Zeinab Khatoun’s house: A symbol of Egypt’s struggle against the French occupation

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Zeinab Khatoun’s house was constructed in 1468 and is situated in Al-Azhar. The house was restored in 1990′s and is considered a beautiful example of the sophisticated domestic architecture that once filled the city of Cairo. The architectural beauty of the house has made it an impeccable location for shooting films and TV series.

Zeinab Khatoun’s house

The history of the house

Zeinab Khatoun’s house was built in 1486 AD, during the rule of the Mamluks. It was built by Princess ‘Shakraa Hanim’, granddaughter of Sultan al-Nasir Hassan Ibn Qalawun, in 1517, when the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks and initiated their rule in Egypt. A series of people owned the house though the last was named Zeinab Khatoun. After her death, the house was handed to the Egyptian Awqaf which took it and rented it to some people among whom was the commander of the British occupation.

Inside Zeinab Khatoun’s house

Who is Mohamed Bek Al-Alfy?

He was a Mamluk (slave) owned by Taymourlink and was named Mohamed. He was given as a gift to Murad Bek, one of the most important Mamluk princes who, in return, offered a 1000 ardebs of grains as a gift to Taymourlink.

Zeinab Khatoun’s house

Mohamed Bek became a rich Mamluk prince who owned palaces, houses and a plethora of servants. When the French campaign came to Egypt, he fled with Murad Bek to Upper Egypt.

However, Murad Bek forged an alliance with the French and became the ruler of Upper Egypt. But Mohamed Bek renounced Murad Bek’s actions and kept fighting the French occupation. In turn, he created another alliance with the English army, which arrived in the country to take the French out of Egypt. After the French army withdrew from Egypt according to Amiens Treaty, Mohamed Bek found himself in direct confrontation with the Turks so he left to Upper Egypt once again. He continued to correspond with the British government in order to solicit their return and assist him in assuming the throne, which was seized by his enemy Mohamed Ali Pasha. He managed to defeat Mohamed Ali in two battles in Beni Suef and Rahmanya, though he died on 28 January 1807 after his siege on Damanhour failed, months before any British attache arrived in Egypt.

Mashrbia in Zainab Khatoon House

Who is Zeinab Khatoun?

Zeinab Khatoun was a slave to the rich Mamluk prince Mohammed Al-Alfy, who later set her free. After emancipation, she married a prince called Sharif Hamza Alkhrbutly and because she married a prince, a princess she became and thus acquired the house after his death. Despite the fact that women in the Mamluk and Ottoman era were isolated behind Oriels, their roles were confined within the world of slavery. But Zeinab Khatoun proved the opposite. In 1798, the French came to Egypt and the Egyptians began to struggle against the foreign occupation. Zeinab Khatoun participated in this struggle and was harbouring militants and those wounded who resorted to the house when chased by the French. In a crypt underneath the house, 27 corpses were discovered to have been buried there. The corpses are believed to be the bodies of the wounded who were sheltered inside Zeinab Khatoun’s house. If the life story of Zeinab Khatoun reveals an important part of history, the house and what it includes, with rooms formed by geometric patterns, reveals the ubiquity of Mamluk architecture and vision.

Zaeinab Khatoun’s house (photo: World Nomads)


Architectural features of the house

Zeinab Khatoun’s house is a model of Mamluk architecture. The house entrance is designed so that the guest cannot see the inside. This is known in Islamic architecture as the “entrance refractor”. As soon as you pass from the entrance into the house you will find yourself in a large yard. The aim of such design is to ensure the access of light and air to the house and its rooms. The house of Zeinab Khatoun, in these attributes, corresponds with other houses of the Fatimid era like house of Harawi which was built in 1486, the same year in which the Zeinab Khatoun’s house was built, along with the house of Suhaimi, built in 1648, which indicates that the courtyard was an essential design feature during the Mamluk and Ottoman era.

Entrance of Zainab Khatoon House

The first floor includes the ‘Mandara’, a space to receive guests of men, along with a stable for horses and an ‘Almaziarah’, a place dedicated to water conservation. The first floor also included a kitchen, mill and loft.

The geometric patterns of the overlapping domes are common in each part of the building such as the mill, the loft and the ‘Almaziarah’. They make the roof in these rooms architecturally distinctive. The function of these domes are to work as air-conditioning, which is commensurate with the function of these rooms to keep cool, save water or grain, as it is well known that hot air ascends and climb to the top while cold air moves down.

Noteworthy aspects of this house include the painted and gold-decorated ceiling of the qa’a, or main room. The grand reception hall on the second floor overlooking the courtyard is representative of Mamluk qa’a. Typically a qa’a is a lofty tripartite space comprising a square hall lit and ventilated by a wooden lantern in its roof.
The floors of the house are showpieces in multiple colors of mesmerizing tiled patterns. A box shaped version of a spiral staircase, inside balconies with latticed railings, wooden beams, built in cupboards and closets, and room after room makes this a house anyone could easily get lost in.

(photo: archnet)