There is a truly wonderful house in Cairo to which only a few lucky tourists find their way. Most do so with no knowledge of the extra-ordinary people who lived in, and left this enchanting jewel behind. The building – actually two buildings, is now owned by the Egyptian nation, having been left in trust to it by Major R.G. Gayer Anderson Pasha.
How he came to live in the house is proof for me that we never miss the boat, that what we want will come to us, that it is not the big decisions we make that change our lives but the little ones.
The story of Major R.G. Gayer Anderson Pasha
Having completed medical school R.G. left his family, girlfriend and a Harley St. practice behind him at the age of 20, joined the army and set off to see the world. Now that was a big decision! But the minor decision that landed him in Egypt was a result of an impulse to take a quick unsanctioned trip across the Mediterranean from Gibralter to Tangiers . As a result of this escapade Gayer Anderson was posted to Egypt kinda like a punishment I think!
In 1906 R.G took another small decision to visit the 9th century mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulun. A pretty young Egyptian girl leaned out a mashrabeya (lattice) window of a beautiful old building next to the mosque – he was gazing up at the house and the young girl invited him to see the house – his batman warned him she was probably a ‘bad woman’ so he declined the invitation.
In 1924 he retired from the army and went on to indulge his passion for collecting antiques of all kinds.
On 23rd. Feb 1925 he took yet another small decision to revisit Ibn Talun. This time there was no young girl at the windown but the same old house was going through the final stages of restoration. R.G. just knew that house was going to be his house. In a surprisingly short time he succeeded in making a deal with the Egyptian government that he could live, rent free, in the house until he died on the condition that the house and all it’s contents, including his Islamic collection of treasures would then pass back to the Egyptian people.
On taking possession of Beit al-Kretlina Gayer Anderson “inherited” Sheikh Sulaiman al-Kretli – a small, wizened 80 year old holy man. They formed a friendship of sorts – Sheikh Sulaiman paved the way for a ‘foreigner’ of a different faith to become one with his surroundings and appreciated by his neighbours. R.G. on the other hand respected Sheikh Sulaiman’s position in the house as the guardian of the tomb of Haroon al-Husseini (a direct descendant of the Prophet) whose remains are at rest in a corner of the garden, under a small white dome.
Gayer Anderson recognised that the old man had many stories of the house and the surrounding area. He embarked on the task of writing down those wonderful stories – you can find them in a beautifully illustrated book written by him and called “Legends of the House of the Cretan Woman” reprinted by his grand-son Theo Gayer-Anderson with the help of Nicholas Warner.
The house – formerly know as “Beit al-Kretlia” – House of the Cretian Woman and now known as the Gayer Anderson Museum, is only one of the many collections he left to museums around the world.
In 1942 fate again took a hand and R.G. had to leave his beloved house and return to England due to ill-health.
Legends of Beit Al-Kreitlia:
- The King of the Djinns (Geniis)
- The Face of True Love
- Agha Saleem – his foolish wife and lost treasure
- The Benevolent Serpent of Beit Al-Kreitlia
- Ibn Tulun & Noah’s Ark
Don’t you just love hidden doors and secret rooms?
I really love this! On the stairs near the Hareem (women’s rooms) is a seemingly normal cupboard for ornaments, books etc……but it conceals a hidden latch and when you touch it the ‘cupboard’ swings open to reveal a hidden room.
This secret room is really a concealed observers’ gallery, complete with chairs and protected with beautiful mashrabeya. It extends around 3 walls and allowed the ladies of the house to watch and listen to entertainment in the large ‘salmalik” (men’s room) downstairs. The salmalik is where dancers (ladies) or even street performers would entertain the Master and his guests but also the hidden ladies upstairs. It was not seemly for the ladies to sit with strangers or be seen by them – straight out of Arabian Nights!
It is a wonderful thing for Egypt and it’s visitors that Gayer Anderson happened to be passing by Beit al-Kretlia on that fateful day in Feb 1925. This is the only furnished house from bygone days which we can see in Cairo today. It contains a unique collection of treasures from many periods of history which adds greatly to the enjoyment of the house.
But the real charm and gift of the house is that we can get a real sense of what it was like to live in a relatively wealthy house in that period of history. May I finish by saying they knew much more about building houses for the climate they lived in than is evidenced today. This house needs no air-conditioning due to the natural flow of air within the house.
Thank you Major R.G. Gayer-Anderson Pasha for your wonderful eye for beauty, the marvellous collections you put together and in particular for leaving us this priceless house. But even more, I thank you for the legends you wrote down because they give meaning and purpose to the bricks, mortar and furnishings. After all – objects are nothing if we don’t know the people who treasured them.