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House of the Cretan Woman – Gayer Anderson

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.  A youthful Gayer-Anderson
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. 

In latter years

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.
In 1906 R.G took a 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 he was gazing up at and invited him to see the house – he declined.
Painting of Mohamed Ali
On 23rd. Feb 1925 he took another small decision to revisit Ibn Talun.  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.

Unique Chair from Medieval Cairo 

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 a quick decision to take a quick unsanctioned trip across the Mediterranean from Gibralter to Tangiers – forbidden at the time.
As a result of this escapade R.G. was posted to Egypt.  In 1924 he retired from the army and went on to indulge his passion for collecting antiques of all kinds.  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.

Well of the King of the Djinns
On taking possession of Beit al-Kretlina R.G. “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.
R.G. 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.  These are his stories.

King of the Djinns

 

women's room with secret hiding place under the floor
We think of Djinns as ‘Genies”
According to Legend, Beit al-Kreitlia is home to Sultan al-Watawit (Watawit means bat) – King of the Djins and his seven daughters who sleep peacefully in golden beds at the bottom of a magic well in the corner of the courtyard of Beit Al-Kreitlia.  The well also contains the Sultan’s treasure which he guards well.
The story goes that the Sultan told the Master of the Family to build his house around this specific well, which was his home.  In return for doing this the Djin showered the family with gold down through the years.  Sometimes, in the dead of night he changes himself into a bat and can bee seen leaving and entering the well..
This 40 ft deep well was cut through solid rock in Pharaonic times,  Many have entered it in search of the golden treasure and never returned.  When this happens Sultan al-Watawit periodically puts gold into the water bucked in recompense to the widows and families of the disappeared.
Courtyard where the boys caught  the snakes 
If you want to recover the treasure all you have to do is arrive armed with a rope, food, lighting and the magic words to keep you safe in your venture.  At water level the well opens out into a big chamber – this chamber has two hidden shafts leading from it – one leads to palace of Sultan al-Watawit, his treasure and seven sleeping daughters, the other leads to a bottomless pit of destruction. The entrance to these passages is guarded by a ghost who also has the task of bucketing water into the two passages.
Should you want to attempt this – you should also know that you need the magic words that open the door to the Sultan’s Palace.  This door is locked and sealed with the Seal of Solomon.

Water Closet where the snake poisoned the water 

Your True Love’s Face

The well was also used by girls and boys wishing to see their true love’s face – they had to be virgins of pure heart.  This is the instruction to follow:
“If thou be maiden without stain, or lad ’til now unversed in love, that yet no knife has cut or fire has burned, nor dog has bit, then not in vain to this old well – head turn and look within. Down a little pebble throw at the night’s noon, that milk-white hour when the moon full grown, doth ride through the heaven like a houri fair in full loveliness.  And when the troubled circles cease, if in that mirror thou shalt see, the face of one look up to thee, as thou at it look’st down. Then know for sure thy true love’s face, this magic well reveals to thee.

Painting of King Fouad 

Secret Hiding Place

The ‘hareem’ (women’s room) is situated on the first floor directly above the magic well.  In the north-east corner (probably under a mat) there is a slab with an iron ring.

