The cultural and historical heritage of Egypt centres around Cairo, because of the incomparable accumulation of Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic treasures located there.
Following the Muslim conquest of the Byzantine city in 641 AD, and the establishment of the military encampment Al-Fustat, the governmental seat of the province of Egypt, Cairo, as a critical part of the rapidly expanding Islamic Empire, was enlarged by a succession of powerful ruling dynasties. After the Mongol conquest of Baghdad it became the largest medieval Muslim city.
In 969 the Fatimids, moving eastward along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, established a city which they named al-Qahira, 'the Victorious', which then became the nucleus of the medieval quarter. Under the Fatimids, al-Qahira became the seat of power, a ceremonial residential centre where the Caliph dwelt with his court and army.
The princely enclave which the Fatimids established was used as a base to challenge the authority of the Abbasids in Baghdad. The Fatimid legacy, although much is no longer extant, is most evident today in the al-Azhar Mosque and University, and al-Aqmar Mosque. Defensive city walls built by the Fatimids have played an important part in protecting the historic core from encroachment by the sprawling metropolis that continues to grow up around it. These walls were subsequently expanded by the Ayyubid Sultan Salah al-Din.
The population of the city, which grew because of refugees fleeing from uncertain conditions in the east, as well as by Salah al-Din's decree that the princely enclave should be opened to all, and not reserved for the ruling class alone, forced changes in the linear, orthogonal structure, creating the twisting organic streets we see today.
Under the Mamluks, who ruled in various forms from 1250 to 1517, this central core reached its height as a metropolis. After the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1261, the seat of the caliphate was transferred to Cairo, making it the political center of Islam. Its wealth, due to its new status and the monopoly it was able to establish over Red Sea trade, was directed into the construction of many large complexes, such as the extraordinary Madrasa Mausoleum and Maristan of Sultan Qalawun, built between 1284 and 1285, which rivals the highest architectural achievements realized in Europe at this time.
Although the city never reclaimed its once exalted position after the Ottoman Conquest in 1517, the momentum that had been established continued in the form of a conscious attitude toward the enhancement of an important legacy, and many fine architectural examples date from this period.
A brief renewal of prosperity and power was achieved under the Ottoman Governor Muhammed Ali following the Napoleonic occupation of Cairo in 1798. Under the Ottomans, the decision to emulate French city planning techniques, and open up vast new boulevards that moved outward to the north and west, reconfigured the city plan and remains predominant in Cairo's downtown core until today. (Visit the collection Art Deco Architecture in Cairo) to see some of the structures from this period. In addition to neighborhoods like Zamalek, Dokki, and Muhandiseen, present day Cairo encompasses the historically distinct zones of Babylon and Fustat, as well as the nineteenth century suburb Heliopolis (Misr al-Jadida), and its contemporary counterpart, Maadi.
The house of al-Suhaymi, built in 1648 with additions in 1796, is a Cairene house from the Ottoman period with strictly separated public (salamlik) and private spaces (haramlik). In addition to the open spaces, the salamlik included the takhtabush (a large benched area which opens onto the courtyard like an iwan where business transactions were carried out in the morning), the second-story maq'ad or loggia (an informal reception area used usually in the evenings), and the qa'a (the formal reception hall). The haramlik section, which includes a qa'a, or reception hall, as well as private apartments and a bath, is located above the ground floor and is reached by a separate flight of stairs in the courtyard. The different spaces of the haramlik overlook the courtyard through openings concealed by mashrabiyyas, screens created from pieces of turned wood, that allowed women of the household to enjoy the view without being seen by the guests in the courtyard.
Social patterns and family values were not the only factors instrumental in determining the spatial configurations of Cairene houses. The real ingenuity of their designs lies in the structural modifications introduced into traditional spaces (like the qa'a, maq'ad, takhtabush, etc.) to produce autonomous spatial units adapted to climatic conditions. While the open courtyard 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 units 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 typical utilitarian designations of the various units; activities are shifted from one unit to the other according to the hours of the day and the seasons.
The domed structure in the garden was originally a mausoleum; it was moved from its original location near the Bab al-Khalq after 1952. It is known as the Qubba of Jamal al-Din and dates from the 16th-17th c. and its dome is pierced with a geometrical pattern and filled with colored glass displaying smaller patterns.
'Abd al-Wahhab, Hasan. "Dome Decorations by Means of Pierced Openings." In Studies in Islamic Art and Architecture in Honour of Professor K.A.C. Creswell, 95-104. [Cairo] : American University in Cairo Press, 1965.
Fathy, Hasan. "The Qa'a of the Cairene Arab House, Its Development and Some New Usages for Its Design Concepts." In Colloque international sur l'histoire du Caire ... 1969, 135-152. Cairo: Ministry of Culture of the Arab Republic of Egypt, 1972.
Garcin, Jean-Claude, et al. Palais et maisons du Caire I, Epoque ottomane. Paris: CNRS, 1982.