New Blog

20 Feb

I am starting a new blog “On Paper”

It is here:


Personal Libraries around the World

26 Feb


It is not an uncommon occurrence that I find myself staring long and hard at a book, putting it back on the shelf, walking away and then returning, considering whether to buy it. One prime justification I use for the almost inevitable purchase is this: some time after my death someone will gaze at an erotic novel written in Arabic by someone with the pseudonym Ovid (or whatever it may be) and wonder how it came into my library. There is something apparently random still deeply personal about private libraries. So I have compiled a list of a few private libraries which are now preserved in institutions for your delectation.

  • Mohammed Yusuf Najm at The American University in Beirut

This is the library that is prompting me to write this post. Mohammed Yusuf Najm was a Palestinian who basically started the systematic academic study of Arabic theatre and taught for most of his life at the AUB. The Archives and Special Collections centre at AUB have just acquired his library and it is (as was always expected by scholars in the field) unparalleled. It must be one of the best collections of late 19th and early 20th century playscripts as well as huge numbers of other fascinating books (like an original run of Abou Naddara). It will be a very important resource

  • William Moir’s Bee Library in Edinburgh

William Moir, eccentric imperial administrator and beekeeper, who put down his long life to eating a spoonful of honey every day, once boasted he had “the best collection of Bee Books in the British empire.” He even corresponded with Ramsay MacDonald about the library. The Prime Minister told him “You seem to have a very interesting Bee Library, and it must be a great comfort for you to spend quiet hours in companionship with your books.” When he died he left the books to Edinburgh Public Library. The most valuable books went to the National Library of Scotland but the bulk of it (including the only run I know of Ahmed Zaki Abu-Shadi’s Bee Kingdom journal in the UK) is in the basement of the Fountainbridge Public Library in Edinburgh. To access it, one must go through the Kafka-esque organisation of the Scottish Beekeepers Association but it is possible.

bee library

  • A.C. Creswell in the American University in Cairo

This tip off comes courtesy of Anthony Quickel. The illustrious and often bad tempered scholar of Islamic Architecture “Archie” Creswell had a library that was all catalogued by his own esoteric system. Part of the condition for donating it to the American University in Cairo was that they maintained the library as he had kept it. So, be prepared to look around its room on the top floor of the Library on the new AUC campus for a while before you find what you are looking for but Anthony swears by it.

  • Edward Said in Columbia University

This one needs no explanation, surely? Sit and work a while surrounded by Edward Said’s books, check out the inscriptions in them, have fun.

  • R. B. Serjeant in Edinburgh University Library

A major name if you are interesting in the history of Yemen, if not perhaps he has evaded your ken. A few years ago Edinburgh University got hold of his library and it is amazing. He spend time in Yemen, Egypt, Sudan, and elsewhere and collected books with enviable vigour. Many of the books also bear dedications from the likes of Ali Ahmed Bakathir, Abdallah al-Tayyib, etc. (though the librarians at Edinburgh have covered some of them up with its slips of paper for date stamps). Particularly fun are the 10s of boxes containing random political pamphlet and poetical booklets. I am no expert in the subject but I imagine such a good collection of Yemeni material is hard to come across.

  • E. G. Browne at Cambridge

Pioneering Persianist and proud son of Pembroke College, Cambridge. His library was left to Cambridge University in his will and now appears to be mostly spread out across West Four in Cambridge University Library. It is, unfortunately, not put together in one block but scattered amongst other books. Still, one can get used to the look of the books and begin to spot them on the shelves. They also all carry a little book plate telling you where they are from. Highlights include a nice edition of “The Superiority of Dogs to Many of Those who Wear Clothes” and some novels dedicated to Browne by Jurji Zeidan.


  • Al-Aqqad in Dar al-Kutub in Cairo

Dar al-Kutub in Cairo carries many people’s private libraries, as does the new Bibliotecha Alexandrina. Among them are Futuh al-Nashati, Abd al-Rahman al-Badawi and more. Perhaps the most large and impressive is the library of Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad, the famous Egyptian critic. The problem with all these private libraries, both in Alexandria and Cairo, the institutions do not let you stroll through the library but will only deliver you a book if you find it in the catalogue and request it.


These are a few libraries that I have come across in the past few years. I would love to know about any others if people have them.


Muawiya Nur: Buying Books in Early 20th Century Egypt and Sudan

30 Dec

Muawiya Nur is a writer I have been interested in for a while. A diligent Sudanese student of Edward Atiyah (who eulogised him in his memoirs “An Arab Tells his Story”), he went to Cairo in the early 1930s to try to become a literary critic and writer. According to Atiyah, he lived a bohemian existence on top of a flat in Heliopolis surrounded by books.

He never managed to get enough money to sustain himself in Cairo and soon had to return to Khartoum where he went mad and died at the age of 31 or 32 in 1941. Still he managed to have a huge influence on all of 20th century Sudanese literature and is still spoken of reverentially by many Sudanese authors working today.

One things that is always said about him is that he spent his life surrounded by books. The student yearbooks of the American University of Beirut, where he studied, make reference to his books and his “philosophy”. Atiyah thinks that his books were his refuge from the conservative society around him.

Here I translate an article he wrote for an Egyptian newspaper in 1933 talking about how he felt about his books, both reading them and collecting them, in ways which are no doubt familiar to us all.

m nur

Me and Books or Books and I

I swear I don’t know which of these is true: is it me who is writing about books and discussing their style or is it the books who are writing about me and seducing me – with what they have taught me – to seduce myself, expose my weaknesses and mock myself? It is me who loves books, is infatuated with them and is their hunter and their conqueror? Or is it those books who are charming me, making me a tool for their amusement and entertainment. I don’t know which one is more true.

