20 - 26 July 2000
Issue No. 491
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Features Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
that the sheikh builtAt a rather unusual press conference organised by film director Asma El-Bakri in a desperate attempt to save historical buildings, a number of seriously endangered monuments of the Mameluke and Ottoman periods were shown on video to members of the press. Among the damaged treasures, Beit El-Sadat stood out, seeming to require immediate attention. Fayza Hassan visits the house in what was once the elegant residential quarter of Birkat Al-Fil
THE MAGIC POND: It may be difficult to imagine today the opulent and verdant surroundings in which Sheikh El-Sadat chose to establish one of his residences. For a long time, the rich and powerful had built their mansions and palaces amid lush gardens on the shores of the Khalig and of the numerous ponds that dotted Cairo's environs. The banks of Birkat Al-Fil were a particular favourite: "The palaces surrounding the pond enhance its beauty, while the pond, in its turn, offers an enchanting view to their dwellers. Nothing is more pleasant than this place; filled with water during eight months of the year, during the remaining months, it turns into a sweet-smelling garden. As long as the pond is flooded with water, it is full of golden boats, in which prominent people go out with their wives. There is not an evening without fireworks and concerts. A multitude of women are at their windows overlooking the pond and the façades of all houses are lit during the evening. I think it is one of the great spectacles a night can offer to the eyes, while the freshness of the night is enhanced by that of the water, compensating for the heat of the day." Thus did de Maillet, the French consul in Cairo in the late 17th century, extol the birka and its surroundings.
A SUMMER RESIDENCE: Although various rulers prohibited the construction of mosques and holy shrines near ponds and waterways, as it was rumoured that indecent behaviour often took place there during the long warm nights, such pastoral spots were nevertheless always dotted with many such places of worship. According to Bernard Maury, Birkat Al-Fil had its fair share of mosques, tikiyas (Sufi hostels) and sabils (public fountains). Among these, the elegant Qaraqoga Al-Hassani mosque, erected on the southern shore of the birka, was a study in architectural excellence. It is not far from this religious edifice that Sheikh El-Sadat decided to build his luxurious summer residence toward the end of the 18th century.
SEARCHING FOR THE POND: Having heard persistent rumours about the imminent disappearance of this landmark, which is so closely linked to the history of the French expedition, and one of the last remaining private dwellings of the period, I set out with conservationist Patricia Kahil and her faithful camera to pay it a visit. We directed our taxi driver through the incredibly crowded streets of Sayeda Zeinab, the populous quarter that has mushroomed in the area once surrounding the Khalig (filled in 1900 to accommodate the new tramway, now Port Said Street) and Birkat Al-Fil, which disappeared during the 19th century.
Clockwise from top: the unusual mashrabiya of the haramlik; the ruined secondary entrance; woodwork in the qa'a of the harem (photo from Palais et Maisons) photos: (top right and bottom) Patricia Kahil
DERELICTION AND DISARRAY: The house (or rather, what is left of it), of an unusual L-shape, is tucked away on a small square at the end of a long street bearing the name of Sheikh El-Sadat, its most famous resident. Its façade is not aligned with the pavement like the other houses on the street; its entrance is hidden in a recess. As we indicated to the taxi driver where to stop, we heard him gasp. He had been struck by the magnificence of the ruined mashrabiya still decorating profusely the top-floor windows of the outstanding cut-stone construction.
In the early afternoon, the casern-like buildings of the school at the back, in dire need of a coat paint itself, seemed to stare silently at the desolation through gaping windows. A tiny plot of land, abutting the house and enclosed by a roughly constructed brick wall, displayed a handwritten "For Sale" sign and several telephone numbers. We looked in vain for the Supreme Council of Antiquities' characteristic plaque, which usually marks protected buildings, although according to Maury, Beit El-Sadat is classified as number 463 (17th, 18th, 19th centuries).
As Patricia began to snap photos according to my excited instructions, youngsters gathered around us, asking if we were tourists and, if so, whether we wanted to visit the inside of the house. We pretended to be prospective buyers and soon a number of older men materialised, probably summoned by the children's animated chatter. Officials, they told us, had removed the plaque; they were not sure who had given the orders, but they knew on the other hand that the land, once part of the El-Sadat garden, was up for sale. They quoted a price, but did not want to commit themselves when we asked if it included the house. After much whispering, they finally told us they did not believe that it did.
"It is an old house and more of a nuisance than it is worth," someone added, but older men in the quarter claimed that it had historical value because it had belonged to a bigwig, probably a rich merchant, in the past. They did not think that the government would sell it though, "but ask, you never know," advised a man who seemed to have authority over the others, pointing to the telephone numbers. We were then offered a tour of the premises, but warned at the same time that we had to tread carefully, since the house, they informed us with eager giggles, was about to collapse any minute now.
