Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The House of the Cretan Woman

Long ago and right now, in one of the oldest quarters of Cairo, on top of the hill Yashkur, there it stood,  the fascinating ninth century mosque of Ibn Tulun and it's unique spiral minaret.

For hundreds of years the area around the mosque of Ibn Tulun was one of the busiest quarters of Cairo, It was there that caravans and traders came to unload exotic spices and strange cargo from the Far East and Africa, the narrow ally way and stone court yard were alive with sights and smiles of a thriving commercial district. 

The area fell in hard times, houses were abandoned, fill into decay, and were then destroyed , save one house clinging into the walls of the mosque remained,

The House of the Cretan Woman - Bait al-Kretliya.

The immediate physical proximity of Bait al-Kretliya to The Mosque of Ibn Tulun is paralleled by a mythic connection that is recorded in a once popular now forgotten legends and myths.

"when Ibn Tulun was building his mosque, a genie appeared to him and showed him a treasure that he devoted completely to building the mosque. He proceeded to build it with his own hands working along side the laborers  until he became known as the Sultan Of Bricklayers. The rest of the gold from this miraculous treasure remains to this day in a haunted passageway, long forgotten and neglected, that runs from the Bait al-Kretliya under the mosque."

The legendary house of the Cretan woman is in fact a two sixteenth century houses, Beit el-Kretliya from 1632 and Beit Amna Bent Salim from 1540, linked together with a bridge on the third floor, framing a gate way to the mosque. 

The house was repeated to be haunted by djinn, djinn which either could be good or bad spirits featured extensively in Arabic folklore.

they said to particularly like living inside watery places such as wells and were in past feared for their abilities to posses humans .

"It said that the House of Cretan Women is built around the Well of the Bats - which has been here since the days of Noah's flood - and that it was the King of the djinn the Sultan of Bats who advised my ancestors on this place so that the house may protect the well where he and his seven daughters sleep around their magical golden treasure which has cost the lives of those who were tempted to find it. Playing on the parody of greed, the well is said to have compensated their families over the years by placing gold coins in the water bucket." 

The history of the house as well as those joined to it is rather unique.In 1930's the house became the home of Major Gayer-Anderson, an eccentric retired English doctor and art collector, who collected and translated the stories and the myths from Sheikh Suleiman, the last head of the Kretli family and guardian of the Saint's Harun tomb that flanks the house. 

"Ages ago, the rulers of Egypt were the Fatimid Caliphs, who built Cairo, they had brought the body of our master Harun-son of the prophet's grandson al-Hasan. They buried it under a tomb adjacent to the house. It is known and Harun's Tomb - The guardian of the neighborhood and whose benefices still protect the people." 

Mysticism has colluded over time with pop culture, often clashing with historical and geographical facts, to describe the hill of Yashkur as a holy site. Legend has it that not only was it here that Abraham was ordered by God to sacrifice his son but that it was the port where Noah's Ark came to port following its tempestuous journey. It is also said that it was there that Moses first spoke to God, and had his famous staff turned into a giant snake. All of this provided Ibn Toulun with enough reason to build his huge mosque there. The house is a living legend in itself, with a chamber of secrets, a lovers well, the snake of the house, the good spirit of Sheikh Harun, the djinn King of bats and his seven daughters and a hidden treasure of gold.. it is the house of Scheherazade.

Anderson commissioned a local artisan, the unique Abdl al-Aziz Abdu, commonly known as "Abu Shanab" ("Father of Mustachios" ) to create a series of illustrations on copper plates to depict each of the fourteen legends, and published the stories together with these illustration and his own description of the house, in a small edition in England is now long out of print. The original illustrations of the Legends of the House of the Cretan Woman by Abd al-Aziz Abdu are bound in an album now in the possession of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

"When Abd al-Aziz heard that I intended to make a book of the Legends with his design as illustrations, he drew and engraved another design and presented the drawing and plate to me as a surprise backsheeh (tip). This drawing I have included as a headpiece to the Legends. It is a portrait group of the three colaborators, each plainly labelled, Sheikh Sulaiman, Abd al-Aziz, and myself with my beloved Dachshund "Fadle Effendi" ("Make yourself at home, sir".)"  ~R.G Gayer-Anderson Pasha

Major Gayer-Anderson furnished the house with a remarkable vast array of different items from various historical periods collection of Oriental furniture, glassware, crystal, carpets, silks, and embroidered Arab costumes. 

He also collected beautiful works of art from Turkey, Persia, Syria, and other Oriental locations which he installed into the house, turning his house into a historical treasure. In 1945 Gayer-Anderson died equating everything for the Egyptian people, and the house had turned into a museum ever since, The Gayer Anderson-Museum.

