Egypt Feature Story The Gayer Anderson Museum in Cairo
by Seif Kamel
In the past few weeks, I have visited many museums around Egypt. Some of them were interesting, like theMilitary Museum in theCitadel and theMummification Museum inLuxor, while some of them were rather small and boring like theNational Police Museum. The Gayer Anderson museum was a totally different experience than all of these museums. Usually when one goes to a museum, the displays are in glass cases with the explanation under it. In the Gayer Anderson Museum, one just walks about gazing at the displays and feels like a part of the history of the place itself. Maybe this is because the house, including the ceilings, the walls, the corridors, and the doors are among the most interesting displays. Or maybe because the museum was once a house and people once lived here.
At one time, the house was the residence of Gayer Anderson, a British officer in the Egyptian army, and a breed of individual known as an Orientalist. These were individuals who fell in love with the Arabic way of life, and often integrated themselves into the Arabic society during a time when it was considered a very romantic way to live. They were frequently the early explorers ofEgypt's monuments, prior to the scientific methods of Egyptology. Gayer Anderson was born in 1881 and died in 1945.
He actually purchased two houses, one built by Amina bint Salim al-Gazzar in 1540 A.D. and the other, that of a wealthy merchant, 'Abd al-Qadir al-Haddad who built his in 1670 A.D. Gayer then joined the two houses by a veranda above both of the gardens. He also worked for the Egyptian government as a physician.
However, he is perhaps most notable as a lover of Egyptian culture. This was why he collected many different items from various historical periods. He filled the house with his collection of Oriental furniture, glassware, crystal, carpets, silks, and embroidered Arab costumes. He also collected beautiful furniture and works of art from Turkey, Persia, Syria, and other Oriental locations. By doing this, he made his house into a historical treasure chest for anyone who loves Egypt and the Middle East. The house represents an excellent example of what life was like for wealthy merchants in Egypt during the 1700's.
The house was made into a museum in 1937 when the Egyptian government decided to transform it into be a well-preserved example of early Ottoman domestic architecture. The museum is located in the back of one of the oldest mosques in Egypt, theIbn Tulun Mosque, which was completed in 879 AD.
I started the day trying to get a taxi to take me to the Sayeda Zeinab nationhood where the mosque and the museum are located. The only information I had is that the mosque is located on Ibn Tulun Street near Al Sayeda Street inIslamic Cairo. I never thought I would find a taxi easily, because the last time I tried to take a cab to Al Azhar Street to visit the Khan El Khalili, I had to wave at more than 25 taxies until I found one nice enough to get me there.
Strangely enough, this time the first taxi I asked agreed and he didnt even negotiate the fare like most taxis do these days.
Some places capture your soul without a known reason. This was what happened to me when I saw theIbn Tulun Mosque. Maybe this is because it is very old and it seems untouched by time. I had to walk around the mosque to reach the Gayer Anderson Museum. The walk was quite enjoyable as I examined the fascinating walls of the Ibn Tolon Mosque. There were some tourists but not as many as one might find at theCitadel or theEgyptian Antiquities Museum.. However, the tourists I saw there seemed a little more like art and culture fans.
The first thing one sees when entering the Gayer Anderson Museum is a beautiful garden that is well preserved.
I have to admit that the Egyptian government in this case seems to be exerting a good effort to keep the grounds nice, as there was not single piece of paper on the ground or the grass of the garden.
After purchasing a ticket, I asked the attendant where I might begin my visit. I was surprised when the man showed me the way and then escorted me all through my journey in the house. I usually dont like having guides with me as I like to wander around freely, but in the end I was happy this guide was with me because without him I would have been totally lost in this huge house. There are many guides for visitors at the door of the museum.
The first part of the house consists of huge brown containers of water used as a Sabil in the past for people who pass by to drink water on hot days. A Sabil is part of theIslamic Cairo culture, though it usually refers to a fountain. Afterwards, there is a small corridor that takes one to the open air hall in the ground floor of the house. This corridor is filled with blue plates that Anderson purchased from Persia. They were used to decorate the walls.
The open air hall is rather amazing as one can see most of the balconies of the house above and the old walls with the Islamic decorations on them. The most interesting item of this hall is a big wooden box that is connected with a strong rope. It was used to transfer food and water from stores of the house, much like an old dumbwaiter.
The next corridor has pictures of the house and theIbn Tulun Mosque in the past and they depicted how it changed over the years. There are also some floor plans and maps of the house and the mosque. To the right hand side there are some items that Gayer Anderson collected through time. One of them is a charming piece of colorful tile that was used on the grounds of the house. These tiles werent made in Egypt but imported.
The next room is the main Sabil room, which has a story all of its own. The Gayer Anderson house and theIbn Tulun Mosque were always rich places for legends and mythical stories. This was why Gayer Anderson got some of these stories in 1935 from Shiekh Harun who used to work in the mosque and made artists draw these stories on brass plates.
