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Cairo to turn 15th century sultan's caravansary into heritage hotel to boost tourism

The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced Oct. 24 that it will convert the 15th century Wakala al-Sultan Qaytbay into a heritage hotel after its restoration.
Egyptian dancers perform the Tanoura during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, at el-Ghuri culture Palace in Cairo on May 22, 2018. (Photo by KHALED DESOUKI / AFP)        (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)

The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced Oct. 24 that it will convert the 15th century Wakala (caravansary or hostel for merchants) of Al-Sultan Qaytbay, which was established during the Mamluk era in 1481, into a heritage hotel after being restored and rehabilitated.

The project, which is being implemented by the Antiquities Ministry's General Administration of Historic Cairo, was established in collaboration with the Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities, which funded the project at a total cost of 100 million Egyptian pounds ($6.4 million), according to a press statement by Mahmoud Abdel Baset, director general of the Historic Cairo Development Project.

The Wakala al-Sultan Qaytbay is due to open next year.

The structure was built in 1481 by Sultan Abu Al-Nasr Al-Ashraf Qaytbay, a Burji Mamluk sultan of Egypt who ruled between 1468 and 1496. He was famous for being a great patron of architecture and art.

Wakala al-Sultan Qaytbay is located in Gamaliya Street in Islamic Cairo. Gamaliya features in the famous novel “Cairo Trilogy” by Egypt’s most celebrated writer, late Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

It consists of three floors and overlooks a spacious inner rectangular courtyard that was used for receiving goods from pack animals. The ground floor served for trade, consisting of a number of shops and stores. The upper floors were used as a residential complex with rented units.

Sultan Qaytbay endowed the Wakala to use its revenues for buying ground grains to be offered to the poor of Medina in Saudi Arabia, where he witnessed poverty when he performed the pilgrimage in 1479.

The restoration of the Wakala, which was registered in the Islamic and Coptic antiquities list in 1953, will preserve its historical identity of the ancient buildings of the Historic Cairo area.

Historic Cairo was founded in the 10th century during the Fatimid dynasty. It was registered on UNESCO'S World Heritage List in 1979 for its richness in mosques, madrassas, hammams, sabils (water dispensers) and kuttabs (elementary school to teach the Quran to children).

The shops that occupy the front of the Wakala will be restored and serve as commercial outlets that will sell antiques and souvenirs to tourists and visitors.

The heritage hotel, which will be furnished to simulate the era of its creation, will be of interest to tourists and locals alike who wish to experience life in a caravansary.

Mohamed Abdel-Latif, former assistant minister of antiquities, said in a press statement Oct. 20 that the idea of reexploiting antiquities will give a boost to Egypt's tourism sector, especially since there are many untapped archaeological areas that have been closed for years.

Abdul Latif noted that reusing the Wakal is subjected to strict conditions that are consistent with antiquities protection laws, international covenants, as well as controls approved by the Permanent Committee for Islamic and Coptic Monuments in its decisions issued in 2015.

Gamal Abdel Rehim, professor of archaeology and Islamic arts at Cairo University, highlighted the importance of this project, stressing that the concept of the inhabited antiquity is always safer than the unexploited one to ensure maintenance and preservation.

“If any antiquity is restored and not used for some time it will die,” he told Al-Monitor. “So the revival of any antiquity prolongs its life. I support the ministry's keenness in restoring the antiquities.”

Wakala al-Sultan Qaytbay is not the first heritage site that has been restored to revive its history.

Wekalet el-Ghouri is located on Mohamed Abdou Street, off Al-Azhar Street in Islamic Cairo. It was built in 1504 by Mamluk Sultan Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghouri who ruled between 1501 and 1516.

Since 2005, Wekalet el-Ghouri has been used as a cultural center hosting cultural and artistic activities such as tanoura (Egyptian folk dance) shows and religious recitals. Its courtyard accommodates 300 spectators, in addition to an outlet selling souvenirs and books; the center is technically equipped with two sound and lighting systems.

Bayt al-Suhaymi is located in Darb el-Asfar alley, off Moezz Street in Gamaliya district. It has been occupied by many families since 1648, until its final occupant was Mohamed Amin al-Suhaymi, a Turkish sheikh at Al-Azhar who stayed there until his death in 1929. A year later, it was purchased by the Egyptian government at a total cost of 6,000 Egyptian pounds (the equivalent of $384 today).

Since 2000, the Cultural Development Fund, affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, regularly holds events in Bayt al-Suhaymi to bring life to the historic house. These activities include cultural folk arts flagship the Nile Troupe, an ensemble of musicians, singers and dancers who present a show that is popular among locals and visitors, in addition to special events for children, such as aragouz (puppet show).

In Zezenia, an affluent neighborhood in Alexandria, sits the marvelous palace of Princess Zeinab Fahmy, which was built in 1919 and converted into the Royal Jewelry Museum in 1986. Divided into 10 halls, the palace contains 11,500 pieces of antiques and jewelry belonging to members of the Muhamed Ali family, which ruled Egypt between 1805  and 1952.

This museum is one of the most beautiful tourist attractions in Alexandria due to its rare and wonderful collection of antiques, jewelry, gold items, precious stones and watches studded with jewels and diamonds.

The Indian-inspired Baron Palace reopened to the public in June after a three-year renovation. Built by Belgian industrialist Edward Louis Joseph Empain between 1907 and 1911, the palace serves now as an archaeological gallery featuring the history of the Heliopolis district, an affluent suburb outside Cairo built by Empain 115 years ago.

“To be honest, the Islamic antiquities receive fewer visitors compared to those who visit Pharaonic-related antiquities. That's why the government wants to increase the number of visitors to these places. It is a good decision,” Abdel Rehim concluded.

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