By Yomna El-Saeed
The Gayer-Anderson museum, also known as Beit El Kretliya, is one of Cairo’s forgotten gems that are well worth a visit. The museum is a palace that is located right next to the Ahmed Ibn Toloun mosque in the Sayyida Zeinab neighborhood. The museum is named after the English Major, Gayer-Anderson, who was the doctor of King Farouk and lived in the house while he attended to the king. The museum consists of two houses and is one of the best-preserved examples of 17th-century domestic architecture in Cairo. Unfortunately, the museum was empty when I visited it; tourism is very weak and most Egyptians do not know about it.
The buildings themselves have an interesting history; the larger house was built in 1632 by Hajj Mohammad Ibn Al-Hajj Salem Ibn Galman al-Gazzar. Later, a wealthy Muslim woman from Crete owned it and this is why the house is now known as Beit Al-Kritliyya, which means The House of the Cretan Woman in Arabic. The second house was built a century later by Abdel-Qader Al-Haddad; this structure was also named after a later female owner, Beit Amna bint Salim.
The Egyptian government gave Major Gayer-Anderson special permission to move into the house in 1935 with his wife and grandson. During his stay, he oversaw the arrival of electricity and plumbing and the careful restoration of the fountains and pavement around the house. It was during his time that both the houses were joined together by a small bridge on the third floor.
Even if very few people visit the museum these days, it has a small number of employees who are very helpful. One of them accompanied me throughout the rooms and corridors of the museum, like my private tour guide.
Gayer-Anderson was a collector of everything oriental and he used the house to showcase his personal collection of art and relics. He collected a wide variety of things, including ancient Egyptian antiquities, objects from Islamic, Coptic and modern Egypt, and displayed each type in a separate room. There was a closet filled with Photonic antiquities, a small statue of the head of Nefertiti and a black statue of the Ancient Egyptian cat goddess, Bastet. In another room, a large, beautiful portrait of Jesus and the Holy Family was displayed.
A lot of the eclectic mix of items on display has been part of the museum for a long time. “Most of the Islamic antiquities, including numerous wooden stands, were the possessions of the original owners of the houses,” the guide told me.
Some of the rooms in the house were designed to display the lifestyle of a particular oriental culture, like Egyptian, Syrian, Turkish and Chinese. The Turkish room has a portrait of Mohamed Ali Pasha that is, as the guide told me, believed to be drawn in the same style of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which means his eyes meet those of the viewer from any perspective. Both houses, of course, have a number of well-preserved, wooden oriel windows. In short, the museum is a complete orientalist’s fantasy.
Among the most important features of the museum is the rooftop terrace. It is covered by neatly carved oriels, has a small sundial and overlooks the minaret of Ahmed Ibn Toloun mosque.
For those interested in the more personal side of the man who collected all that, there is a display at the museum that includes some pictures of Gayer-Anderson, his wife, grandson and Egyptian servant; some of his paintings and a large number of his books can be found in the different rooms.
When Gayer-Anderson left Egypt in 1942, he officially left the contents of the house to the Egyptian government, in return for which, King Farouk gave him the title of Pasha. “But he took some small invaluable artefacts with him to a museum in England,” said my guide sadly.
The museum has been a favourite among movie and television producers. The James Bond film, The Spy who loved Me, was partially shot in the museum, mainly in the ceremonial reception hall and the rooftop terrace. More than 40 Egyptian old movies and serials were also shot in the museum, including the famous Almaz and Abdo El-Hamouly, as well as some of the Naguib Mahfouz’s novels that have been turned into movies. And, according to my guide, Um Kolthoum, once the mother of Egyptian songs, sang there.