As I got out of my car, I told the driver to find out where it was so that we could visit it as well. So you can imagine my surprise when I entered the Ibn Tulun mosque and found a sign pointing left to go to the Gayer Andersen museum.
The museum consists of two houses built using the outer wall of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun as support. The larger house, though built in 1632, later came into the possession of a wealthy Muslim woman from Crete, and the home became popularly known as Beit al-Kritliyya, or "House of the Cretan Woman."
The second house was built in 1540 and became known as "Beit Amna bint Salim," after its last owner. The two houses were joined by a bridge at the third floor level at an unknown point, and are both collectively known as Beit al-Kritliyya.
Major Gayer-Anderson, a retired collector and Orientalist, was granted permission to reside in the house, and, he filled the place with his personal collection of art, furnishings, and carpets. In 1942, when ill health forced him to return home, he gifted the contents to the government on the condition that they convert this to a museum, and, in return he was granted the title of Pasha. This is him and his wife.
He got masks made in plaster of his entire family which are prominently displayed, but if you ask me, a little erie! I am not sure I'd like a mask of my own face peering down at me while I am alive and kicking!
The beauty of the house lies both in its construction and use of mashrabeya as well as in the Major's vast collection of carpets, pantings, curios etc..The man obviously travelled quite a bit, as is evidenced by the curios. The house has Syrian, Turkish, Chinese, Persian, English rooms to name a few!
I also suspect that Major Andersen had an exaggerrated sense of self importance. An English style library room, has a prominent picture of him as the Sphinx! Delusions of grandeur?
The rooftop terrace is encased by beautifully carved mashrabeya. Mashrabeya screens use wood patterns to spell out important Islamic phrases. Claim to fame for the terrace is that the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me was partially shot here!
Gayer Anderson's bedroom, with a big red bed with wooden posts all around it and a canopy, is designed in Persian style. It is said that during his later years, Major Andersen turned gay which might explain the bed of his favourite servent next to his.
Given that the house is built at three levels, fetching and carrying would have been a tedious, not to mention time consuming execrcise for the Nubian slaves. So they found an ingenious solution in a "dumb waiter" in the main courtyard next to what was originally the kitchen.
Many legends are associated with the Beit al-Kritliyya, which were collected by Gayer-Anderson and published as Legends of the House of the Cretan Woman. Among them are
- The house is protected by a shaykh, Haroun al-Husseini, who is buried under one of the corners of the house. He is said to have blinded three men who attempted to rob the house, who stumbled around the house for three days and nights until they were finally caught;
- The well in the house is said to possess miraculous qualities - for example, a lover gazing into the water would see the face of his or her sweetheart instead of his/her own reflection.