In this room many of these plates are on display, such as the landing of Noah's Ark plate. Usually these Sabils are connected to a school or a mosque. But here it is connected to the Gayer Anderson house and dates to 1631. The wooden ceiling, which is gold plated with Qura'an verses, is well preserved. The first Salamlek, a place reserved for men, is quite impressive. It consists of a large sofa with a Mashrabeya window behind it. It has the same amazing ceiling and walls, with its Persian decorations, as the prior chamber.
There are also some alabaster tables with Qura'an verses written on the circular edges. There are also colorful boxes that were used to keep valuables. The most remarkable pieces in this hall are the largest smoking pipes I have ever seen. Each of them is at least half a meter long. Afterwards, we went to the summer Salamlek room. It consists of two sofas opposite each other in a well decorated balcony that overlooks the open air hall that I passed through earlier. In the middle there are beautiful brass tables with Qura'an and Islamic decorations. There were also some small, ornate wooden chairs. This balcony is alive. I can imagine Gayer Anderson sitting there long ago on a summer afternoon chatting with his friends. As I said part of the magic of the house is that it makes one feel as though one has entered another period in time.
Next, we journeyed through the corridor that goes to the Haramlek. Here, there are many paintings that Gayer Anderson collected from all over the world on the red walls. Most of these were imported from India and Persia. To the right of these, there are two wooden chairs and a wooden sofa. All are designed to be folded and put beside the wall when they are not in use.
The Haramlek was an area reserved for women. The word "Haramlek" is derrived from the word "Hareem" which can be translated as women in Arabic. This Haramlek is a big hall full of furniture and Mashrafeya windows.
I was curious and asked my guide about the difference between the terms, Mashrabeya and Mashrafeya. He told me that Mashrafeya screens were designed for women to watch from the windows without being seen from outside. This is why it was designed with very narrow pieces of Arabesque with very small openings for women to see through. The word "Mashrafeya" is deprived from the word "Ishraf" which means supervision or taking an overview. The room also has many multicolored sofas, chairs, and tables. This hall has the biggest collection of boxes. This is because women had a lot of jewelry and these boxes are perfect for such items.
Afterwards, we went to the third floor of the house that has the writing room of A. In the entrance of the room, there are white masks that Anderson made of him and his family. They are very well made and show some good detail. There were also fascinating, colorful pieces of glass that were used to decorate the room. Inside the room there is the chair and the Corona typewriter that belonged to Gayer Anderson that he used for much of his writing. As a writer myself, I fell in love with this room, and imagined myself in his place.
All around the walls of the room there are many photographs of Gayer Anderson alone and with his family. There is a photograph of his beautiful, and somewhat hunting wife that somehow reminded me of a movie star of the 1930's inCairo. There are also photos of Gayer Anderson with other members of his family. Sadly, one drawing depicts his beloved dog, though it only lived for four years.
Our next stop was the roof terrace of the house. Here, Mashrabeya screens use wood patterns to spell out important Islamic phrases such as "La Ellah Ella Allah, Mohamed Rasoul Allah", which means "There is no god except Allah and Mohamed is the prophet of Allah". There are also a lot of square Mashrabeya pieces with the word "Mohamed" or "Allah" written on them.
From this roof, one has a fine view of the walls ofIbn Tulun Mosque with its many astounding windows. Even theCitadel is visible from the roof of the Gayer Anderson museum, along with a large part of the neighborhood of Sayeda Zeinab.
One can get a good feel for the house, looking down on the balconies and the open air hall.
There are a number of displays on the walls, such as a sun clock made of tile. It was used in the year 1273 to tell the times for prayers. There is also the oldest set of modern water taps and sinks I have ever seen. These taps are very well preserved and look as though they might still be operational. Next to the walls of the roof, there are big containers that were used to keep oil, food and other supplies for the house.
From here, we took the bridge Gayer Anderson built between the two houses over to the 'Abd al-Qadir al-Haddad house. The first room of this house is the bedroom of Gayer Anderson. It is a small room compared to many of the other rooms.
There a big red bed with wooden posts all about it and a canopy, designed by Gayer Anderson in a Persian style. Next to Anderson's bed is the bed of his favorite servant who would wait on him during the night. While the whole house is a big museum, there is a museum within this museum.
It contains a wonderful statue ofQueen Nefertiti. It is placed in front of a Mashrabeya screen and when the sun light comes through its wooden holes, it truly looks magical, as if she might speak at any moment. In the middle of the room there is a statue of the cat goddessBastet, and to the right of the door; there is a black mummy cover that seems a bit scary. There is also a huge bird egg inscribed with Qura'an verses.
The most interesting items of this museum inside the Gayer Anderson Museum are the plates of "Taset El Khada", which is a famous Egyptian legend. Such plates are usually made of brass or silver and have magical words and certain verses of the Qura'an written inside them. Someone who is ill would fill the plate with milk and water and leave it on the balcony overnight. It was believed that a part of the sky would come and mix with the milk and water. In the morning the sick person would drink this from the plate and be cured. The last interesting item in this room is a huge bird egg that has Qura'an written on it.
