The House of Shennawi Bey is a prominent three-story house in the center of the island city of Suakin in the Red Sea. This single-family mansion covering about 25 meters on each face of its square, comprised more than 20 rooms, numerous other alcoves and store rooms as well as the central shops of the souq behind. Four stairways circumambulate around a central light well under which was the central cistern, which through intricate systems of piping collect the roof rain water. It is reminiscent of retail houses of Jeddah and other port cities lining the Red Sea.
The domestic space of the house is entered from the street along its northwest façade. The entry room, or dihlis, inhabits the northernmost corner and in it a stone bench, or mastaba, nestles within the left hand corner and continues along the north wall. To the right of the entry room is a small guest room which overlooks the diwan (reception room) in the southwestern corner.
The diwan is divided into two sections by a pointed arch decorated with an incised floral design. The first room of the diwan is open to the storey above allowing light in from its lofty archway facing the street, and views from the second storey through three windows. The southern section of the diwan is raised, carpeted and surrounded by low cushioned benches to serve as a seating area, or iwan. Until the 1940s, when the house was converted into a museum, it had a roshan projecting from its western wall onto the street. These bayed casement windows of intricately carved wood were occupied by water jugs that cooled incoming breezes. The back of the iwan also had three recessed carved wooden cupboards with ventilators above. This area was decorated with geometric patterns incised in the plaster and inlaid with small black pebbles.
This row of rooms flanks the central node of the open court in the center of the house and the cistern underneath. To the other three sides are shops and stores. A line of seven shops runs along the main street of the souq at the back of the house. Three of these shops also have a secondary storage room behind. To the north and south of the central lightwell are yet larger spaces for storage as well as two angled stairways, the main one leading from the court behind the dihlis (entryway), and the secondary one leading up from the southern storage room.
Upper floors or the harem
The upper floors serve as the domestic quarters or the harem. Each floor consists of a majalis or suites that served both as sleeping and living rooms organized around the light court. These upper majalis are reached by the central staircase.
The stairs from below wind around the court to its east where it opens into an L-shaped hallway winding around its south side and allowing access to all of the majalis. These suites are staggered at different heights, which create multiple steps and levels. On the first upper floor were four majalis, quartering the house by corner. The largest majlis, over the diwan at the southwest corner of the house, has both a roshan mimicking that of the iwan directly below as well as a flat window overlooking the first room of the diwan. The other three are substantially smaller suites with correspondingly smaller anterooms or khazana. Each has a corresponding latrine and bathroom and the two northern majalis each have at least one roshan, the northwestern one has two, and the southeastern majlis has one fashioned into a sleeping-terrace. No roshan are located along the warm, southern face of the house.
The upper storey is composed of mostly open terrace spaces. Three partially shaded terraces, or kharjas, look out towards the north and west. The northeastern terrace is accessible from the great majlis, which runs along the eastern wall. This room is the most desirable of the majalis. It measured about none by five meters and is divided in half by an intricately carved wooden archway. This archway separates the two finely detailed roshan that overlooks the souq and smaller projecting window between them for cooling water jugs. This apartment has its own stairway, latrine, and storage room. The kitchen occupies the southeastern corner beside the room for charcoal storage.
The roshan, the mashrabiyas of the Red Sea, are built of square panels and grilles measuring about 65 centimeters a side. The carving motif on these wooden panels is "shish" laths, the finer of which are similar to Chinese lattice-work consisting of wooden laths of rectangles tenoned at write angles. The entire window casement is composed of at least three parts: the supporting bracket base often covered with decorative smaller brackets, the central portion of numerous shutters and ventilators and the shade or cornice at the top. The two great roshan in the upper majlis of the house are symmetrically centered on the smaller window between them. They are accentuated by three scalloped arches rising from the slant of the awning. The flanking roshan are each surmounted by a tripartite arch while the central window is scalloped into five curves. The carving detail is spectacular and the base projects out quite far displaying multiple rows of decorative hanging corbelling. The window panels either open upwards where they are latched or downward where they are laid on a projecting railing so as to create a flat table surface. This great roshan looks over the souq three storeys below.
The arches within the house are used to divide rooms and are constructed of masonry on the ground floor and wood on the upper floors.
The main doorway of the house is twice the height of a person and intricately carved. The two door leaves are separated by a dividing pillar with six floral ornaments running up along its spine. Each of the door panels display the pattern of lozenges shapes of two sizes laid together at angles over horizontal planks. The two doors are each set in a scalloped doorframe and are surmounted by two sets of large carved square wood panels, the uppermost of each which mimick the masonry arch above the doorway.
Greenlaw, Jean-Pierre. 1976. The Coral Buildings of Suakin. Stocksfield: Oriel Press, 22, 29-35, 87-96, 109, 125.
Hamadai, Hamid A. 1973. Suakin, the Port of Good Tidings. Khartoum: Sudan Ministry of Information and Culture, 11-12, 16.