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Islamic Cairo, Cairo, Egypt.
Gayer-Anderson Museum: Preserving Egypt’s Cultural Artefacts
The walls surrounding Egypt’s Ibn Tulun Mosque were once flanked with houses. Left unkempt for years, most of the 16 and 17 century abodes were demolished by the Egyptian government in the 1920s. However, one ancient structure escaped this fate when it was found that the house was remarkably well maintained.
In 1935, Major R.G. Gayer-Anderson was a British national on assignment in Egypt, who was granted permission to reside in the house. An avid collector and self-proclaimed Orientalist, Gayer-Anderson filled his residence with beautiful pieces spanning a number of eras and cultures. Upon his return to England in 1942, Gayer-Anderson left his collected pieces in the house as a donation to the Egyptian government. In return, he was granted the title of Pasha and the house became known as the Gayer-Anderson Museum.
The structure known today as the Gayer-Anderson Museum is actually two houses built nearly a century apart. At some point in the structures’ history, a bridge was built to link the two houses together; thus becoming a single residence. Although the houses have seen a number of inhabitants and centuries of history, it was the British Orientalist who filled each room with the prized possessions that remain in the house to this day.
Entering the premise, visitors find themselves in an interior courtyard with a fountain that some believe to be enchanted. Unfortunately, at the time of this reviewer’s visit, the fountain was empty, thus we were unable to test the supposed powers for ourselves. A small sign marked ‘visitor’s route’ will direct you up a flight of stairs to the interior of the older house, the one located farther from the mosque’s wall. Upstairs, the loggia– a breezeway open to the courtyard– has several seats for admiring the view below. If you’ve walked to Sayeda Zeinab, this would be a good place to rest for a few minutes before continuing on your winding tour through the museum.
Many of the rooms in the house have placards offering information about the room itself or the contents on display, although you may have to fight for the chance to read the information. This is not due to crowding in the museum; like many of Egypt’s lesser known historical gems, the Gayer-Anderson Museum is not often crowded. However, scattered throughout the site is a number of employees, each responsible for guiding visitors through two or three rooms. These guides have a tendency to move quickly and speak a lot without saying much– mostly pointing out alabaster tables and mashrabeya without providing a lot of historical information. Don’t let these guides rush you through the building; the signage provides many useful facts and the slower you move, the more you’ll discover about the house.
Rooms include salamlek – for receiving guests, haramlek– where women could visit in privacy, libraries and bed chambers. Rooms are elaborately appointed with furniture from all over the world. There is a room holding antique furniture entirely from China. Another room has chairs from India. Italian chandeliers, English made tables, and Persian rugs are all found amongst Gayer-Anderson’s collected pieces. A room known as the House Museum was used by the Major to display a number of Egyptian artefacts he collected including a mummy case from Thebes and a statue of the head of Nefartiti.
The Gayer-Anderson House enjoys a sizeable rooftop with an incredible view. mashrabeya screens allow women to enjoy the view without being seen from below. A large opening of the mashrabeya frames the minaret of the Ibn Tulun Mosque and two openings in the screen are designed for views of the El Sultan Hassan Mosque and the Mohamed Ali Mosque.
Nothing is as alluring as a house with a story; something that is perfectly demonstrated with the Gayer Anderson Museum, which boasts an astonishing history, precious antiquities and valuable heritage, that are both exquisite and well-preserved.
Located in Ahmed Ibn Tulun Street in the Sayida Zainab district, the Gayer Anderson mansion – later turned into a museum – was owned by Gayer Anderson Pasha, a British art collector who fell in love with Egypt’s history and culture.
Perhaps best known for being an Orientalist who preserved history in one of Cairo’s most beautiful buildings, Anderson (1881-1945) was a British officer who had an eventful life, to say the least. In 1904, Anderson worked with the Royal Army Medical Corps, providing medical care for British army personnel, before being transferred to the Egyptian army in 1907, then later operating as an inspector in the Egyptian Ministry of Interior.
After his retirement, Anderson developed an interest in Egyptology and Oriental Studies. His journey through life and his passions are demonstrated inside the walls of the mansion where Anderson resided between 1935 and 1942.
The museum, which is adjacent to Ahmed Ibn Tulun Mosque, consists of two remarkable buildings; the larger one was built in 1632 and the smaller one in 1540.
The house holds 29 halls, decorated with Oriental architecture and designs in which artifacts are placed in a glass display to preserve them. Inside the Egyptian room, artifacts including iron pistols, daggers and swords, as well as Pharonic artifacts including a black and gold mummy case, a cast of Nefertiti’s head and an ostrich egg engraved with a map of Egypt.
One room which documents the era in which the house was built is the child birth room, with hard wooden chairs with a simple hole carved in the seat was prepared for the baby’s delivery is.
Each room at the Gayer Anderson Museum has several lamps powered by olive oil, as well as a special granite cabinet to keep the food cool. In addition to a glorious view, the terrace contains several stone sinks and large ceramic containers used to store seeds and other dry foods.
The museum still has remnants of the separate living quarters between men and woman; open, public and spacious areas were afforded for men, whereas living rooms designed for women encouraged a rather secluded atmosphere equipped with few examples of mashrabia – Oriental windows with wooden carvings. Women’s living rooms are rich in decoration; every piece of furniture from the cabinets to the chairs are filled with intricate patterns and designs dating back to the Islamic period and some of the styles are also derived from Iran, India, China and Syria.
The ‘secret room’ was one of the most interesting to observe. The room was used as a perfect hiding place – its door looking like a storage cupboard – used to hide outlaws or merely for women to peek at house parties.
Anderson’s personal room was equally fascinating, boasting an old-fashioned Persian bed and a smaller one beside it where it is said his housekeeper would sleep.
One important thing to remember when visiting this museum is to never forget to look at the ceilings which are decorated with intricate Syrian designs. Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of the Grayer Anderson Museum story is that when Anderson was ill and had to move back home in 1942, he gifted his mansion with all its belongings to the Egyptian government, which, in return, granted him with the title Pasha. One room in the house shows the original certificate from King Farouk.
Gayer Anderson museum was home for several film sets, including James Bond’s The Spy Who Loved Me and visiting this museum is like being transported back in time to an almost kitschy, unreal and sometimes even surreal space.