Hidden in a backstreets close to the famous Khan El Khalili market in Old Cairo, lies El Suhaymi house. Tourists that go to Cairo normally will spend a couple of hectic days running around in the sweltering heat, impossible traffic, noise and pollution and will basically visit the golden triangle of Cairo attractions. Giza pyramids, Cairo Museum and the Khan El Khalili bazaar. But there is more to Cairo. Much more.
Built in the 17th century, Bayt Al-Suhaymi represents the pinnacle of islamic art in Egypt. It is a house. It is an oasis. It is also a labyrinth. With 115 halls and high ceiling rooms, the real ingenuity of the design lies in the way the traditional spatial configuration and design (based on social patterns and islamic family values) was adapted to climactic conditions.
The open courtyard with its small garden(or sahn in arabic) functions as a temperature regulator, diffusing cool air which it retained from the night into the rooms of the house during the day. The spatial areas that look onto it have varying temperatures during the day, depending on their orientation to the sun. The takhtabush provides a cool sitting area in the morning; the maq'ad, which always faces north to catch the prevailing wind, is the favorite entertainment area in the evening. The qa'a is an indoor space which can be conveniently heated in the winter. The domed opening in the roof of the central part of the qa'a, which acts as an outlet for hot air, along with high ceilings, a water fountain below the domed opening, thick walls, marble surfaces, and the mashrabiyya screens keep the interior of the qa'a cool in the summer. Finally, cold air is conducted to the inner parts of the house through a malqaf or wind catcher. Climatic adaptations transcend the typical utilitarian designations of the various rooms and activities are shifted from one part of the house to the other according to the hours of the day and the seasons.
Walking from room to room in this 2000 square meters five floor house, you can easily loose your way. With small staircases going up or down, and corridors that can lead to halls or to walls, one feels as if in a M.C. Escher designed house. But then every area in the house invites you to sit down and relax. You sit on a comfortable pillow and look through the latticed windows to the streets below. The cool breeze in the dark room suddenly makes you lie down and let the faraway hustle and bustle of Cairo transform into a sweet lullaby as your eyes close.
If you compare this Egyptian home of the 17th century with the building frenzy and destructive and careless housing that has taken place presently in an effort to accommodate the 20 or so million people of modern Cairo, you can only ask yourself on the meaning of progress. In terms of quality of life, the 17th century has a lot to teach the 21st.
I would like to thank our close friend and professional guide Fayiz Ali for revealing this hidden wonder (among many others) to us. You can visit Fayiz's site at http://www.theegyptian.org/. If you are thinking of ever really visiting Egypt do yourself a favour and contact somebody that has real knowledge and a passion for history and Egypt. Far from the maddening commercial tourist trail you will experience the authentic and the local.