By Mennat-Allah El Dorry

Egypt is overflowing with museums, and each overflows with its own set of trivia. To fill you in, below are some of the most intriguing, yet little-known facts about Egypt’s museums.

The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir isn’t Egypt’s first, second, or even third location for a museum of Pharaonic antiquities. The first was housed in The School of Languages of Ezbekkeyya (then under the directorship of Sheikh Rifaa al-Tahtawi), after Mohamed Ali decreed that a collection of Egyptian antiquities be created in 1835. Around 1851, the collections were transferred to a building in the citadel, where they were stored in a single room and made accessible only to private visitors. The objects that formed this collection were then moved once more, this time internationally. In 1855, they were given as a gift to the Archduke Maximillian of Austria where they became the nucleus of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna!

Left: The Haramlik of the Giza Palace, shortly after its transformation into the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, after the transfer of the antiquities from the Museum of Boulaq, ca. 1889.
Right: Tomb and statue of Mariette Pasha. Photo Lichtenstern et Harari, ca. 1904.

The mummies of the ancient Egyptians aren’t the only human remains housed within the Egyptian Museum compound. In the museum’s garden lies the sarcophagus of Mariette Pasha, Egyptologist and godfather of Egyptian museums, who worked under Khedive Ismail to house Egyptian antiquities in a safe environment, leading to the establishment of the Boulaq Museum. It was there, in the museum’s green gardens, that Mariette was buried following his cremation. By the late 1880s, the Boulaq Museum was bursting with antiquities, and its collection, along with Mariette, was moved to another location: the gardens of Cairo Zoo(!), which at the time was part of Ismail Pasha’s Giza Palace gardens. Finally, in 1902, the Egyptian Museum was inaugurated, the precious antiquities were moved once more, and Mariette Pasha’s sarcophagus followed; it has rested there ever since. Mariette’s remains are apparently still inside the sarcophagus, and an eyewitness in the 1990s reports that she saw bits of bone sticking out of his ashes.


Hippopotamus specimen at the Agricultural Museum.


It is commonly known that Princess Fatma, the daughter of Khedive Ismail, donated her jewellery and a plot of land to establish Cairo University (then Fouad I University). What is little known, however, is that the Agricultural Museum complex, inaugurated by King Farouk in 1938, was also partly built on land donated by her. Despite its name, this museum isn’t just about agriculture. Some four or fve different buildings, all previously palaces, house a wide range of collections, including antiques and personal possessions belonging to Princess Fatma herself, wax models of Egyptian scenes, and even a collection of freak stuffed animals – including a calf with two heads!



Several types of shells used by fortune tellers.


Another amusing museum, overflowing with random objects, is the Ethnographic Museum, housed in the National Geographic Society on Kasr al-Aini Street. The society was established in 1875 by Khedive Ismail as a post for nineteenth-century European travellers and geographers searching for the source of the Nile. These geographers and travellers often brought back souvenirs and exotica from their travels, and so, in 1895, the society opened a small museum based around the objects they had amassed. The displays include weapons and ‘objects of daily life’ from the Sudan, but the museum is best known for its collection of nineteenth-century objects from Egyptian daily life, many of which are now a distant memory and only preserved in this museum. For a dose of amusement, try to figure out what some of the tools on display were used for! The museum includes models of Egyptian costumes and occupations during the nineteenth century, a mahmal, a hall commemorating the Suez Canal, and several scale models created with exceptional skill.



Early twentieth-century postcard depicting the mahmal carrying the kiswa – the embroidered fabric covering for the Kaaba in Mecca – which was traditionally made in Egypt.


From the thirteenth century up until 1962, Egypt was responsible for weaving the kiswa, the fabric covering of the Kaaba in Mecca. Every year, the kiswa was sent to the Hijaz in a large procession, and was transported in a mahmal, a fabric chest or tent, that was carried on the back of a camel. Not only does the aforementioned Ethnographic Museum have a mahmal on display, but there are many mahmals and parts of the kiswa on display in museums around the country. Al-Arish Musuem houses one; Suez Museum has a special display on pilgrimages with a mahmal and large parts of the kiswa as a focal point; and the textile museum on al-Mu’izz Street also has parts of the kiswa. The pieces are all beautifully executed with intricately woven gold and silver threads. Some 765 kilograms of silk and 135 kilograms of pure silver are said to have been part of the average kiswa!



Pharaonic-style detail on turn of the century art deco table.


King Farouk and Egypt’s royal family had many resthouses in various places around the country; one of the best-known is the rest house on the Giza Plateau. This was once furnished with beautiful replicas of ancient Egyptian antiquities (particularly replicas of objects from King Tutankhamen’s tomb), as well as other Egyptomania items, most beftting to its location at the base of the pyramids. However, due to the decrepit condition of the building, the furniture was recently moved to another of King Farouk’s rest houses: Rokn Farouk (Farouk’s Corner) in Helwan which was recently opened to the public as a museum.



In 1977, Roger Moore came to Egypt to film the tenth instalment in the James Bond movie saga, The Spy Who Loved Me. The filming took place in several well-known Egyptian localities, including the Gayer-Anderson Museum in Sayeda Zainab. This house was built in the sixteenth century, and was inhabited in the 1930s by an English doctor and art collector called Gayer-Anderson Pasha, who left his entire collection in the house after leaving Egypt. These objects are now the basis of the museum’s displays. In the movie, the Gayer-Anderson house, which was partly refurnished for filming, stood for a villain’s lair, infiltrated by Moore/Bond. In typical Bond style, he walks into the house, kisses a beautiful woman, gets into a fight and is almost killed. The fight scene was filmed on the roof, overlooking the Ibn-Tulun Mosque, and ends with the villain’s crony falling to his death. This scene is a must-see, if only to glimpse the beauty of the Gayer-Anderson house dust-free and inhabited (even if it is only acting)!


Stone crocodile (detail from a votive offering) from the museum in Kom Ombo.


The ancient Egyptian crocodile god Sobek was associated with fertility and the Nile, and was worshipped in several areas across Egypt, including Sais in the Delta, Crocodilopolis in Fayum, and Kom Ombo in Lower Egypt. The priests at these cult centres sometimes kept crocodiles in pools or small lakes, and tended to their daily needs. In life, some of the crocodiles were adorned with crystal or golden earrings and wore bracelets on their forepaws, while in death they were embalmed with great care. A museum was recently built in Kom Ombo to commemorate the cult of Sobek, in which several real embalmed crocodiles can be seen on display.

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 1, 2010

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