The Secrets & Stories Behind Cairo's Historic Doorways
Architect Sara Khairy is on a mission to document one thousand doors in Cairo.
Cairo has its fair share of iconic nicknames, one of which is ‘the city of a thousand minarets and domes’. But its abundance of urban aesthetics range beyond its most towering elements. Architect Sara Khairy found herself attracted to its doors, seeing them as signs of nuanced beauty amidst the chaos and neglect of Cairo’s urban fabric. With the hopes of archiving these oft-overlooked pieces of architecture, Khairy embarked on a journey to catalogue one thousand doors on her online platform, ‘Doors of Cairo’.
Khairy’s mission began in Old Cairo’s Religious Complex, where a door that embodied Egypt’s cultural diversity first caught her attention - an Islamic design that welcomed visitors into the Hanging Church above the Babylon Fortress. She has since ventured beyond the capital to cities like Damietta and Port Fouad, peeking beyond the doors to learn about the stories of the community they’re in. Most recently, Khairy reached door number 318 in her collection: a steel door in Ahmed Said Street near Hadayek El Kobba.
“There were a lot of accounts showcasing facades and I wanted to present something unique,” Khairy tells SceneHome. “I got attracted to doors because they never look the same, each one tells the story of its building, area and people.”
An architecture and urban planning graduate from Ain Shams University, Khairy’s archival dream began when she was still a student. “We would go on site visits to survey our built environment,” Khairy tells SceneHome. “I enjoyed exploring buildings and their details, recording them for my studies.”
When it came to her online archive, Khairy hoped to spread her enthusiasm as far as she could. “My goal was for people to learn about different neighbourhoods, to take a walk and engage with local communities and get to know its inhabitants,” she explains. “I started encouraging people to go on walks and send me the doors they come across and find special.”
With time, people started recognising the doors tha Khairy found, sparking discourse on her account while sharing images to add to her archive. “We’re getting to know the buildings through the doors,” Khairy says. “The materials they’re made of and their designs reflect the time period of the building and what the people behind them cherished.”
Khairy’s most significant takeaway was that whenever she did learn something about a door, the people who lived around it would always emphasise the craftsmen who created them. “When it comes to famous houses, information is available online. But what about the ‘ordinary’ doors?” Khairy muses. “For example, I was standing in front of a beautiful door in Abbasia and I asked bystanders from the neighbourhood about it. They told me that it’s been there for over a century. Even though the building wasn’t occupied by any ‘notable’ figures, everyone cared about putting effort and craftsmanship into their lives and you can tell from the doors.”At times, Khairy wouldn’t find a story behind a particular door - but she would still feel compelled to document its captivating visuals. “I find the doors randomly,” she explains. “My methodology is straightforward: get lost somewhere and spot the doors as you go. That’s how I came across this beautiful Art Nouveau door, it’s number 141.”
At one point, Khairy found herself in El Darb El Ahmar, which she describes as “a treasure trove of Islamic aesthetics.” There, she found Bayt Yakan, the Mamluk house restored by Egyptian architect Alaa El Habashi. Of course, its door became an easy addition to her archive. “It was an ideal example of how an old building can be repurposed to help the community,” Khairy says. “We don’t need to demolish and rebuild, we have more than enough buildings worth retrofitting and reuse.”
The passion with which Khairy speaks is evident in her work. It doesn’t matter where the door is, or what its historical significance may be; Khairy defines its value differently. “These doors are beautiful and were worth the visit,” she says. “I wanted to showcase their value regardless of whether they looked valuable or not. This is the core of what I studied and believed in. There’s plenty to learn from what exists, let’s not erase and build from scratch.”
One example of Khairy’s sense of value is door number 272 found in Downtown Cairo, which is attached to a renovated building. “Islamic designs are unique but everyone is already familiar with the magic of El Moez Street,” she says. “It’s interesting to showcase the beauty left behind and spotlight the neglected areas, because they used to be taken care of.”
As the community around Doors of Cairo grew, Khairy quickly learned that she wasn’t alone in her passion. In celebration of one of Doors of Cairo’s major milestones, Khairy hosted an event to put her collection of photographs on display. Halfway through, a young girl came up to Khairy to share the sketches she made of Egyptian doors, and the joy she found in them.
“We can identify with doors,” Khairy says. “They’re microcosms of our culture, offering an opportunity to learn about the people behind them as you scroll through their sheer diversity.”
As she went from door to door, Khairy found herself immersed in the history of structures like Sabils and Kuttabs, and in areas that were previously unknown to her like the Hattaba neighbourhood near the Cairo Citadel. But her journey is not over yet; she has quite a way to go before she finally catalogues her 1,000th door.
“I set a huge target so that I can learn as much as possible as I get to it. This is an archive that has no foreseeable end. I hope that the final door ends up being completely unknown,” Khairy says. “Maybe in an old palace or building, I can find a door that was never seen before.”
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