RECEPTION IN RUINS: We disturbed a whole menagerie of stray cats and dogs, which almost knocked us down in their flight as we pushed past stacks of garbage to access a corridor leading to a palatial main reception room, decorated with baroque ornamental moulding, festoons and cornices of European inspiration. Shining Patricia's torch around, we were able to admire the woodwork painted gold, red and blue, of a different inspiration, closer to the enhancing motives popular with the Mamelukes. Stalactites around the iwans and intricate friezes skirting the ceilings also bowed to the elaborate taste of the time, while brilliant Turkish tiles covering entire walls formed exquisite tapestries. Despite an unsettling rustling coming from dark corners where garbage had been piled high, we stayed a long time, taking in the splendid vestiges of a space that must have been the sheikh's pride and joy.
Patricia, however, was not satisfied with this brief vision of El-Sadat's official reception room. She wanted to have a look at the haramlik as well.
We entered the garden enclosed in the L-shape and strewn with more garbage, the build-up of debris rendered more poignant by the sight of broken pieces of lovely Turkish ceramics decorating the external walls of the ground floor. From this courtyard, the entrance to the house was barred by wooden beams and ceiling joists, which the youngsters pushed away painstakingly to form a small passage through which we could reach the steps leading to the first floor. It was dark inside, and our guides, nimbly climbing the broken steps ahead of us, caused the whole house to shake and rumble in a way that discouraged me from proceeding any further.
THE ARROGANT SHEIKH: Patricia, more adventurous, staunchly continued her climb, clutching her precious camera, while I retraced my steps and retreated to the courtyard. I stood under an old mulberry tree to admire the delicate painted tiles on the wall, directing my thoughts to what I had learned about Sheikh Shamseddin Mohamed Abul-Anwar ibn Abdel-Sadat, known as the caliph of Al-Sadat Al-Hunafa'. According to El-Gabarti, he was one of the most influential personalities of his generation. President of Bani Al-Wafa (a Sufi order) since 1768, he treated people with arrogance and contempt. El-Gabarti describes him as cruel, scheming and greedy. He craved riches and honours. His role during the French expedition had been ambiguous. As the French disembarked in Alexandria, he had been prompt to attack Murad Bey, accusing him of being the cause of Egypt's misfortune. At first the French were impressed by his authority and, thinking him more influential than he really was, offered him a seat on the council of notables they formed. After the signing of the treaty of Al-Arish (1799), however, he began scheming with the Ottomans against Bonaparte. He was arrested, jailed, beaten, tortured and heavily fined as well. It is said that he had previously angered the French by his constant demands of payments for his services. Now, encouraged by Murad Bey, who had not forgotten the sheikh's harsh words, they had been happy of the pretext to exact revenge.
Later, following the French debacle, El-Sadat plotted and contrived to be named syndic of the shurafa' (the Prophet Mohamed's descendants), attributing to himself a major role in the occupiers' hasty departure. When he died in 1813, leaving a considerable estate, Mohamed Ali, contrary to the current custom, ordered the seals affixed to his residence in order to recover some of the sheikh's illegally acquired belongings.
INTERIOR DECORATION: Patricia emerged covered with dust and cobwebs, but happy nevertheless to have seen the magnificent woodwork that still decorates the women's private apartments. She waxed lyrical on the almost magical aspect of the mashrabiya when seen from the inside.
Hanging over the street and the garden, without the support of the traditional stone corbels, these enclosed wooden "balconies" give the house a unique character. They certainly provided the dwellers with plenty of light and a pleasantly cool atmosphere. A malqaf (wind-catcher) facing north and a beautifully sculpted wooden dome added to the opulence of the principal private reception room, where Patricia could vividly imagine Sheikh El-Sadat and his family sitting in the style befitting the rank he had wanted to achieve. The boys had refused to let her explore the rest of the accommodation, as the floor in one of the bedrooms had caved in recently, they explained.
LUST AND LUXURY: As we were leaving, one of the young men who had led Patricia on her dangerous climb approached me: "Something should be done about this house," he whispered. Thinking that he had been impressed by its interior decoration and wanted it preserved, I urged him to go on. "Couples come here at night to do unspeakable things; they should be stopped," he said, encouraged by the interest I had showed him. "If you have any influence with the government, tell the authorities to pull down this rat-infested ruin and build us a modern block of flats. We need housing for the poor, not old relics that needlessly occupy precious land."
Nelly Hanna: Habiter au Caire aux 17è et 18è siècles, IFAO, 1991
Doris Behrens-Abouseif: Azbakiyya and its Environs, from Azbak to Ismail, 1476-1879, IFAO, 1985
Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti: Journal d'un notable du Caire durant l'expédition française, 1798-1801, Albin-Michel, 1979
B Maury, A Raymond, J Revault, M Zakariya: Palais et maisons du Caire II: Epoque ottomane (16-18 siècles), Editions CNRS, 1983