Could Al Razzaz House become the template for preserving Cairo's heritage?

Volunteers are fighting for the future of a 3,000 square-metre building named after an Ottoman tax-collector

Al Razzaz House is named after a 17th-Century Ottoman official who accepted taxes from farmers in rice instead of money. Photo: Iason Athanasiadis.
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Omniya Abdel Barr lives between London, where she is a researcher at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and her hometown of Cairo, where she is a senior member of a civil society group that acts as an emergency rescue team for historical sites.

Her London job is relatively straightforward, dealing with routine challenges. However, the same cannot be said for her job in Cairo.

Along with a small but tenacious group of like-minded Egyptians, she is fighting a tough battle to protect the city’s heritage against urbanisation, and authorities that have no qualms about sacrificing historical sites to build roads or overpasses.

“Let us be realistic, we cannot save everything,” Dr Abdel Barr told The National.

“What we are doing here is protect and save one site that can be looked at as an example to follow,” she said at the breezy and bright courtyard of an under-restoration, Mamluk-era house known as Bayt Al Razzaz, or Al Razzaz House in Al Darb Al Ahmar, part of Cairo’s medieval quarter

Dr Abdel Barr first came into contact with the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation NGO 10 years ago when a car bomb targeting Cairo’s security headquarters badly damaged the Museum of Islamic Art.

With memories still fresh of incidents of looting at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square during the chaos of the 2011 Arab uprising, Dr Abdel Barr offered her help.

She said the museum’s collection needed to be urgently documented and protected.

“We were not sure that the army or the police can efficiently protect the site from thugs. The windows were blown out. We needed to be methodical about it so every piece can return to its original place. Nothing was stolen, some pieces were badly damaged ”

Dr Abdel Barr said her voluntary work at the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, which has since been restored and reopened, was a turning point in her career.

With that memory comes a sentimental attachment to a smashed panel of wood with inlaid ivory engravings that she picked up off the floor of the museum and meticulously worked to piece it back together.

The panel, now on display again in the museum, is thought to be from part of a door in one of the many buildings constructed by a Mamluk ruler, Sultan Qaytbay, who ruled Egypt for about 30 years in the 15th century.

The engravings read: “To our lord the sultan, the king Al Ashraf Qaytbay, may his triumph be glorified.”

Al Razzaz House

The Belgian and French-educated historian, architect and conservationist is now in the thick of something that, if successfully concluded, would perhaps be as crucial as helping to save the Museum of Islamic Art.

In October 2004, she joined the restoration team of Al Razzaz House.

The house, composed of two courtyard houses joined into one at the turn of the 19th century, remained a private property until the mid-20th century. Today, it is listed as a monument and is the property of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

You can feel life here, but when you move to the other side of the house where we haven’t done any work, you feel death. Our energy makes that difference
Dr Omniya Abdel Barr, historian and architect

The restoration, then funded by the USAID, focused on the house's eastern courtyard. When completed in 2007, the site returned to the care of the SCA and remained closed until April 2018, when Dr Abdel Barr and the EHRF launched a project on Mamluk pulpits, or minbars, in Cairo to complete documentation and stop the looting of the traditionally ornate wooden structures.

Al Razzaz House is built over about 3,000 square metres and is named after a senior 17th-Century Ottoman official who once accepted taxes from farmers in rice rather than money.

The official later sold the rice for a handsome profit that helped fill the coffers of the Ottoman viceroy at the time.

Wanting to show his appreciation, the viceroy gifted the house to the official, Khalil Agha, in 1638. It has since been known as Bayt Al Razzaz, or “home of the rice man”.

By the end of this year, about 20 million Egyptian pounds will have been spent on the restoration of the eastern courtyard of Bayt Al Razzaz, including extensive wiring and plumbing and the reconstruction of a corner affected by the collapse of an adjacent house in a 2020 storm.

What is left of the current grant from the British Council’s cultural protection fund, said Dr Abdel Barr, would be enough only until the end of the year.

Dr Abdel Barr and her team have been trying to engage with the private sector. They have teamed up with Kahhal Looms, a leading Cairo producer of handmade carpets, to fundraise to restore the main reception room on the eastern side of the complex.

“I need another 100 million Egyptian pounds to continue the job at the western side,” Dr Abdel Barr said, citing how it has the biggest reception hall in Cairo, with a height of 18 metres and overlooking a 1,000 square metre courtyard.

“You can feel life here, but when you move to the other side of the house where we haven’t done any work, you feel death. Our energy makes that difference.”

The house sits on a narrow and noisy road crammed with popular eateries and aesthetically unpleasing homes that stand among majestic Mamluk-era mosques and mansions.

Yet, the courtyard of the Al Razzaz house has an unlikely vibe of quiet and serenity rarely found in contemporary homes.

“I come here every day even if I don’t have to because the place rejuvenates me,” she added.

Community engagement

Dr Abdel Barr’s master plan for the compound is to forge a marriage between the site, civil society, the government and the private sector to protect the house while raising funds for upkeep.

The plan stands a fair chance of success given that the government does not have the resources to restore historical sites in Cairo.

Starting in September, the house will be home to a monthly literary salon. She plans to set up a school for Arabic carpentry there as well as a kitchen to serve lunch to visitors. The house would also be used for concerts, high-end dinners, cocktail parties and possibly weddings.

“Some suggested to us turning the house into a boutique hotel,” she said. “We said no. We actually want people to establish continuing links with the house.”

“We believe Bayt Al Razzaz can become a meeting place for artists, designers, makers and creatives … to come together and be inspired. We want to reverse the social isolation of the monument and have it play an effective role again within its community.”

She plans to create a community engagement programme and have the private sector involved but not the way it has been done previously.

She is set to ask the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities to agree to a long-term lease on the house in place of the renewable, one-year deal they currently have.

“We need our private sector partners to know that we are here for the long haul.”

Updated: June 07, 2024, 6:00 PM