Egypt: Sabil-Kuttab of Nafisa al-Bayda

Sabil-Kuttab of Nafisa al-Bayda
by Lara Iskander

View of Sabil Nafisa al-Bayda through the passageway of Bab Zuweila

This Ottoman building built by Nafisa al-Bayda dates back to the year of 1796 AD.

It is located in an extremely busy area next to Bab Zuweila in al-Sukariyya, the Sugar Street, particularly famous for being mentioned in one of Naguib Mahfouzs (Egyptian novelist) trilogy novel.

Nafisa al-Bayda began her life as a slave and then was married in the mid 1700s to a man of power in the state named Ali Bey. Afterwards, she married the wealthy Murad Bey who was at first a Mamluk, but then later rose to power in 1784 and became the leader of the resistance against the Napoleon Bonaparte invasion.

Lady Nafisa al-Bayda, meaning the white one, was a woman of beauty, wealth, charity and known to be of great culture. She is also a symbol for womens participation in those days to the political life. During her husbands resistance, she played a major role in helping him acting as an intermediate between him and Napoleon.

The sugar street and the Zuweila gate.

It is obvious that she chose the location of her monument with care since it stands at the southern end of Muzz el-din Street nearby the city gate, a historical landmark that defined the southern walls of the city and has been a thriving commercial quarter for over nine hundred years.

The significance of this location also lies in the fact that her monuments, built on a main street, next to Bab Zuweila where the yearly pilgrimages ceremonies to Mecca used to take place was a privilege, she as a female was the only one to have.

Sabils, commercial water supply buildings, were not necessarily placed at wells; the importance was to bring water where it was needed and storing for some time.

In general water carriers brought water from the Nile River and deposited it in sabil cisterns; from there it was distributed to drinkers. Therefore, choosing a location was mainly based on the popularity of the area and the power of the owner and not the accessibility to water wells.

The rounded faced of the Sabil and the Kuttab on the upper level.

The rounded faced of the Sabil and the Kuttab on the upper level;

Sideway alley that leads to the entrance of the sabil.
Sideway alley that leads to the entrance of the sabil.

Nafisa al-Baydas reputation as a charitable and intelligent woman does not pass unnoticed, for she took an active part in land investments and trades of the market and achieved great wealth from running her own Wikala. In fact, she was regarded as one of the richest women of her time confirming the beliefs that many women during those periods participated and were successful in the business life.

As was common in those days, the sabil is surmounted by a Kuttab (Quranic School). On the same street lies her Wikala (commercial market), built during the same period.

Finely Decorated Iron Gate

The sabil has a beautiful rounded faade different from the usual square form. This is characteristic to the change of designs of such monuments that began to appear in the 1740s. Another famous Sabil that is also owned by a female has the same rounded front. It is located in Suq Al-Silah Street and called Sabil-Kuttab Ruqayya Dudu, built in 1761.

The faade being the main attraction of this monument is particularly interesting for its fine masonry and impressive bronze grilled windows.

The interior also contains beautiful woodwork and marble floorings that are kept in a good state. Linked to the sabil is a mens bath that still remains in function till this day.

Public baths were a very important facility in those days and they are still used as a tradition in many quarters in popular Cairo.

The fires used for heating the bath is also used for cooking the most famous meal in Egypt, Fool or brown beans served to the neighborhood generally for breakfast.

The sabil, that once served as a water fountain and a Quranic school for the area is relatively small in size. Before its late restoration, it was in a desperate shape and would have been easily passed unnoticed. Restoration work carried out by the American research center in Egypt saved the monument from its loss. It has been reopened to the public in 1988.

Exterior Facade of the WikalaView of the Wikala facing sugar street and Bab Zuweila

Left: Exterior Facade of the Wikala; Right: View of the Wikala facing sugar street and Bab Zuweila

Of the Wikala nearby, only the faade survived. The Wikala or also called Khan (caravanserai) was a place where merchants lodged, stored their goods and traded Nafisa el-Bayda purchased this 12th century building during the 1790s. To make the best commercial use of it, she remodeled it and gave it a new faade. It originally contained a large courtyard now built up.

Exterior view of the arched entrance of the wikalaView of the cross vaulted entrance
Left: Exterior view of the arched entrance of the wikala; Right: View of the cross vaulted entrance

Now, the newly built interior houses workshops and places for trading. The Faades ornamental gate and the turned wood (Mashrabeyya) screens on the upper level exemplify a characteristically Cairene architectural style that has changed little since the middle ages. The faade and the cross vault roofing the passageway have been restored in 2002 which helped keep the historic aspect and spirit of the alley.


  • Original Research by Lara Iskander, who works in Cairo to restore Islamic monuments.