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Islamic Cairo, Cairo, Egypt.
Beit El Suheimi: Historical Treasure on Muezz Street
A stroll down Cairo’s Muezz El Din Allah Street will bring you through a busy area of Egypt’s famous Khan El Khalili. Beyond the narrow alley of jewellery shops and eager shopkeepers, this famous street opens up and becomes a charming cobblestone street. This northerly end of Muezz Street is home to several attractions and has seen a bit of a revival over the past decade. Much of this is due to the renovations of Beit El Suheimi, one of Cairo’s historical treasures.
Beit El Suheimi is a complex of two homes built in the 17th and 18th centuries. Thanks to Cairo’s prime location on the trade route, many of the city’s residents lived in elegant homes, and Beit El Suheimi is considered one of the finest remaining examples of merchant homes.
The complex had long fallen to ruins with walls crumbling and wooden screens broken apart. For years, Beit El Suheimi sat in its dilapidated state, unused and unappreciated. However, a painstaking 1990s project to restore the historic site to its original state proved not only beneficial for the building; but for the entire neighbourhood as well.
Since the massive renovation of Beit El Suheimi, the structure is now open to the public as a museum and for a variety of performances. During Ramadan, the house is an especially popular site for concerts and performances organised by the Ministry of Culture. Beit El Suheimi is also great year-round for Tannoura dances and storytelling or for a quiet afternoon tour.
Tickets cost 3LE for Egyptians and 30LE for foreigners to tour the house any day from 9AM to 5PM. Through the large wooden gates and down a dark hallway, Beit El Suheimi opens to a central courtyard that would be flooded with light if it weren’t for the palm trees shading the grassy spot below.
The first room of the house is a grand reception with impressively high ceilings and a long chandelier. Despite the simple stone walls, the room is grand with intricate wooden mashrabeya screens allowing for minimal light but incredible privacy. The beautifully designed screens are a feature throughout the house, adding a rich tonal contrast to the stone structure.
Several more grand rooms make up the first floor of the structure. Any visitors that are afraid of the dark or do not enjoy enclosed spaces may not want to explore Beit El Suheimi much further. The second floor is a bit of a maze, and dark, thin halls often lead to darker rooms with low ceilings. Some of the rooms are completely empty except for a layer of dust caked to the walls, while others have carpets and a few tables and accessories. One second-floor room lacks the screened windows but has a lovely balcony with a bright view of the courtyard below. This room has a seating area and is great for catching your bearings while exploring the rather disorienting house.
After exploring the maze of the house, the last stop should be behind Beit El Suheimi, where a second courtyard displays a series of photographs depicting images of Beit El Suheimi before, during and after the recent massive renovations.
Nothing is as alluring as a house with a story; something that is perfectly demonstrated with the Gayer Anderson Museum, which boasts an astonishing history, precious antiquities and valuable heritage, that are both exquisite and well-preserved.
Located in Ahmed Ibn Tulun Street in the Sayida Zainab district, the Gayer Anderson mansion – later turned into a museum – was owned by Gayer Anderson Pasha, a British art collector who fell in love with Egypt’s history and culture.
Perhaps best known for being an Orientalist who preserved history in one of Cairo’s most beautiful buildings, Anderson (1881-1945) was a British officer who had an eventful life, to say the least. In 1904, Anderson worked with the Royal Army Medical Corps, providing medical care for British army personnel, before being transferred to the Egyptian army in 1907, then later operating as an inspector in the Egyptian Ministry of Interior.
After his retirement, Anderson developed an interest in Egyptology and Oriental Studies. His journey through life and his passions are demonstrated inside the walls of the mansion where Anderson resided between 1935 and 1942.
The museum, which is adjacent to Ahmed Ibn Tulun Mosque, consists of two remarkable buildings; the larger one was built in 1632 and the smaller one in 1540.
The house holds 29 halls, decorated with Oriental architecture and designs in which artifacts are placed in a glass display to preserve them. Inside the Egyptian room, artifacts including iron pistols, daggers and swords, as well as Pharonic artifacts including a black and gold mummy case, a cast of Nefertiti’s head and an ostrich egg engraved with a map of Egypt.
One room which documents the era in which the house was built is the child birth room, with hard wooden chairs with a simple hole carved in the seat was prepared for the baby’s delivery is.
Each room at the Gayer Anderson Museum has several lamps powered by olive oil, as well as a special granite cabinet to keep the food cool. In addition to a glorious view, the terrace contains several stone sinks and large ceramic containers used to store seeds and other dry foods.
The museum still has remnants of the separate living quarters between men and woman; open, public and spacious areas were afforded for men, whereas living rooms designed for women encouraged a rather secluded atmosphere equipped with few examples of mashrabia – Oriental windows with wooden carvings. Women’s living rooms are rich in decoration; every piece of furniture from the cabinets to the chairs are filled with intricate patterns and designs dating back to the Islamic period and some of the styles are also derived from Iran, India, China and Syria.
The ‘secret room’ was one of the most interesting to observe. The room was used as a perfect hiding place – its door looking like a storage cupboard – used to hide outlaws or merely for women to peek at house parties.
Anderson’s personal room was equally fascinating, boasting an old-fashioned Persian bed and a smaller one beside it where it is said his housekeeper would sleep.
One important thing to remember when visiting this museum is to never forget to look at the ceilings which are decorated with intricate Syrian designs. Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of the Grayer Anderson Museum story is that when Anderson was ill and had to move back home in 1942, he gifted his mansion with all its belongings to the Egyptian government, which, in return, granted him with the title Pasha. One room in the house shows the original certificate from King Farouk.
Gayer Anderson museum was home for several film sets, including James Bond’s The Spy Who Loved Me and visiting this museum is like being transported back in time to an almost kitschy, unreal and sometimes even surreal space.