Just behind the gigantic mosques of “Sultan Hassan” and “El-Refaei” you will find “Souk EL-Selah” street. It is actually more of an alley. If you are just passing by, you might not even notice it. But within it lies a history treasure hidden in the tight urban fabric of Old Cairo, “Bayt Yakan”. Ask the locals, they’ll take you to a small urban pocket, to an old house with a small door. We went there to discover the interesting story behind this house, and have a talk with its owner Dr.Alaa EL-Habashi. This is the story of “Bayt Yakan”.
The Origins of Bayt Yakan and EL-Yakaneya
Although we don’t have a lot of documented data about the house, the urban and architectural evidence in the house itself and the area help a lot in the deduction process.
The Original Owner
The House mostly goes back to the 1760s, When Hassan Agha Kokelian built the Sabil –water dispenser-, the Kottab –Quran class for kids-, and the House, as a complex for the community, and mostly resided in the house.
As for The Yakans –Ahmed and Ibrahim-, they were Mohamed Ali’s army leaders. They fought in “Saudi Arabia”, and Ahmed even became the governor of Mekkah for some time. When they came back to Egypt, they took residence in “El-Darb El-Ahmar” in Cairo, and to this day this area is called “El-Yakaneya” referring to them.
We don’t know for sure to which brother the house belonged. But we do know that the next-door house –demolished in the 1940s-, belonged to Ibrahim. But regardless of the ownership issue, Dr.Alaa -the new owner of the house- decided to revive the memory of the Yakans and name it after them. And so if there is “El-Yakaneya”, then there must be a “Yakan” House.
About Dr.Alaa El-Habashi
Dr.Alaa is an architecture professor, specialized in the restoration and preservation of urban and architectural heritage. He is the Head of the architecture department in El-Monofeya university, and the current owner of “Bayt Yakan”.
From “EL-Kharaba” to “Al-Qasr”
Dr.Alaa first became familiar with this house when he was working on the conservation of a nearby house “Bayt EL-Razzaz”. At that time people referred to “Bayt Yakan” as being “EL-Kharaba” –The ruins or the dumpster-. It belonged to a local butcher and his family. They were using it as a slaughterhouse and Dr.Alaa used to go there to buy meat from them. That’s when he met with the butcher. He opened the doctor’s eyes to the beauty of the house and encouraged him to buy it. They knew the house had value, but they couldn’t afford the restoration process. It will need expertise, time, effort, and money. And unfortunately, they had already demolished part of the house to build a residence for themselves. And so Dr.Alaa and his family bought the remaining part of the old house.
Very Few Evidence
After buying the house the process of restoration began. But there were very few pieces of evidence that could be traced back to the house. The only documents were: the ownership deed, a map from 1936 showing the outline of the property, and a photograph from a balloon passing over Cairo in 1904. These were the only pictorial pieces of evidence. Other than this, the restoration process depended on architectural evidence and the knowledge of Dr.Alaa.
And so with a very long process of studying and reconstructing, the place which was referred to as “EL-Kharaba”, is now referred to as “Al-Qasr”, which was in fact its original name.
The Real Unexpected Treasure
It’s Not Only About Architecture
As unique as “Bayt Yakan’s” architecture is, the really interesting part about the experience, and the real treasure, is the relation between the place and the surrounding local community. We Talked with Dr.Alaa about it. He told us that it all happened very spontaneously and that he was driven into it by the community itself.
“Bayt Yakan” Vs. “Bayt EL-Razzaz”
Prior to “Bayt Yakan”, his experience with the restoration of “Bayt EL-Razzaz” was actually the one that reshaped his perspective towards community involvement. Dr.Alaa spent 8 years working on Bayt EL-Razzaz. Then just after completing the project, it was locked all of a sudden. And now it is slowly deteriorating once more, without any benefit for the community.
But with “Bayt Yakan” it was completely different. At first, the community wasn’t very welcoming because of him being a stranger, and it is really hard to become a part of a close and already established social fabric. Before involving the community, there were some people trespassing the house and causing problems. Only after he opened up the doors that he found security, in his own words: “Security Is The Community!”
Becoming Part of The Community
Now, the place always hosts events to benefit the local community, raising their awareness about the importance of heritage, workshops for the local artisans, and events for the women and kids especially. The courtyard and the whole ground floor is now theirs. Women and children coming in during the day spending their time. They even planted a small herb garden -“EL-Bustan”- for them to get the natural herbs they need for cooking. Simply the house became their club. This brings life and quality to the place, and they are taking care of it because it is their own. And through this experience, Dr.Alaa Says that he had learned some things he never learned during his professional life.
The True Owners of Heritage
“They -the local community- don’t have opened spaces anymore. In the old times, they had the “Mastaba” –a bench outside the traditional Egyptian house- in their alley, now they don’t have that, and they are slowly dying. So when you feel for them, they will also feel for you. Now they understand what is heritage and what it stands for. They value the heritage through my eyes. It is a mutual benefit.”
“Heritage is not about one person; it is about the whole community. If you’re putting yourself in a historic house and a historic context, then you have to involve the community, It is a must! if you asked the people outside where’s “Bayt Yakan” and where’s “Bayt El-Razzaz”, they wouldn’t even know what’s “Bayt El-Razzaz” although it is very close, and about ten times bigger than “Bayt Yakan”. But is it beneficial to the community or not? That’s the whole point.”
Future Vision: What Our City Needs
When we spoke about the future plans for “Bayt Yakan” Dr.Alaa told us that the future aim is to turn this place into an architectural institution focused on teaching architects how to design in historic contexts. It is a lacking field in Egypt and the Arab world. Designers mostly go for modern designs without even considering the contexts. Which in fact, should be the main factor shaping the design process, as the historic context is the majority in our cities.
So, “Bayt Yakan” will be focusing on this field, especially when we’re not only talking about restoration but about reuse and how to keep a place living.
Now, “Bayt Yakan” has rooms for researchers, and they were quickly occupied. Researchers from different nationalities: Egyptians, Indians, Yemenis, and Japanese, all have a residence in “Bayt Yakan” for studying historic Cairo.
The Message of “Bayt Yakan”
Lately “Bayt Yakan” has won the “ICCROM Sharjah” award for best practices in the preservation of heritage in the Arab world. And they’re using the entire buzz happening around the project, to engage the authorities, and spread the message and experience of “Bayt Yakan” on a larger scale.
“We need to upscale the project for it to be effective, engaging communities everywhere, and for them to run the heritage because it is theirs in the first place.”
We Have A Model To Follow
“Bayt Yakan’s” experience is now a precedent in many ways, and the model is spreading through the Dr.’s personal network. Recently two of his friends bought two houses in the area, having similar approaches but with slight differences according to every single case, and “Bayt Yakan” is there to guide them and give them support.
Finally, Dr.Alaa told us that maybe they can’t do this only on their own, but as long as there are people believing in this cause, they will have the strength to carry on.
If you’re interested in knowing more about Old Cairo’s historic buildings, Then Check our article about The Gem of The Mamluk Architecture: The Palace Of Prince Taz, Here on Linesmag!