Egypt: Wakalat Al-Ghouri: Reviving a Heritage

Wakalat Al-Ghouri
Reviving a Heritage

by The Egyptian Government

Wakalat Al-Ghouri (909-910 A.H./1504-1505 A.D.) is located in Al-Tablita Street next to the founder's complex that contains a dome, a sitting logicca, a sabil, a kuttab, a mosque and a house in Al-Azhar quarter. This wakala (craftsmen and market place) was founded by Sultan Al-Ashraf Abu Al-Nasr Qunswa Al-Garkassi (Al-Ghouri) three years after his assuming power.

Plan and design

The plan of the Wakala adopted the principle of introvert interior, where the building consists of a central open courtyard around which the stores of the ground and first floors are assembled with an entrance in the middle of the main facade. It includes annexes for services, utilities, stables for merchants' animals and an upper residence quarter that has a special entrance at the far end of the facade, in addition to a dye-house with an annex for housing the dyers, grouped around a small courtyard, and a small mosque in the yard of the Wakala.

The open rectangular courtyard is surrounded by four riwaqs; each of the south-east and north-west riwaqs overlook the courtyard through an arcade of eight pointed arches supported on piers with stalactites on top and inverted spherical triangles at the bottom. The south-west and north-east riwaqs overlook the courtyard through an arcade of three pointed arches, with two emblems in the name of Sultan Al-Ghouri engraved in the spandrels; the central arch of the last arcade represents the end of the entrance vestibule.

In the forefront of all these sides are vaulted entrances leading to 28 storehouses, distributed on the ground floor, and at the far eastern end of the north-east arcade is a staircase at the bottom of which are two arched recesses each leading to a vaulted storehouse. At the far northern end there is another staircase.

The two staircases lead to the storehouses of the first floor, and in front of these stores is an ambulatory overlooking the open courtyard through pointed arches. Between each arch is a wooden railing. The apartments contain two types of housing, the first consists of a duplex and the second is of one level. The first consists of an iwan, a durqa'a and an entrance that contains services and utilities on the first floor. The upper floor has a bedroom. The second type consists of a dwelling on one level. The rooms are arranged around the internal courtyard, while the corridor leading to the dwelling unit is placed on the external periphery adjacent to the wall of the neighbors, and is lighted and ventilated through small courtyards. Each floor is composed of three almost identical levels as far as the interior design is concerned, although they are presently differences due to the renovation works that have not exactly followed the original style. The first housing level encircles the courtyard, while the northern riwaqs overlook the street. The back area overlooks the court through vertical rectangular windows with wooden turnery wood. The number of dwellings overlooked by the riwaqs are 29 independent units, each consisting of three story. The riwaq containing an iwan preceded by a duraqa'a, and behind it is a sleeping cabinet and a vestibule that contains the entrance door to the corridor that connects parts of the first level, in addition to a staircase leading up to both the second and third levels of the apartments that are similar to the first level. The iwan is a rectangular area with three windows in the first and second levels and a mashrabiyaa in the forefront of the third level and the two other sides have two recesses with piers on both sides. The durqa'a is a rectangular area with two recesses in its two traverse sides. As for the longitudinal units, the internal one is part of the iwan while the external has two doors, one leading to the vestibule and the other to a sleeping cabinet.

The entrance opens in the north-east facade and is placed in a recess with sitting benches on both sides on the current street level. The recess is crowded by a trefoil arch carried on two niches each containing a row of stalactites, with the arch and the whole entrance encircled by a continuous molding with circular forms. In the center of the recess is the entrance door, topped by a lintel of joggled voussoirs, a tympanum and then a relieving arch of joggled voussoirs. Following this are three rows of stalactites bordered on top and bottom by a continuous molding with circular forms. On the side of the entrance are windows of the riwaqs and the apartments of the upper stories of the north-east facade. In the first and second levels are windows while the third consists of mashrabiyass. There are fourwindows on the right of the entrance and five on its left. At the far eastern end of the facade is pointed-arched doors opening on both sides each leading to a vaulted storeroom. The former entrance leads to a rectangular corridor covered by two fan vaults, each having an octagonal form in the center, while the rest of the corridor is covered by a semi-circular barrel vault overlooking the courtyard through a pointed arch.

In the internal facade overlooking the courtyard we find that the first and second stories are connected by pointed arches two stories high, while the housing apartments are divided horizontally by wooden structural elements. Note that there is a difference in the architectural treatment of the duplex windows from those of the single-story dwellings. In the facade we find that each architectural function has been expressed differently so as to emphasize its position in accordance with the whole block. The lower storehouses have small openings in the wall alignments. The housing block is protruded along the facade on consoles and the windows of the housing block appear in a different fashion than those of the storehouses as far as the surface and architectural formations are concerned. The facade is divided horizontally by wooden structural elements, and its formation depends on the style of red and white courses alternatively. In order to Emphasize the entrance to the Wakala from other entrances, the entrance is placed in a deep recess two stories high, arched with a trefoil arch arranged on axis with the facade. The entrance leads to a vestibule that in turn leads directly to the inner courtyard. This is probably meant to attract the buyers, as well as facilitating getting the merchandise in and out of the stores of the Wakala. In general, we notice the integrity and continuity in the form of the openings in all the internal and external facades with regard to the housing block.

Stone is used for building walls, internally and externally, including the internal stairs. Red bricks are used to build internal partitions, and wood is used for roofing housing spaces. Circular and intersecting vaults are used in the ceilings of storehouses. The windows are provided with wooden mashrabiyyas, and the internal walls in the housing area are all plastered. As we see, most of the construction materials used are natural, suitable for the surrounding climatic conditions and thus fulfilling the various construction requirements. Lighter materials are used for the internal partitions while very enduring materials are used outside and under heavy loads. Wood is used and decorated as needed, screening the apartments from external surroundings.

Meet teachings

As a whole, the Wakala meets the teachings of Islam. Functionally it is considered a shelter for traveling merchants coming from all countries to trade in Cairo. The Wakala encourages closer relations with one another while providing privacy. Further, we find simplicity prevailing in the design and the internal and external details of the Wakala, which conforms to the spirit of Islam, especially in a place where buying and selling is domineering. This spirit was assured by the existence of the mosque in the wakala's courtyard, where prayers can be held without interrupting the process of buying and selling.

Historical buildings have a lure of their own. Islamic monuments, in particular, have a very special air of their own; a very strong sense of history pervades them and fills visitors with such feeling. One of these monuments is certainly Wakalat Al-Ghouri.

The moment you step onto the old stone steps leading into the courtyard, you will get the feeling of softly gliding back into history. A host of finely made wooden mashrabiyas, overlooking the courtyard, as well as the facade of the building, remarkably come into view, almost confiding the 500-year history of this architectural masterpiece. This Mameluke-styled building is closely situated amidst the historical district of Al-Azhar, downtown Cairo, which is remarkably rich with Fatimide and Mameluke monuments.