The next room is a guest room with its lavish furniture. There are many glass cupboards in this room that contain many items from the Ottomans Period collected by Gayer Anderson. The room is highlighted by a huge candle lantern, which is beside an impressive portrait of Mohamed Ali in the middle of the room.
Next, we visited Gayer Anderson's library. He was very interested in art and culture, and indeed, the library is impressive. The room consists of blue books shelves to the right and big white ones to the left. Here, there is a fascinating drawing of Gayer Anderson as a Sphinx statue, and a fine portrait of him wearing a blue suit. And as in most of the rooms of the house, there is the sofa at the end of the room with the Mashrabeya window behind it.
The next room was another living room with a small dining room in the middle. This room, like all the others, is full of various items and has the Mashrabeya windows. There are two significant objects in the room. The first is a portrait of Gayer Anderson's favorite servant. He is a small boy, apparently ofNubian decent from Southern Egypt. The second item is a small, black statue of an angel on a door, used as a door knocker.
The next room, at least to me, is the most amazing room of the house. It is the second bedroom of Gayer Anderson, and is designed as the Baghdad Caliphs were during the Abbasids period. The bed is wooden with Islamic decorations all around it. The walls are not like any walls I have ever seen.
They are designed to seem as if they are doors to somewhere else, in red, brown, and black colors. Arabic writings are drawn above these doors. There is also a washing room next to this one with small bowls. Although this room is the smallest in the house, it is the most fabulous and I cannot help but think that it was Gayer Andersons favorite one.
Next, we entered another Haramlek room, again with its many boxes and Mashrabeya windows. This room has a wooden cupboard where jewelry was kept. It seemed normal at first, but the guide I had with me moved the whole cupboard and there was a secret doorway! The door leads to a very narrow corridor with Mashrabeya windows to the right and some wooden chairs to the left.
It was used by women to watch what was going on in the celebration hall without being seen by anyone. I have heard of women hiding and watching behind the windows in the Islamic period, but this was the first time I had seen such a space.
This room is connected to another room with a long corridor. The other room was used as a makeup and dressing room for women. It has a large cupboard to the left where they kept their cosmetics and to the right there is another narrow corridor where women used to overlook the celebration hall through Mashrafeya screens. These windows look out directly towards the fountain of the celebration room and the chair where Gayer Anderson sat. There is also another small window where women used to look at the Mosque of Ibn Tolon. The strangest item in this room is a musical instrument in the shape of a small crocodile. My guide told me that it was used like a guitar. I would never have imagined it to be a musical instrument. Finally, after viewing it from various places and angles, we visited the big celebration hall. It is divided into two halves. The first half is where Gayer Anderson would hold audiences with visitors as he sat on a chair in the middle of the section. On his right hand, there is the huge shelf where Anderson kept the swords he collected from all over Egypt.
This hall was also used for marriage parties. Therefore, there is a chair for the bride to the right and a chair for the groom to the left. In the middle of the room is a nice fountain that still looked functional. . The other half of the room consists of a small theater, where the performances of dancers and singers once took place. The ceiling of the celebration hall is very high because the hall is surrounded with Mashrabeya screens for women to watch from the chambers above the hall. The celebration hall is lit by various sources. The most attractive among them is a hugeFanoos, a Ramadan lamp, that is pinned to the high ceiling.
This hall is the best place to learn about the old Egyptian culture because many events used to take place there. It is also a very good place to learn about the Arab culture and the environment in which Middle Eastern music was performed at that time. This hall made me feel as if I were in a scene from a historic movie. I loved being there.
Afterwards, we went to the servant's room with a small bed at the end of it and many cupboards on the sides of the room that had eating utensils . There were many old spoons, forks, and dishes. There are also the same white masks as in the writing room of Gayer Anderson, but here the masks belong to the servants. It seems like Anderson treated his servants in a very respectable manner, as if they were part of his family.
A Musical Instrument in the form of a crocodile
The last room I visited was the childbirth room. It has many chairs, some with Qura'an verses written on them, with openings in their seats. Women used to sit on these chairs to give birth to their babies. These chairs are very rare to find in any other place other than the Gayer Anderson museum.
To the left there are some displays of bracelets that children once wore to protect them.
The visit to the Gayer Anderson Museum was like a journey through time. One can see and learn much about the history of the Islamic period in Egypt and the Middle East, and about how a famous Orientalist lived his life. The house is also famous as a movie set, having been used in the James Bond movie, ""The Spy Who Loved Me". It was also used in an Arabic movie called "Shahed El Maleka", meaning "The Honey of the Queen". The Gayer Anderson Museum is a must see for anyone who loves Egypt and its culture. Make sure you visit it when you come to Egypt, especially if you plan on visiting the great .