, particularly through their demonstration of the traditional Japanese woodworking technique of kumiko (joinery).

The project comes within the framework of the Japanese programme Grant Assistance for Human Security Projects at the Grassroots Level, which provides direct financial support to non-profit organisations in various fields such as education, healthcare, the integration of persons with disabilities, vocational training, women’s empowerment, and the environment. Japan has provided about $10 million to Egypt within the framework of this programme since 1994, supporting 174 projects, according to a press release issued by the Japanese Embassy.

Alaa Al-Habashi, a professor of architecture and heritage conservation at Menoufiya University and manager of the Beit Yakan project, gave details about how it started.

“My profession, expertise, and research are all focused on heritage recognition, management and interpretation in contemporary contexts. This is what took me to Beit Yakan,” he said, adding that it was also because of the restoration projects he had conducted under the umbrella of the American Research Centre in Egypt starting from the end of the 1990s and continuing to the new millennium in which he had restored several buildings in the vicinity.

“Through those campaigns I got introduced to the community living in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar and explored many historic buildings that were totally abandoned and were in a very bad condition, one of them being the Beit Yakan,” he said.

Al-Habashi and his family purchased the building in 2009 from its heirs. Its design as a courtyard house was very much linked to the ideas they had for it. “This is one of the 600 courtyard houses of the same typology that once existed in Historic Cairo. Only 20 such buildings still stand today. Some of them are listed as antiquities and are protected by the antiquities law, while others have been left to collapse without protection. The was the case of the Beit Yakan,” Al-Habashi said.

Such houses did not only house the elite of the community, but also had important environmental, social, and economic aspects within the urban fabric of the time.

“This is because such buildings were strongly associated with a particular neighbourhood or alley. The owner of the house would give the alley its name. If a carpenter was living in such a house, the alley would be called Haret Al-Nagarine (Carpenters Alley) and everyone in that alley would work in carpentry,” he said.

The courtyard of the house would have been an open space suitable for use all year round. In hot weather, it would capture the wind coming from the north. In cold, it would retain the heat within the courtyard.

“Based on our understanding of the building we opened the courtyard and associated flanking rooms to the community. We have integrated activities like workshops and training sessions for the community and artisans into the house,” Al-Habashi added.


BEIT YAKAN: The Beit Yakan was built in 1640 by the Amir Hassan Agha Koklian. It remained in his family until the early 19th century, when Mohamed Ali Pasha, the new ruler of Egypt, wanted to get rid of the Mamelukes who had formerly ruled the country.

After the massacre of the Mamelukes in the Cairo Citadel in 1811, Mohamed Ali seized their property to redistribute it among his relatives and those loyal to him. Among this property were several houses in the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar area of Cairo including the Beit Al-Yajn (House of the Nephews), so named because it was given to two of Mohamed Ali’s nephews, Ahmed Pasha and Ibrahim Pasha. It was mispronounced by the locals as “Beit Yakan”.

The carpentry project started in the Beit Yakan after the restoration of the house in 2012. “I invited a Japanese friend to visit the place to get acquainted with the restoration activities we were doing,” Al-Habashi said. After learning about Al-Habashi’s intentions, his friend raised funds to integrate community workshops into the activities at Beit Yakan.

“The project actually started in 2019, originally for one year. However, the Covid-19 pandemic then started, and the Japanese Embassy was generous enough to extend it,” Al-Habashi said.

He has since been accepting community members twice or three times a month to participate in heritage-related activities to emphasise the fact that traditional Egyptian heritage is something to be proud of.

“The term baladi — of the country — means part of our identity and never something of low quality. It needs to be done justice to, and that is what we have been doing in these workshops, particularly in carpentry and associated fields such as inlaying, wood polishing, and upholstery,” Al-Habashi said.

“Our approach to the Japanese embassy was for a grant for traditional carpentry.”

“Quite what that meant was at first a major question for us. Egypt does not possess wood forests, and wood is a rare commodity. From this comes the word for the type of wood we use — azizi, meaning rare. We don’t waste wood and use every piece through traditional techniques that recycle wood from the wooden pieces we get from old buildings,” he said, adding that such bits and pieces are assembled to make large pieces of furniture and architectural elements such as doors or mashrabiya, or turned wood, partitions.

The main aims of the workshops are to be resourceful while reviving traditional Egyptian carpentry and applying new designs to their work. “It was not really about reviving a tradition, but more about reviving a principle — that of reusing leftover pieces of wood and reassembling them to make bigger pieces,” Al-Habashi said.

 “People should not throw away raw materials because this has a negative effect on the environment. This is what all our workshops were focused on: how to reuse elements or small pieces and make large units out of them.”

In some cases, they use new materials as a structural backbone for their pieces, and these they import from Lebanon or Europe. “We buy this type of wood to make sure that it does not have moisture in it because that would accelerate its deterioration,” Al-Habashi said. They also intend to experiment with local wood in the near future.

In one of the workshops, trainees designed a screen using designs based on Japanese kumiko. Both designers and craftsmen or craftswomen worked together in designing this screen that will be placed at the top of the courtyard entrance.