The majority of scholars use the term “Vernacular” when referring to the indigenous construction methodology (Oliver, 2006, p. 4). People attempt to design and construct their settlements, regarding the surrounding environment as well as available material, in form which through, they satisfy their needs, and create comfortable environment (Dabaieh, 2011, p. 38).
Vernacular architecture is, regarding UNESCO world heritage convention, a result of interactivity between the environmental context and the human being and their socio-cultural behavior. So, Dabaieh considered a vernacular architecture as a narrator storytelling the heritage attitude of indigenous people and their life way. (Dabaieh, 2011, pp. 40, 75; Shehab, 2009, p. 8)
I live in Cairo which is mainly considered a magnificent world heritage site titled Historic Cairo. According to the former definition, on Saturday 13 August 2016, I have done a field trip to one of examples of vernacular architecture heritage. I have visited Bayt al-Kritliya which to be considered one of examples of vernacular architectural heritage in Cairo.
Bayt al-Kritliya was inscribed including UNESCO World Heritage Site “Historic Cairo” under the following criteria:
Criterion no. (5) to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;
Criterion no. (6) to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance
Bayt al-Kritilya (Gayer-Anderson Musuem) was, as a whole construction, constructed on the ruins of Tulunid capital Al-Qata’i using the ruins of surrounding environmental context especially the bricks of Mokatam hill. It is situated to the south-eastern side of Ahmed Ibn Tulun Mosque in El-Saliba Street, the district of Sayeda Zinab, Cairo governorate. It is considered one of the most magnificent of the 16th and 17th century’s Arab domestic architecture remained in Cairo. It consists of two houses. The eastern house was constructed by Hajj Mohammad Ibn al-Hajj Salem Ibn Galman al-Gazzar. By the time, this house was sold to a wealthy Muslim woman from Crete, consequently it was known as Bayt al-Kritliya, or “House of the Cretan Woman”. Furthermore, the second one was constructed to the western side by Abdel-Qader al-Haddad and also, later was known by the name of its last owner as Bayt Amna bint Salim.
In 1935, Major R.G. Gayer Anderson Pasha was authorized by the Egyptian government to reside in one of the old Arab houses under the care of the Arab Monuments Committee. So, the two houses were joined by a bridge at the third floor, and are both collectively known as Bayt al-Kritliya. Gayer Pasha is so interested generally in oriental studies. He gathered a magnificent collection in this house representing the arts and crafts of the Near East as well as unique ancient Egyptian objects. He arranged them in a great satisfactory display. Then, in 1942, he left Egypt owing to ill health and bequeathed these collections to Egyptian government which converted this house to museum by the ministry of public instruction.
We can find el-Salamlek for men and their visitors; and el-Haramlek for women and their visitors. The house roof overlooks a magnificent landscape including Ibn Tulun mosque and Sarghatmash mosque’s minaret too. In these houses, we can see both models of Arabesque windows Mashrabia, as a ventilation shaft mitigating the challenges of the surrounding environment, and Mashrafia, which through, women can see who are walking in the street while they can’t see them as a kind of respecting Islamic religion and culture’s patterns.
The visitor, can begin his journey with “Legend Plates” where each plate has different educational-aimed story. One of the unique architectural feature of this building is a Sabil. During Islamic era, Sabils were as charitable foundations for the free distribution of drinking water.Some of people mentioned a significant legend in relation to this: that the Sabil, the well, possesses a miracle – a lover gazing into the water would see the face of his/her sweetheart instead of his/her reflection. They called this well by Bir al-Watawit “The Well of the Bats”.
Then, through the staircase, we can go up to the first floor visiting the Maq’ad (Loggia) where the visitor can see Islamic decorations using Qur’an verses. There are wall cupboards. Moreover, this Maq’ad is furnished with carpets and comfortable seats. Also, in the first floor, I have visited the Harem “Ladies Quarter” where there are two large Indian wedding chairs of inlaid wood; also, some particularly magnificent Persian wall cupboards with human figures in various positions and signs of the Zodiac that Gayer Anderson collected from Tehran.
Going through the second floor, I visited Kuttab where was originally for teaching children Qur’an. Kutab is, at the current time, distinguished by the white masks that Gayer made for him and his family; moreover, a collection of Sufism and Islamic calligraphy-related objects. Then, through other staircase, we go to the roof where the visitor can see a sun clock that was used to tell the times for the prayers. In the same floor, we can visit a Persian room that to be distinguished by Anderson’s bed and his servant’s bed. Then, passing the bridge which connects between two houses, I visited a Byzantine room that consists of some old crosses and icons expressing about the Christian history in Egypt and outside of Egypt. Furthermore, I visited numerous rooms such as the picture gallery, Mohamed Ali Pasha room, the Queen Anne room, the library and the Chinese room.
On the other hand, I was more attracted to Museum room that contains of a replica statue of Queen Nefertiti, a replica statue of the cat goddess Bastet and a black mummy cover; in addition to a huge bird egg inscribed with Qur’an verses. But, the most interesting items here are the plates of Taset el-Khada that is a famous Egyptian legend. Such plates are usually made of brass or silver and have magical words and certain Qur’an verses written inside them. Someone who is ill would fill the plate with milk and water and leave it on the balcony overnight. It was believed that a part of the sky would come and mix with the milk and water. In the morning the sick person would drink this from the plate and be cured.
In the second floor of the second house, I visited the Haramlek. It seemed normal at first, but when you move the whole cupboard, there is a secret doorway. The door leads to very narrow corridor with Mashrabeya to the right and some wooden chairs to the left. Both were used by women to watch what was going on in the celebration hall without being seen by anyone.
This room is connected to another room with a long corridor. The other room was used as a makeup and dressing room for women. It has a large cupboard to the left where they kept their cosmetics and to the right there is another narrow corridor where women used to overlook the celebration hall through Mashrafeya screens. These windows look out directly towards the fountain of the celebration room.
On leaving the house, I passed a wall- mounted group of marble funerary Kufic inscriptions which include examples of 9th century work.
Archnet. (2007). Restoration of Bayt al-Kritliyya. Retrieved August 01, 2014, from Archnet: http://archnet.org/system/publications/contents/1719/original/FLS1963.pdf
Dabaieh, M. (2011). A Future for the Past of Desert Vernacular Architecture: Testing a Novel Conservation Model and Applied Methodology in the Town of Balat in Egypt (2nd ed.). Lund, Sweden: Lund University. Retrieved August 04, 2016 from https://lup.lub.lu.se/search/ws/files/5906883/2224661.pdf
Gayer-Anderson, R. G. (2001). Legends of the House of The Cretan Woman. Cairo: The American Unversity Press.
Vaughan, M. (n.d.). House of the Cretan Woman – Gayer Anderson. Retrieved August 07, 2014, from Mara House Luxor: http://marahouseluxor.com/egypt-myth-magic/house-of-the-cretan-woman-gayer-anderson/
Oliver, P. (2006). Built to Meet Needs: Cultural Issues in Vernacular Architecture. Architectural Press
Williams, C. (2002). Islamic Monuments in Cairo, the Practical Guide. Cairo: The American University Press.
Shehab, S. (2009). Patterns of Traditional Architecture Left in the Western Desert of Egypt: Analytical and Competitive Study. Alexandria: Dar El Wafaaa.
Vernacular architectural heritage site