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Al Azhar, Cairo, Egypt.
Beit El Harawi: 18th Century House And Concert Hall
A number of houses from Egypt’s Mamluk Period can still be found today throughout Islamic Cairo. Along with Beit El Suheimi and Beit Zeinab El Khatoun, Beit El Harrawi is a house commonly visited by those interested in 18th century Cairene architecture.
Beit El Harrawi is a popular spot for its use as a concert venue. It is known more famously for its music than its architecture. In fact, signage for the Arab Oud House is more obvious than for Beit El Harrawi. The oud troupe is frequently heard practicing, and concerts of traditional music are regularly held there. Ramadan is an especially busy time of year for Beit El Harrawi; as several concerts are given each week during the Muslim holy month.
Because Beit El Harrawi is largely used today for these musical concerts, the renovation projects of the structure were more about remodelling the house than restoring it; few rooms have been left in their original style. Upon entering the premise, visitors find a courtyard where a stage has been erected for concerts. Much of the structure’s architectural traits as well as wooden mashrabeya screens can be admired from the courtyard, though the metal rods suspended over the stage are admittedly distracting.
To the left, the reception hall is large with high wooden ceilings, elaborately carved and painted. The room features intricate cupboards as well as marble floors with a central well. We suggest viewing this room last; or the remainder of your tour may be rather disappointing.
Behind the stage in the courtyard is another room that has been preserved with relative integrity despite the inclusion of several metal chairs. However, the remainder of Beit El Harrawi is much less impressive. Structurally, it is similar to the other Cairene homes of its style, yet Beit El Harrawi lacks the authenticity of its contemporaries: it is sort of a poster child for how not to keep people interested in these historic landmarks.
Where there is usually a vaulted ceiling with coloured glass in the bathroom at the end of a dark hallway, Beit El Harrawi has a second-floor modern bathroom. Yellow paint covers the walls of several rooms and hallways. Despite the fact that many rooms are filled with desks and chairs, the end of one hallway is completely unfinished. Though the other incomplete sections of these houses are often closed off, this rather hazardous corner of Beit El Harrawi is an open and crumbling edge; creating a pit several metres wide between the hallway and an adjacent stairwell.
The fact that Beit El Harrawi has been restored as a venue to showcase some of Cairo’s musical talent is a great way to find new use for an old, abandoned home. However, the confused and incomplete restoration of the house is rather off-putting. A daytime visit when the house is quiet is not really worth the entrance fee of 15LE for foreigners; although 1LE for Egyptians isn’t too steep for the site.
We recommend visiting Beit El Harrawi for a concert or oud lessons rather than just walking through the house.
Egypt’s past is not a one-trick pony. As part of what continues to be a long, diverse history, the Coptic period is often lost amidst tales of tomb curses and animal-headed gods. It may have been a brief era in the grand scheme of things, but the art produced in said period has been collected from eight different museums across Egypt including the Coptic Museum, the Museum of Islamic Art, as well as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and assimilated into an exhibition called Coptic Art Revealed.
The choice of the Mamluk Palace of Amir Taz in the khalifa area is an uncharacteristically subtle statement of presenting Egypt’s history and art in spite of any narrow-mindedness that may exist even now; and it is welcome, but more so because of the aesthetics of the palace itself. Despite having been damaged extensively in the 1992 earthquake, a reported 16-million-LE renovation has transformed the palace into a first-class venue.
The gallery itself starts you in a baptism of fire. Images of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Family are displayed within a circular stage surrounded by glittering pearl-white twine draped from the ceiling. The way that even a gentle breeze parts the draping gives this section a magical quality not afforded to any other element of the exhibition. You won’t even mind parting them yourself, like opening a curtain to reveal a treasure.
From then on in, visitors will need to rely less on their perception of how pretty things look, and more on their comprehension of the items' historical significance. The exhibition tries to tell a tale of Egypt's history, and it does it well. Visitors should not be disappointed by the prospect of seeing a piece of linen, a comb, or a jar; every piece is uniquely and intricately made, and just as uniquely and intricately put into a bit-sized context.Don’t think of this as another exhibition at another gallery, but as a small travelling museum. The two hundred or so pieces are combined in a well-thought-out way, which allows visitors to absorb the narratives of a time that historians found difficult to pin down to exact dates, a time that holds deep resonance and relevance to the history of Egypt. Exhibitions like Coptic Art Revealed are as meaningful now to Egyptian art as any nouvelle vague of local art in Cairo.