Wikala (caravanserai) of al-Ghuri
The wikala or caravanserai is located in Tablita Street parallel to al-Azhar Street. It lies 100 m from the historical al-Ghuri Complex which consists of a madrasa, a mausoleum and a sabil (water dispensary), built at the same time as the wikala. The sponsor, Sultan al-Ghuri, allocated the wikala as a waqf (endowment) for the upkeep of the complex, Cairo, Egypt
Hegira 909–10 / AD 1503–5
Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri (r. AH 906–22 / AD 1501–16).
There are a number of wikalas or caravanserais in Cairo that date back to the Mamluk and Ottoman periods. Wikalas were international centres of commerce between countries and regions, and this fact necessitated the presence of sleeping accommodation for merchants and their clients from all over the world who might stay in Cairo for a period of time. The Wikala of al-Ghuri is distinguished from others of its kind in Cairo by the fact that most of its architectural constituents are preserved. Today this wikala is considered to be an on-site museum for the art of mashrabiyya, as it boasts 29 of the finest examples of these turned-wood lattice window-screens, which form a basic component, beside stone, in the architectural design of the building. The wikala, in fact, offers a rare example of Mamluk mashrabiyya within the context of the building for which they were made.
The principal façade of the building is on the north overlooking the street, and contains nine mashrabiyyas. The entrance, crowned by a tri-lobed arch, leads to a straight passageway which opens directly onto the rectangular open courtyard of the wikala, in the midst of which is a marble fountain. This arrangement was aimed at attracting customers, as much as it was to facilitate the easy transportation of goods to and from the storage areas of the caravanserai.
There are four stories that overlook the courtyard of the caravanserai. Each of the two lower floors hold more than 20 rooms covered with stone vaulted ceilings; these were used as storage areas for the traders who resided at the caravanserai. These rooms overlook the courtyard by way of colonnades, characterised by pointed arches supported by stone piers. The upper two stories were designed as residential units, each consisting of two floors. In between the two floors there is a hidden level containing the kitchens and storage areas. The facades of these units overlook the courtyard by means of a splendid group of mashrabiyya that project from the walls and which are supported by wooden brackets. In the lower part of the mashrabiyya are two rows of windows, furnished with wooden screens that have movable covers (or flaps) opening upwards, thus allowing those who are within the rooms to see the courtyard without anyone seeing them in the upper stories. By this means, the design of the caravanserai accomplished friendly contact and closer intimacy between its residents from different countries and regions, while also ensuring their privacy, as each apartment was separated both vertically and horizontally from the next.
The Ministry of Culture has recently transformed the building into a centre for the conservation of traditional handicrafts, especially the art of wood-turning and stucco coloured glass. The centre also houses the ateliers of modern artists, whose presence together with the other craftsmen, assists in the efforts of continuity and preservation at the site, and of the artistic and cultural welding between the traditional and modern.
This wikala is an intact example of the caravanserais that spread through Cairo in the Mamluk period, when trade with the outside world reached its peak. It comprises residential quarters for travellers and merchants, storerooms and an open courtyard, where transactions took place. Its most outstanding feature is a wonderful group of windows covered with turned wood mashrabiyya (screens) overlooking the courtyard and the façade.
Dating of the building is supported by historical sources such as Kitab al-Nujum al-Zahira, by Ibn Taghri Bardi. A study of its architectural constituents and decoration such as the mashrabiyya also helped in dating it.
Al-Pasha, H., Madkhal ila al-Athar al-Islamiya [An Introduction to Islamic Monuments], Cairo, 1979.
Abu al-Mahasin, Jamal al-Din Yusuf ibn Taghri Bardi al-Atabki (d. 874 / 1469), al-Nujum al-Zahira fi Muluk Misr wa al-Qahira [Shining Stars in the Rulers of Egypt and Cairo], Cairo, 1939; reprinted 1956.
Williams, C., Islamic Monuments in Cairo: The Practical Guide, Cairo, 2002.
Zaki, Abd al-Rahman, Al-Azhar wa ma hawlahu min al-Athar [Al-Azhar and the Surrounding Monuments], Cairo, 1970.
Tarek Torky "Wikala (caravanserai) of al-Ghuri" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2019. 2019. http://www.discoverislamicart.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;eg;Mon01;17;en
Prepared by: Tarek TorkyTarek Torky
Tarek Abdel Aziz Torky holds a BA in Islamic and Coptic Antiquities from Cairo University (1982). He is currently Head of the Statistics Department at the Information Centre of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and reporter of the committee set up to prepare for the celebrations of the centennial of the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. As Expo Curator for the Discover Islamic Art project in Egypt he prepared the database information for the Egyptian monuments included in the project and participated in formulating the dynastic and cross-dynastic exhibitions. He has participated in the first phase of the Islamic Art in the Mediterranean project as product manager and prepared the texts and photos for the catalogue Mamluk Art: the Splendour and Magic of the Sultans (MWNF, 2001). In 2002 he obtained a scholarship for Med. Master on new technologies for valorisation and management of Mediterranean Cultural Heritage in Ravello, Salerno.
Copyedited by: Majd Musa
Translation by: Amal Sachedina (from the Arabic).
Translation copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: ET 17
Islamic Dynasties / Period
On display in
Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Mamluks | The Wider World: Diplomatic Contacts and International Trade
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