‘Living Stones’: A Young Architect Looks at Old Cairo

By Carel Bertram

The Living Stones of Cairo
By Jaroslav Dobrowolski
The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2001 

Here are one hundred drawings of medieval Cairo, executed for the pure joy of it rather than as part of the work of a professional conservation architect. Yet because the artist is just such an architect, we are given a tour that is sensitive to the poetics of space. “The Living Stones of Cairo” invites us on a tour that focuses on how buildings and spaces speak, how they tell us - or hide -something about themselves, or how they lead us somewhere. In this way, the stone buildings of Cairo certainly are alive. This collection invites us to listen in on a dialogue between a builder and the built.

Each of Jaroslav Dobrowolski’s drawings highlights the “telling features” of a building or its setting.  Is the “telling feature” the portal? The dome? The window? Or is it the surface detail and decoration, or a sense of space made palpable through massiveness, light, or shadow?  As we notice these telling features, a side-by-side text explains or alludes to what is “being told.” Perhaps it is a distinctively Mamluk feature, such as knotted string moldings carved on stone facades, or the shape of the dome, or the finial of a minaret. Perhaps it is the graduated size in the openings of a window grill, marking a public fountain that opens widely at the level of the passerby, in order to distribute its water and its blessings.  

By seeing through an architect’s eye, we catch what we might otherwise overlook or simply could not know. For example, the drawing of the house of Ahmad Katkhuda al-Razzaz, in the Darb al-Ahmar quarter, emphasizes the elaborate mashrabiya  (wood grill) balcony on its tall, narrow, otherwise plain stone façade. These windowed balconies evoke a sense of mystery, concealing not only the women who may have looked out from them, but the vast and complex spaces of the interior. Behind these windows stretch rooms, courtyards, corridors, and staircases. In fact, this house, built between the 15th and the 19th centuries, was once at least two different houses, separated by a street that the house has long since engulfed.

Another house in the Darb al Ahmar, the house of Gamal al-Din al-Dhahabi, built in 1637, is one of the few surviving merchant’s houses from the Ottoman period. It is a good example of how most streets looked at that time and into the 19th century. Here we see how an alley of houses was an urban unit, a little village, with its own pulsing life and gates that closed it off at night. The author reminds us that the memory of this life will be lost if urban preservation saves only the house without its setting.

These drawings, made over the last 10 years, are organized chronologically, from oldest to newest, rather than thematically or topographically. They cover all architectural types, from religiously endowed mosques, shrines, tombs, madrasas, Sufi lodges, and fountains, to secular bazaars, streets, alleys, and homes.  A map helps the reader locate these sites because, although this book is not meant to be a walking tour, it certainly inspires walking and looking. Fortunately, the artist could do what the tourist can do only in retrospective reverie: remove the crowds that block large vistas or intricate details, minimize deterioration, and erase Cairo’s errant refuse and ever-present scaffolding. Furthermore, by highlighting the salient, he has represented the familiar in unfamiliar ways, making us take a second look, and listen more acutely to what these buildings have to say. 

This book review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 8, no. 38 (Winter 2002) 

Copyright (c) 2002, 2016 by Al Jadid

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