The house remains a masterpiece, as do the art collection displayed beneath the gold-plated wooden ceilings, which were made 300 years ago by the hands of skillful determined craftsmen.The house consists of extraordinary 22 rooms medieval in origin, and laid out like an interlocking puzzle. I will take you by the hand  through some of my favorite parts of the house and wander through it's jogging corridors, split level chambers, winding staircases and disguised rooms.

Usually when one goes to a museum, the displays are in glass cases with the explanation under it. In the Gayer Anderson Museum, one just walks about gazing at the displays and feels like a part of the history of the place itself. 

Maybe this is because the house, including the ceilings, the walls, the corridors, the cupboards and the doors are among the most interesting displays. Or maybe because the museum was once a house and people once lived here at many times.

Drifting through arched stone gateway, there is a small corridor that takes one to the open air hall in the ground floor of the house, in one corner you will find my favorite part of the house, a well credited with magical powers and is known as the "Well Of Bats".

"Ye pure of heart and spiritually clean
Now when the moon shines full and clear
Approach this ancient well and lean
Over it listening. Ye shall hear
God's echoed word by angels sung
Float up to you in cadence fair,
Like pearls of blessing deftly strung
On unseen filaments of air."

The open air hall is rather amazing as one can see most of the balconies of the house above and the old walls with the Islamic decorations on them. once it used to host trades and business gatherings, now all that remains is an array of ancient scales, the legend has it they once were used to weight gold dust, gift from the king of djinn sultan of Bats

There's also a big wooden box that is connected with a strong rope. It was used to transfer food and water from stores of the house, much like an old dumbwaiter.

The next room is the main Sabil room, Sabil is part of the Islamic culture, in the past provided people who pass by to drink water on hot days. Usually these Sabils are connected to a school or a mosque. But here it is connected to the Gayer Anderson house and dates to 1631. The wooden ceiling, which is gold plated with Qura'an verses, is well preserved. Here, where the brass plates, work of Abu Shanab depicting all 14 legends of the house are on display, such as the landing of Noah's Ark plate. 

On display there's also the plates of "Taset el-Khada", which is a famous Egyptian legend. Such plates are usually made of brass or silver and have magical words and certain verses of the Qura'an written inside them. Someone who is ill would fill the plate with milk and water and leave it on the balcony overnight. It was believed that a part of the sky would come and mix with the milk and water. In the morning the sick person would drink this from the plate and be cured.

The first Salamlek- a place reserved for men- is quite impressive, with mashrabeya windows and amazing ceiling and walls with Persian decorations.There's an alabaster table with Qura'an verses written on the circular edges, colorful boxes that were used to keep valuables and tobacco and the largest smoking pipes I have ever seen. 

The summer Salamlek room. with two sofas opposite each other in a well decorated balcony that overlooks the open air hall. In the middle there are beautiful brass tables with Qura'an and Islamic decorations. There were also some small, ornate wooden chairs. This balcony is alive. I can imagine the people who were sitting there long ago and the stories they shared on a summer afternoon.

I journeyed through a corridors that leads to the Haramlek. The Haramlek was an area reserved for women. The word "Haramlek" is derived from the word "Hareem" which can be translated as women in Arabic. 

A big room full of jewelry boxes and Mashrabiya screens designed for women to watch from the windows without being seen from outside. 

There are many multicolored sofas, chairs, tables and closets most of them are acquired by Gayer Anderson from India and Persia.

On the third floor, there is the writing room of Anderon. In the entrance of the room,there are powerful ghostly white masks with hollow eyes that Anderson made of himself and his family.  

I imagine Bast, the cat, which was found in the area of Saqara, kept all these years near Gayer-Anderson’s desk, 

watching him writing his diary on his corona typewriter.

The walls here are full of many beautiful  and some what haunting photographs of Gayer Anderson and his family and a drawing of his beloved dog Fadl Effendi.

beautifully embedded tales on the walls..

surrounding the well of winding stairs leading up to...

the roof terrace, its edges fenced by mashrabiya screens rescued from demolished houses, Their shadows reflected on the walls and the floors, creating an unforgettable contrast between  light and dark.

There are a number of displays on the walls, Ottoman-era marbles basins and sink backs, sundial made of tile. used in the year 1273 to tell the times for prayers. And the oldest set of modern water taps and sinks I have ever seen. Next to the walls of the roof, there are big containers that were used to keep oil, food and other supplies for the house.

