Gayer Anderson Museum: an enchanting house of secrets, the erstwhile Beit Al-Keritleya (house of the Cretan lady), the resting place of Noah’s Ark rested after the flood, and an English doctor pasha (exalted male Egyptian title) falling in love with a beautiful woman looking out of the window. These are some of the myths surrounding the charming Gayer Anderson Museum that is located near the massive Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo.
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When you live in a city like Cairo, you have a lot of stories to share. Here in this antiquated land, every corner holds a myth, and nearly every inch is filled with mythical secrets: some biblical, some archetypal: of larger than life personalities, phantasmagoric events, and arks that saved humanity. Gayer Anderson Museum is one of the hidden treasures in the historical part of Cairo and is a must-visit if you are interested in socio history. Located in the Sayyida Zeinab neighbourhood, the museum gets its name from Major R.G. Gayer-Anderson Pasha, an English doctor who resided in the house between 1935 and 1942. It is noted for being one of the best-preserved examples of 17th-century domestic architecture and houses Gayer-Anderson’s vast collection of furniture, carpets, curio, and other objects.
Al-Beiout Asrar – houses have their own secrets
In Egypt, there’s a very apt saying that goes like this: Al-Beiout Asrar – houses have their own secrets and this particular building has loads of them. Beit Al-Keritleya known today as the Gayer Anderson Museum today consists of two buildings that are joined together. The first building belonged to Mohamed Haj Halim who built it around 1631 CE. Halim was believed to have been a coffee merchant and his merchandise supposedly came from Crete, hence the name. The second building was built in 1540 by Abdel-Qader al-Haddad and the two houses were joined by a bridge at the third-floor level. Collectively this complex is known as Beit al-Keritleya. In the 1940s, Gayer Anderson, a British army officer and a great collector of antique objects, came to live in Beit Al-Keritleya. He was a commander serving in the British army who came to Egypt in 1906. He was a pioneer, orientalist doctor, and world traveler.
“A beautiful woman waved to me from one of the arabesque windows”
Upon arriving in Egypt in 1906, Anderson toured Ibn Tulun Mosque and fell in love with the “House of the Cretan Lady” (the Mamluk-style building adjacent to the mosque) when a beautiful woman looked out of the building’s window. His memoir says, “A beautiful woman waved to me from one of the arabesque windows and invited me to take a look at the ancient house.” Anderson fell in love with the woman and the building at first sight and he was the last tenant of the house before it became a museum some 29 years later. During his stay, he befriended Soliman Al-Keritleya, the last owner of the house, who took care of the Tomb of Sheikh Haroun, a descendant of Al-Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed, who is buried at the far end of the courtyard. Anderson brought with him his collection of souvenirs gathered from all over the world and installed the house with electricity and plumbing. He restored the beauty of the house to its original grandeur and decorated it with a lot of English and Chinese antiquities, Indian chairs, English tables, Iranian handicrafts, and Italian lamps.
A connoisseur and an English pasha
The rooms in the house are decorated in a variety of styles, each featuring Anderson’s collection and personal tastes. The Persian Room has exquisite tiling, the Damascus Room sees lavish use of lacquer and gold, and the Queen Anne Room showcases ornate furniture and a silver tea set. The most beautiful feature of the house is its intricate mashrabiyya – traditional projecting windows screened with carved wooden latticework. It lines the gallery that looks down onto a magnificent reception hall with its marble fountain, decorated ceiling beams, and carpet-covered alcoves. The rooftop terrace features a more complex mashrabiyya and these create the most beautiful play of sun and shadows.
The Biblical secrets of Gayer Anderson Museum
When Anderson finally had to leave Egypt in 1942, he bequeathed the house to the state when he finally decided to return to England and the Egyptians converted it into a museum bearing his name as a sign of gratitude. There are many myths surrounding Beit al-Keritleya or the Gayer Anderson Museum. Some of these myths are about the hill on which the house was built and the rest are about the house itself. According to the local legends, Gebel Yashkur, or the hilly location of the house is where Prophet Ibrahim slaughtered his sheep instead of his son Ismail. Loosely translated as the Hill of Thanksgiving, this is also where Moses talked to God and where Noah’s ark rested after the deluge. Many people especially the locals believe that the Beit al-Keritleya is enchanted. It is said that within the premises of the building lies an enchanted cistern in which people can see the faces of their beloved ones. Known as Bats Well, it draws people on full moon nights since, according to the legends, if you throw a stone in the well you will see the face of your lost beloved one reflected on the water. People still go there hoping to see the faces of their lost beloved ones almost on a daily basis.
An enchanted house of djinns, magic wells, and love stories
The Gayer Anderson Museum house is divided into the haramlik, or family residence, and the salamlik, used as a reception area. The house’s arabesque windows open onto a courtyard that has the famous “Bats Well” and according to some, an ancient treasure is buried here. A good jinn (genie) and his seven daughters are believed to live at the bottom of the well guarding the treasure of great grandparent of one of the early owners of the house who hoarded money without spending a penny. His wife threw out his savings, mistaking them for the rubbish in which he had hidden them. Another story says that there was a young man who resided in a house opposite the Beit al-Keritleya. He refused to marry unless if he genuinely fell in love. In the house opposite, there was a beautiful girl who believed in the same ideals. One day she went to Beit al-Keritleya to fetch water from the Bats Well, which she seldom did because she was afraid of the jinn. The water welled up at her beauty, and, as she cried out for help, she was saved by her young neighbour. Needless to say, it was love at first sight.
Gayer Anderson Museum Opening Hours: 9 am-4 pm
P.S – This blog post is part of the weekly series called the Cairo Chronicles. Every week, Maverickbird will take on a new theme, emotion, and beauty of expat life in the exciting, maddening city of Cairo.
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