- Life Style
Cairo’s Gayer Anderson Museum may be a little difficult to find, but the importunate visitor is sure to be rewarded with a beautiful and artistic experience.
Also known as Bayt al-Kritliyya (“The house of the Cretan woman”), the three-story palace is home to a collection of eastern furniture and architecture. The rooms of the museum, based on the traditional layout of the bedrooms and living rooms found in Middle and Far Eastern homes of the 18th and 19th centuries, bring the ghosts of these bygone cultures to life and allow visitors to walk through them.
Walking towards the museum in the old streets of Sayida Zeinab, visitors will notice the mosques and the beautiful but timeworn walls of Old Cairo. The Mosque of Ibn Tulun, the area’s main attraction, has not suffered the same fate, as various restoration efforts are being carried out to keep the mosque in good condition.
But the Gayer Anderson museum itself, unfortunately, is not slated for restoration.
“I had a plan to renovate the museum,” says Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), the minute I walked into his office. “I wanted to restore it and work on the displays. I’ve also been planning to host cultural events such as performances, music concerts and parties on the roof,” adds Hawas. These plans, however, were put off due to budget constraints.
Going back to the museum’s history, the construction of private homes against the wall of the Ibn Tulun Mosque was a common practice in the 19th century. But in 1928, the Egyptian government decided to clear the area by demolishing these houses. Fortunately, the government-run Committee for the Conservation of Arab Monuments objected to the demolition of Beit al-Kritliyya--which was first built in 1632--on the grounds that the house was extraordinarily well preserved. A neighboring house, called “Beit Amna Bint Salim” after its last owner, was also maintained. Both houses were later joined by a bridge connecting their third floors and became collectively known as Bayt al-Kritliyaa.
The curved wooden structures surrounding the house, penetrated by sky-lights, create an unforgettable contrast between light and dark, old and new.
“The Gayer Anderson Museum is my personal favorite,” says Hawass. “It’s unique. It’s in the heart of Cairo. It’s beside the beautiful Ibn Tulun Mosque. And it’s something that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.”
The museum’s collection belonged to collector and self-described orientalist Gayer Anderson. In 1935, the retired British army major was granted permission to live in the house after he restored it. The collector stocked the palace with his personal collection of artifacts, furniture and carpets, creating the very picture of orientalism in the process.
Each room in the house is meant to represent the lifestyle of a particular eastern culture. The Damascus Room, for example, is a representation of what a bedroom in an upper-class 18th century Damascus home would look like. The Chinese Room, meanwhile, is the smallest room in the house, replete with tiny furniture and little chairs.
Major Andersen, it seems, had an exaggerated sense of self importance. One of the highlights of the museum is Anderson's bedroom. It includes a massive red bed with four wooden posts and a canopy designed in the Persian style. His English-style library prominently displays a picture of him depicted as the Sphinx. Other rooms in the house hold clay masks of his face and those of his family.
Arguably the most important feature of the museum is its rooftop terrace. Overlooking the Ibn Tulun Mosque, the rooftop is encased by beautifully carved mashrabeyas and boasts its own sundial.
“I have never seen a museum like this,” Hawass says. “The English man who lived here furnished the house with his own art collection. This adds flavor to the house. I’m building 22 new museums now. Yet this one might be the best museum in Egypt because it’s different.”
Forced by ill health to leave Egypt in 1942, Anderson gave the house--along with his entire collection--to the Egyptian government. In return, King Farouk gave the retired major the exalted title of Pasha. Sadly, Anderson never found his way back to Egypt to visit his eponymous museum, passing away in England in 1945.
Hawass believes that Anderson enjoyed his life in Egypt. “I think that [foreigners who stay in Egypt for a long time] become Egyptianized,” he said. “That’s what’s really important about Egypt--foreigners learn from the culture, which affects their habits.”
Anderson might have enjoyed his life here in Egypt back in the 1940s. But the collector would no doubt be displeased with the current state of his former home. For example, there are few information signs to help visitors understand the unique collection. The few that exist are hardly helpful: while the first room has a sign telling the story of the house chronologically, the rest of the rooms have signs stating the obvious (“The Chinese Room,” “The British Library,” etc.), without offering any information about the collections contained therein. What’s more, no tour guides are available in the museum, while the collection itself suffers from dust, misuse and negligence.
“We depend mainly on tour guides who accompany tourist groups to the museum,” Hawass explains. “I simply don’t have the staff to provide this [in every museum].”
The uniqueness of the Gayer Anderson Museum should put it on the map of every tourist interested in understanding the complex relationship between East and West in Egypt. It allows visitors to journey into the mind and soul of an orientalist who lived here long ago, and maybe take a couple photos of the museum’s rooftop, where, interestingly, the James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me” was partially shot in the 1970s.