Architects find in doors of Old Cairo buildings historic value

The doors of buildings attest to the hidden beauty of Cairo throughout the ages, and the extent of human interest in architecture in Egypt.

al-monitor A man walks past a Star of David decorating the door of a home in the Jewish quarter of Cairo, Egypt, June 25, 2015. Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images.

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photography, construction, design, history, cultural heritage, old city, architecture, cairo

Oct 11, 2020

CAIRO — Just as they form an inseparable part of the building's facade, ancient doors also reflect the social and economic life of those who lived in those buildings. The distinctive decorations of those doors, in terms of architecture, shapes or engraved writings, represent the culture of the era in which the door was designed and the building was constructed.

The architect behind the “Doors of Cairo” project, Sarah Ayman, told Al-Monitor, “During my studies at the Faculty of Engineering at Ain Shams University, I would go on tours in Cairo to check out the various architectural styles. But when I visited the Religious Complex in the Old Cairo neighborhood in southern Cairo, I wanted everyone to wander the streets of Islamic Cairo, Khedivial Cairo and other neighborhoods of Cairo to see their beauty and splendor. I started taking photos of doors of buildings there to document the different architectural styles in Cairo."

In August 2019, Ayman launched "Doors of Cairo" on Facebook and Instagram. She explained that when some photographers saw the project's photos on social media, they began sharing their own photos of doors in Cairo to encourage people to learn about the features of architecture in the city.

Ayman pointed out that Cairo is home to various architectural schools, most notably, the Coptic, Islamic and several modern schools. “In Cairo, architecture was inspired by most schools of Islamic art, such as the Fatimids, the Mamluks and the Ottoman Empire. Each of them had its own distinctive features and characteristics, and this is reflected by the architecture of doors. This diversity of door shapes is due to the accuracy of the Islamic architecture and its keenness on reflecting the features of its era.”

She said that doors in the Fatimid era were decorated with botanical shapes, curved lines and Kufic scripts. “But in the Mamluk era, geometric shapes such as hexagonal or star units adorned doors. Gold and silver were used in some of these decorations. Geometric patterns were popular also in the Ottoman era.”

Ayman noted that Khedivial Cairo was inspired by architectural styles from France and Italy. These include Art Deco characterized by precise clear lines and geometric shapes, Art Nouveau showing curved lines and botanical shapes, along with the baroque style, the classical style and the modern Islamic styles, too.

She sought to organize tours in the streets of Cairo, but was unable to do so in light of the spread of the coronavirus. She is planning to issue a collection of the photos taken within the scope of the project. “This collection will not only enumerate the architectural features of each door, but will tell the story of the door by recounting the story of its owner,” Ayman said. She is also planning to organize an art exhibition to display the photos of the project.

Architect Mohamed Nasser told Al-Monitor, “Cairo has witnessed over the past years more than one project of visual documentation of ancient architecture. Artists Manar Moursi and David Puig published [in 2015] a book titled 'Sidewalk Salon,' which includes 1,001 pictures of various types of chairs found in front of cafes and buildings across Cairo.”

He said, “Doors are at the entrance to buildings, and they form, with the facade, a painting expressing a certain time period and representing the history of the building since its construction.”

Nasser noted that the old neighborhoods such as al-Khalifah and al-Sayeda Zeinab contain buildings dating back to the 18th century. “The design of the doors of these buildings differs from the design of the doors of buildings built in the modern era,” he said. “Each era has its own artistic and architectural styles. Add to this the writings and inscriptions on the facades of the buildings. Each style expresses the culture of its era, which in turn tell a separate story.”

He added that al-Darb al-Ahmar district in Cairo contains buildings whose facades and doors are adorned by the Star of David, which indicates that these buildings were previously inhabited by Jews. “This shows that the design of the doors sometimes identifies the inhabitants of the buildings. Doors’ designs recount the history of buildings and their residents.”

Salah Adel, administrator of the Historic Cairo Facebook page, told Al-Monitor, “While some like visiting crowded museums and archaeological monuments in Cairo, others prefer touring the streets of Cairo to look at the facades and doors of old buildings.”

He said that the aim of the tours in the streets of Cairo is to document doors, learn about the aesthetic features of each of them and identify the era of their construction. “This is in addition to photographing the facades of the buildings, and posting the photos on social media to motivate others to visit the streets where such buildings are located.”

Adel stressed the need to preserve ancient doors as a national wealth. “They form part of the architectural heritage of the buildings where they are located,” he said. “We must support ideas that allow us to uncover hidden aspects of Cairo that carry numerous aesthetic and historical values.”