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In Cairo, a Mansion Where the Layers of History Show Through

Jul 07, 2023

A couple has restored and reimagined a nearly decimated building as a home and a cultural hub, revealing the complexity of the city’s past.

In the library of Bayt Yakan, a building renovated over the past 12 years by Alaa el-Habashi and his wife, Ola Said, a restored 19th-century ceiling that collapsed in 2005. Architectural drawings of the space surround the upper window, and many of the furnishings come from the couple’s relatives.Credit...

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By Hussein Omar

Photographs by Simon Watson

THE ARCHITECTURAL CONSERVATOR Alaa el-Habashi had been restoring a 190-room 15th-century palace for years in the historic Cairo neighborhood of al-Darb al-Ahmar when, in 2007, he and his engineer wife, Ola Said, stumbled on a spectacularly bedraggled house nearby that would consume the next decade and a half of their lives. At the time, it was occupied by a butcher and his family, who were operating a slaughterhouse in the enormous ramshackle mansion that could be traced to the 19th century. Part of the 13,000-square-foot structure had collapsed in 2005, and the family had erected a new domicile in the courtyard, leaving the rest to their livestock: Cows roamed outside; sheep circulated around the dilapidated second floor. Locals called it “the dump yard,” el-Habashi says. By 2009, a few years after he and Said first encountered the place, the butcher’s family had an offer from a contractor who intended to bulldoze the remains and build concrete high-rise apartments.

Yet the house’s history compelled its inhabitants to try to preserve it: Might the conservator and his wife buy it instead? As el-Habashi would learn, the building was perhaps the only remnant of several houses in the neighborhood that Muhammad Ali Pasha, who came to power in 1805 and is often considered the founder of the modern Egyptian state, had reportedly seized and given to his nephews in the mid-19th century; locals referred to the area as al-Yakaniya — yakan from yeğen, the Turkish word for “nephew.” The nephews’ descendants had lived there until the 1960s, when the final heir bequeathed it to her nurse, a relative of the butcher.

El-Habashi and Said knew they wanted to save the historic property but, after spending time with community members, imagined not just a home but a cultural hub. An encyclopedic text from the 1880s had documented 600 houses with courtyards in Cairo; el-Habashi estimates only 30 or so remain. The couple felt undaunted by the complexities of the restoration, which involved securing a permit to conserve a building that the municipality had designated “imminent for collapse”; officials at first suggested they replace it with a modern replica. The bureaucratic stalemate was resolved in 2011 after el-Habashi, who is an architecture professor at Egypt’s Menoufia University, and Said, who’s also an expert in traditional Egyptian crafts, agreed to assume liability if the structure imploded while they renovated it.

IT TOOK TWO more years to fortify the structure, which they named Bayt Yakan (bayt is Arabic for “house”). In the process, they discovered that the residence was a palimpsest that actually dated to around 1640. Thought to be built by a military official named Hasan Agha Koklian, it was originally designed in the style of his ancestors, who were Mamelukes — non-Arab, ethnically diverse originally enslaved soldiers, mostly from the Caucasus and Turkic regions, who established a sultanate in Egypt and throughout the Levant. They favored elaborately carved stone surfaces, geometric patterns and vegetal arabesques. Once Muhammad Ali took over the property and handed it to his nephews, they obscured any sign of the former owners’ structural and decorative choices, walling up ornate columns and closing off entire rooms where they didn’t like the original painted wood ceilings. In other places, atop some of the Mameluke ornamentation, they added then-fashionable Baroque, European-inspired details.

The latest owners, however, decided to restore the house in a way that made transparent the many lives it had lived, and that reflected Cairo’s layered culture, which has been influenced by both colonial occupation and multiethnic immigration: They wanted the building’s Mameluke origins and its 19th-century interventions to exist in counterpoint, punctuated by contemporary juxtapositions. Beyond antiquities and monuments, Cairo has never invested much in its architectural legacy, but el-Habashi hopes that the resurrection of Bayt Yakan will draw interest to the city’s less ancient history. Eleven years after the project began, the house, now powered by solar panels, opened this past June as a rare books library focusing on architecture, as well as a cultural center; additionally, it holds el-Habashi’s offices and several spaces for researchers.

The home is also a study in how a historic restoration, especially in a residential area, must consider present-day inhabitants, too. At first, el-Habashi and Said were met with resistance in the working-class neighborhood: Some were afraid construction would further destabilize their already precarious homes, says el-Habashi, and others were accustomed to leaving trash at the site. But once the structure was safe, the couple were vigilant about including their neighbors, inviting them in for meals and meetings.

EVEN ON A sweltering summer afternoon, the house’s thick masonry keeps the space hushed and cool. Today, the 17th-century foundation is newly visible, including the worn stone and brick remains of long-demolished walls and a central water fountain. El-Habashi salvaged several dozen stones from the carved facade of another old house nearby that was being bulldozed, which he rebuilt into a 20-foot-tall arched gateway with reclaimed double wooden doors that open onto the courtyard. Locals use the ground floor as their own, hosting crafts workshops and picking thyme, lemongrass and rosemary from the small enclosed garden.

Among the conservator’s most complicated changes was an intervention on a second-floor exterior section. It had once held three huge Mameluke-style columned archways crowned with geometric carvings but, during the nephews’ era, they were bricked in, the stabilizing columns removed to accommodate four windows and a door. The carvings were covered up with lime plaster that had been tinted vermilion with brick dust.

Instead of restoring the archways as he might have typically done, el-Habashi decided to replace two of the windows with weight-bearing minimalist columns, set inside the 19th-century window frames like sculptures. He then chipped away just enough of the red plaster to render the Mameluke decoration visible. (Such a layered approach is reminiscent of the historical interventions pioneered by the mid-20th-century Modernist Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa.)

Inside, el-Habashi and Said concentrated their efforts on the formerly decimated palatial central hall on the second floor, which now holds some 20,000 volumes. Shelves of weathered books — some from Bulaq Press, Egypt’s first government-owned printing press, established in 1820 — fill triangle-topped niches, reached by a new steel staircase. Furniture, mostly from the early 20th century with some chinoiserie mixed in (much of it from the Alexandria apartments of el-Habashi’s relatives), sits on a concrete floor inlaid with an expanse of teak wood.

But it’s the 25-foot-high ceiling that best embodies the home’s complexities. When the ceiling collapsed, the enormous 19th-century Italianate painted center medallion fell to the floor and shattered; el-Habashi had to reconstruct it, piecing it together like a puzzle. It adjoins a section of the original Mameluke ceiling, newly exposed and framed by 17th-century muqarnas, stalactite-shaped painted wood elements that had been hidden in a wall and unearthed during restoration. Now, before the beginning of lectures held in the room, students, architects and historians cast their gaze upward at the vivid, ingeniously engineered meeting of two cultures, forever imprinted on Cairo’s tangled urban fabric. While some think that a city can be revitalized through commercial enterprises, the truth is more complex, says el-Habashi: “If the market is the blood of a city, the historic residences are its soul.”