Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Women and their houses

Amira El-Noshokaty visits three historic Cairo houses named after women owners

Al-Ahram Weekly

“A house is not a home until a woman lives in it” goes a local saying, and three historic houses in Cairo once owned by women certainly have some enchanting tales hidden behind the mashrabia and ancient tiles.

The first is the Beit al-Keritleya, or House of the Cretan Women, what is known today as the Gayer Anderson House and Museum. Next to the famous Ibn Tulun Mosque in Islamic Cairo, the House, or rather two joint houses, first belonged to Mohamed Haj Halim who built it in around 1631 CE. It is said that Halim was a coffee merchant, hence the connection with Crete from which some of the merchandise came. Amina bint Salem was the name of the women who later owned the property.

In the 1940s, Gayer Anderson, a British army officer and great collector of antique objects, lived in the Beit al-Keritleya and published a book about the House in English. The book documents the stories behind the House and contains images of its decoration, including the objects that Anderson ordered himself and that are currently part of the decoration.

According to a new edition of the book, which contains a forward by Anderson’s grandson John entitled “The Cretan Woman’s House,” Anderson was the last private resident of the House and managed to maintain it in its original condition, adding his own private collection to it and bequeathing it as a museum for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

 But the true importance of Gayer Anderson lay in the fact that he was among the very few people who understood that it’s never about a house itself, but is always about the people who lived in it. He brought pen and paper and listened to those who had witnessed the House’s development, writing down the oral history of the House as recalled by its last Egyptian private owner Soliman al-Keretly in 1935.

The House’s historic significance is not only due to its architectural design and the fact that is among the very few monuments that have stood the test of time, unlike the many neighbouring houses that have collapsed or been demolished. The importance of the House remains in the urban legends affiliated to it, and these reflect the local collective memory, stitched into history and creating a rich mélange of popular stories and historic events. 

Anderson, who first came to Cairo as a doctor in the service of the British army in 1906, first saw the Mamluke-style House on a tour of the Ibn Tulun Mosque. “A beautiful woman waved to me from one of the arabesque windows and invited me to take a look at the ancient house,” his memoir reads. Little did he know then that he would be the last tenant of the House before it became a museum some 29 years later.

In 1935, Anderson revisited the House, then owned by the government, and managed to convince the authorities to let him stay in it until he died. When he died, he said, he would bequeath his rare collection of objects to the state. During his stay, he befriended Soliman al-Keretly, the last owner of the House, who took care of the tomb of sheikh Haroun, a descendant of Al-Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed, who is buried at the far end of the courtyard.

The House is divided into two halves, the haramlik, or family residence, mainly used by women, and the salamlik, used as a reception area and to receive guests. The House’s arabesque windows open onto a courtyard containing the famous “bat well” that is a main source of legends about the House. Anderson made each room a place of Middle Eastern traditions, whether Turkish or Mamluke, as he was a collector and used the House to exhibit the pieces he treasured. 

Among the numerous rooms in the House is what is known as the secret chamber near to where the legendary well is tucked. The well, according to urban legends, dates back to the time of the Prophet Noah and his Ark. One story explains that Noah’s Ark rested on the highest hill in Egypt, Mount Yashkour, where the Ibn Tulun Mosque now stands.

It says that the well is what is left from the time of the Great Flood, hence its magical powers. Local stories also say that this hill was where Moses saw the famous burning bush, mentioned in the scriptures. It is also where the Prophet Ibrahim was ordered by God to slaughter his son Ismail, but the later was saved and replaced by a ram, from whence comes the name, the Tarikh al-Kabsh, or “road of the ram.”

Set in an area replete with such vivid local legends, the House has its own share of stories attached to it, perhaps owing to the fact that there is said to be an underground passageway connecting it to the Mosque. According to some, this is where ancient treasure is buried. A good jinni (genie) and his seven daughters live at the bottom of the well guarding the treasure, as does the great grandparent of one of the early owners of the House who hoarded money and never spent it. Eventually, the story says, his wife threw out his savings, mistaking them for the rubbish in which he had hid them.

Today, the House has long outlived its tenants, though it still has its own fair share of tales and legends. Urban legend explains that the water from the famous bat well of the House is holy and is a remedy for numerous illness. Many people have tried to go into the well to look for the treasure, but they have never come back alive. According to legend, a generous jinni sometimes leaves a gold coin in the bottom of the bucket in the well, but only for those who deserve it.

Another story says that there was once a young man who lived in a house opposite the House who refused to marry except if he genuinely fell in love. In the opposite house there was a beautiful girl who had the same idea. One day she went down to bring water from the well, which she seldom did because she was afraid of the stories of the jinn. The water welled up in reaction to her beauty, and, as she cried out for help, she was saved by her young neighbour.

 It was love at first sight.


LADY ZEINAB AND AL-SIT WASILA: Behind the nearby Al-Azhar Mosque at the end of a narrow winding street lies the famous house of “Zeinab Khatoun,” or Lady Zeinab. The House still has much of its original serenity, and it still boasts its arabesque mashrabia, its stone stairs, and its crown of stained glass windows.

Built in 1486, the House belonged to princess Shaqraa, granddaughter of the sultan Al-Nasser Hassan Qalawun. It got its name from a freed slave of the princess who was married to a prince. It is said that Zeinab Khatoun was a patriotic woman who opened the House to save many of those being massacred by the French during the French Expedition to Egypt between 1798 and 1801. A treasure trove was found there in the 1990s.

A few metres from the Zeinab Khatoun House is the Al-Sit Wasila House. Constructed in 1664 by one of the Al-Kenany brothers, it is named after the brother in question’s wife. The House is unique because it is one of the few surviving 17th-century houses that contain a wall mural of the route of the Hajj decorated with Turkish flowers and crowned by Arabic calligraphy. The mural is in the internal balcony overlooking the front courtyard. It is also among the very few surviving residences that has a private Turkish hammam.

Wasila was also a freed slave, and one of the rooms in her House, illuminated by carved mashrabia, is the singing room where she would chant to an audience who could not see her face but enjoyed her voice coming into the courtyard below. This artist’s residence is the perfect setting for today’s “House of Poetry,” where poetry and music fill the ancient walls once again, a tribute to the last owner of the House.

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