Underneath is a secret hiding space, very small but big enough to hold the household money, jewels and small treasures in times of danger, possibly even a person.  The patriarch of the family – Agha Saleem al-Kretli Bey was a miserly man who loved and hoarded gold.
He was miserly in spending money on anything, his own garments , his family’s clothes, their food etc.  Indeed he was so mean that even the rats ran away!  It seems he did some important favour or service for the King of the Djins, Sultan al-Watawit and in return the Sultan paid him with buckets of gold dust drawn up regularly from the magic well.
Agha Saleem thought the Hareem the best place to hide his gold dust, as nobody except the women were allowed into these quarters, so into the secret chamber under the floor he used to empty his buckets of gold dust.  If ever questioned he replied it was chaff for the donkey to eat.  As time went by the chamber was almost filled with gold dust and the Agha decided to take a new wife, She was a pretty young girl but, unfortunately, the Agha didn’t know she had a passion for cleaning and putting everything in order………..
the servant's bed 
One day while the Agha Saleem was away on business the new wife looked into the secret chamber and seeing all the dust asked a servant what it was.  The servant replied it was just food for the donkey which the Agha threw in there because the bins in the stable were full.  The indignant young lady call a second servant and ordered both of them to empty the chamber with shovel and bucket.  This they did, and threw the gold dust out the window into the street – as they did with all their rubbish (not much changed in Egypt since then!)
Later in the evening the Agha returned home and, when he was rested he went to take a look at his gold dust – in which he rejoiced so much.  The young wife rushed to him, all delighted with what she had done and exclaimed “Oh my Lord, I have cleaned up all in here, I have thrown all the dust from the window and made this space fit for proper use!”
The poor distraught Agha Saleem was so horrified and shocked he lost the power of speech – some say it was this was the work of the King of the Djins lest the master reveal the secret of his gold dust.  He also experienced a paralysis of the body – leaving him bedridden.  He never recovered, faded away and very soon died.  Legend also says that the Djin was so angered at the waste of the gold that he struck down the young wife with a lingering illness from which she also soon died.
After that to pacify the Djin and obtain his favours the women would throw offerings to the Djin through the trap-door where once the gold was stored.  When R.G moved into the house he open the secret chamber and found bunches of dried flowers, and scraps of personal clothing left over the years by those ladies trying to appease the Djin.

The Benevolent Serpent

Before the Kretlis family owned the house it was owned by a man named Hagg Mohammed.  In those days there lived in the house a benevolent serpent by the name of Anon – she protected the house by preventing other reptiles from entering and keeping evil outside the walls.

View of the Salmalik from the secret room in the Gayer Anderson House 
Hagg Mohammed had two little boys and co-incidentially the snake also had two baby snakes.  Those baby snakes went exploring one day (they were only supposed to do this at night-time!) and were seen by the two young boys.  Now boys will be boys and they captured the baby snakes, tied ropes around each one’s belly and tried to set them fighting each other.
Anon woke up and found her babies missing, she searched for them here and there – She eventually saw they had been captured by the little boys and became enraged.  In those times the water for the house was drawn from the well and kept in large porous jars in a cupboard under the stairs.  The sides of this cupboard were made of mashrabeya with allowed the air to flow around the jars and cool the water.  These cupboards were kept locked to ensure the water for the house was not poisoned or polluted.  Anon, in her rage headed for the water jars and spat her venom into them so that anyone drinking it would die.
View of the 2nd half of the Salmalik from the secret room 
Just then Hagg Mohammed returned to the house and saw the boys in the courtyard toying with the baby snakes.  He became very agitated and angry because he feared what the benevolent snake would do because of this insult to her and her babies.  He shouted at the boys to release the snakes at ones and lectured them long and loudly on the harm that may befall the house because of what they were doing by insulting the protector of the house.  The boys released the snakes and were very frightened and ashamed of what they had done.
Anon, the serpent heard what Hagg Mohammed said and saw that they boys were sorry.  She saw that what they had done was out of ignorance not malice and was immediately sorry for poisoning the water.  Then she heard the Hagg calling for water to be brought and she rushed to the water jars wondering what to do so the Hagg would not be poisoned.  She wound herself around the water jar she had poisoned and contracted her body until the water jar shattered and water spilled.  They say Hagg Mohammed counted the pieces afterwards and there were exactly 99 pieces.  As you can imagine the servant maid ran away screaming sure that it had been a Djin or a ghost that had done such a thing!

The Secret Door to the Hidden Gallery

 

I really loved this!  On the stairs near the Hareem 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!

 

Entrance to the Secret Room in the Gayer Anderson House
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 wealth 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.

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