From here, we will take the bridge that Gayer Anderson built between the two houses over to the second house.Where you will find a museum within this museum.

One of the rooms contains a wonderful statue of Queen Nefertiti's head, placed in front of a Mashrabeya screen. when the sun light penetrate the wooden structure it illuminate the face of the beautiful queen, in a magical moment you might think the queen will speak.

In the middle of the room there is the replica statue of Bastet, and to the right of the door, there is a quirky black mummy cover and  cabinets full of old clocks among many treasures,

and a huge ostrich egg engraved with topographical scenes of Egypt, which can be rotated by means of a little handle on top.

 Gayer Anderson's was very interested in art and culture, and indeed, his library is impressive. 

There are shelves with many books, locked behind glass doors where their amber pages brimming with knowledge had turned into a mere display, yet for curious eyes they will sing of names and  titles embedded on their spines.

there is a fascinating drawing of Gayer Anderson which is claimed to portrait him as The Sphinx, lacking the distinctive features of The Sphinx and without the crown, I personally believe it to be a self portrait of Anderson in a traditional pharaonic headdress!

My favorite item in this house is pinned to a heavy wooden door, a beautiful door knocker that was  made especially for the house on the shape of a small black angel holding symbols attached to a silver plate with the inscription of this beautiful verse: 
"when love knocks the door, life walks in."

the most amazing room of the house is Damascus room which was one of Gayer Anderson's bed rooms. The bed is wooden with Islamic decorations all around it. The walls and ceiling unlike any walls I have ever seen. covered in intricate low-relief patterns of lacquer and gold ceiling covered with painted wooden panels acquired from the 17th Century house in the Syrian capital. They were designed to seem as if they are doors to somewhere else, another liminal place perhaps?  

There's another Haramlek with a curious wooden jewelry cupboard. when you move the cupboard, it will reveal a secret doorway! The doorway leads to a very narrow corridor with Mashrabeya windows to the right and some wooden chairs to the left. It was used by women to watch what was going on in the celebration hall without being seen by anyone.

The big celebration hall was once used for wedding celebrations. There is a chair for the bride to the right and a chair for the groom to the left. In the middle of the room there is a fascinating marble fountain. 

The other half of the room consists of a small theater, where the performances of dancers and singers once took place. now it's used to display a huge cabinet where Anderson kept the swords he collected from all over Egypt. The ceiling of the celebration hall is very high because the hall is surrounded with Mashrabeya screens for women to watch from the chambers above the hall.

The strangest item in this room is a musical instrument in the shape of a small crocodile that once was used like a guitar. 

the second court yard with it's beautiful marble fountain, is right outside the last room in our visit,

The child birthing room. It has a displays of bracelets and charms that children once wore to protect them, there are also many chairs, some with Qura'an verses written on them, with openings in their seats. Women used to sit on these chairs to give birth to their babies.

The visit to the Gayer Anderson Museum is like a journey through time. I found this link to a 3D virtual tour of the house which I strongly encourage you to visit.

Some places capture your soul without a known reason. This was what happened to me when I saw the house for the first time. Maybe this because it is very old and it seems untouched by time or maybe because the whole house is an exceptionally wealthy source of strangeness, tales and myth.

Every ancient house, and this one even more than most, has strange legends attached to it which, though of the past, are yet kept in mind from generation to generation  Soon I shall bring you tales & rhymes along with the imagery I created inspired by some of the legends of the Cretan woman house - a handful of folkloric tales, some are delightful and some are frightening, a glimpse into a landscape where the world of spirits and Djinn is not far away and enchantment is always peering through Mashrabiya screens.


  1. What a fascinating post. Really enjoyed finding out about this place. I look forward to more!

  2. I have found you via Terri Windling's blog and am happy to have arrived. Such beautiful images I'm sure to be drawn back again and again. And, when I read the last of your lines, "convinced that this was the house of Scheherazade" I was there. She the most favored of all tellers ...

  3. This is fabulous Hussam :) I will be sharing it so other people can take the magical tour.

  4. What a wonderful post!

    Thank you so much for visiting, and your kind words. I am very glad you did, and that I followed your trail back through the Forests of Blog to this wondrous place! Reading this, it struck me that you live in a place of such myth and legend, and you bring it to life so vividly. Something I forget myself, living as I do in a place of similar ancient myth and legend treasure. Often it is people from other lands who are most excited by, and expressive of, such treasure. Thank you for such an inspiring post. I enjoyed every word of it!

  5. I had been so many times to this place since childhood. Your text made it more beautiful than ever. .

  6. very nice, enjoyed every word of it!-- good job.