The 350-year-old Beit Seheimi, an architectural jewel in the heart of Islamic Cairo, is soon to open its doors to tourists after six years of restoration that saved it from decay.
The huge task of renovating the building -- a five-level Mamluk-style house some of whose rooms are embellished with gold Arabic love poetry -- and three other buildings began in 1994 at a cost of three million dollars.
Funded by the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD) and inaugurated last week, the project was the inspiration of 72-year-old sociology professor Assad Nadim.
"It was love at first sight when I laid eyes on this stylish house for the first time back in 1960, despite its sorry state," said Nadim. The building's condition was later made worse by the 1992 earthquake that rocked Cairo.
Beit Seheimi, with its garden courtyard and steam bath, was constructed in 1648 by a sheikh of Al-Azhar, Abdel Wahab al-Tablawi, in the rich style of the Mamluks who ruled Egypt from the 13th to the 16th century.
"Two hundred trucks full of rubbish and rubble left the site before work could begin," said Nadim, the founder of an institute to train professional restorers.
"We repaired 1,500 cracks in the building, mainly caused by age and negligence. Some were so large you could see daylight clearly through them," he added.
The Egyptian government bought the 100-room house in 1931 from its last owners, the family of Sheikh Mohammed al-Seheimi, who gave it its name.
A classic example of bourgeois architecture of the period, the home focused inward on its courtyard to protect the private life of the family.
But unlike other houses of the time, whose inhabitants depended on public baths, Beit Seheimi boasted its own hammam under a small dome dotted with tiny yellow and blue star-shaped glass windows.
Dark wooden beams in the main rooms are decorated with Arabic love poems and verses from the Quran written in gold calligraphy while numerous "mashrabeyyas" -- projecting wooden latticework windows -- mark the exterior walls.
Nadim's project began just with Beit Seheimi, but expanded to include the neighboring Mustafa Gaafar and Kharazati houses and the Sabil-Kuttab Quitas public fountain.
Mustafa Gaafar house, built against a wall of Beit Seheimi, sheltered some thirty homeless families who had to be rehoused in apartments bought by the project before their job could get under way, Nadim said.
The families had installed their own makeshift toilets and bathrooms against the wall of the house, which had become threatened with collapse.
"The damp was so bad that our hands would be wet when we touched the wall," Nadim said.
When Beit Seheimi is opened to tourists in the coming weeks it will become the latest in a series of restored buildings in Islamic Cairo and will join the tourist itinery in the old city along with nearby Khan al-Khalili bazaar, the citadel of Mohammed Ali and the ninth century Ibn Tulun mosque -- CAIRO (AFP).
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