Whatever the fact of the matter, let us leave it to the Lord of Consolation.

I do not know, either, with any degree of accuracy when I first fell in love with books or when they became the object of my devotion – and I cannot easily do it now. But I do know that, when I was in primary school, an old friend and I used to collect them, gather them together and take an undue pride in their abundance. I cannot say that we read them. We hardly did that at all. If my collection was even one book bigger than his, I would brag to him, self-satisfaction filling my body and joy infusing my being. He would, likewise, suffer great pain until he could complete his collection and we were equal again.

That is the first episode in the story of my love for these papers they call “books”. As you can see, it was a totally irrational, mad love. After this, I never went anywhere or visited any place without asking about its bookshops. I went to them all as if it were my official duty to do so.

I might be broke and so would not buy a single book. Still, that did not stop me visiting public bookshops every day until the owners got annoyed with me, and my lack of money. Still I did not stop going because, for me, looking at books has its own special magic which surpasses all others. To my eyes, they are more charming than beautiful girls. The pure scent of a new volume off the presses is a fragrance that puts Jasmin to shame.

It is a special kind of pleasure for me to open a new book and smell its pages as I am sipping some tea or smoking a cigarette. I promise, there are few pleasures like it in all existence.

Discovering a new book gives me the same feeling that geographers must have when they discover a new continent, that a lover must have when he first meets his beloved, or that a skilful thief must have when discovers some hidden treasure.

There is nothing more attractive to me in a bookshop than the glass display case. I walk back and forth looking at the azure cover of one book and then my gaze will stop at the title of another and it will pain my heart that it was not me who wrote it. My irritation at the author intensifies because he has treated exactly the same subject that I intended to write about. Then my sadness grows because I can’t afford to own the book, even if I can, at least, look at its cover. Then I look at some magazine that contains all kinds of articles and studies that I ought not be ignorant of. Then some book about music… Yes, music… And I ought not talk about it or discuss its theory without full knowledge or understanding.

So I imagined myself amongst brothers lecturing with wit and pride on Beethoven’s Sonatas, or on “harmony”, “melody” and movements. Then I would tell them how Chopin’s art differed from Wagner’s how one surpassed the other in thought while the other surpassed the first in emotion – or some other refined claim like that.

Then, I see a book about painting … Yes, dear reader, painting is everything. Art. Art, my friend. Discussions about shading, colouring, and movement in the art of Hessler and Degas and their ilk. How can I consider myself “cultured” without knowing about these kinds of things? I wander, picturing myself in a crowd as I rave about these refined pieces of knowledge. They are all there, with their ears listening and their mouths agape, eating up what I say.

That’s right, they are eating it all up.

Then, my friend, it is not enough for a man to know just Arabic, English, and French literature to become a widely learned litterateur. No, you must also know Czechoslovakian literature, and Polish, and Danish, and the literature of the Hottentot, the Mexicans and that of the far off lands beyond the seas. That is all necessary.

But where is the money?

God curse money.

Then time. God curse that too. Can I read all that I want to read? No, of course not, but this need not stand in the way of me buying books, collecting them and wanting them. It is enough for me that they are in my library so I can look at them and enjoy their presence in my sight. Maybe I’ll go to sleep and dream I’ve read them cover to cover and learned all that is in them. I might have criticised them or commented on them in my sleep, and what need to read them after that?!

In fact, if I wanted to read a book but did not have time to thumb through it, I would sleep and read it in a dream (this does not mean, wise reader, that you can just sleep and dream and then read – your dreams might not come to your aid there).

Very often I buy a book and feel a sense of ease simply because I own it, not bothering myself to actually read it ever. I think many readers do this same thing but do not admit it. Despite all this, I never stop complaining to my friends about how few books I have and my lack of money. I spend my whole day and read there – without spending any money, of course. The shopkeeper thinks, at first, that I am going to buy something so is patient, asks me what I want and responds to my questions with care but I send him away, insisting I know what I want myself. If he found out that I couldn’t afford to buy he would kick me out and ban me from ever coming into the shop again.

I do not know what the reason for this inexcusable appetite is. Do you think that I have a second stomach which is only filled by books and only hungry in their presence.

It is strange, and even surprising to me myself, that I only like to read in book stalls or book shops. For if I seclude myself in my private library – yes, reader, I have a private library and no lie – I leave it quickly and lock it up, going back to the bookstalls. If I manage to stay in my library I get bored, my eyes blur and I drift off, reading everything in a sweet dream.

I frequently deceive myself – as you may also deceive yourself, reader – that I have read everything in the bookshops because I have read their titles and knew the names of the authors. And I convince myself that if I have read their introductions and conclusions that I have read it well and can criticise it, analyse it and tear the author limb from limb.

If I get obsessed with reading on one particular genre of literature, I imagine (and my delusion grows) that I am wasting time on something that is useless or worthless and that there must be other books out there more worthy of care and attention. If I read some serious books, I start to think that there are things in glossy showbiz magazines (and things like that) that should not pass me by and without which my life would not be complete. Then I go out and buy as many of them as one could wish for.

If I read too much, I start to think that I won’t be able to write and that I have to test myself right then, when this dangerous worry takes me. If I am writing, I want to amuse myself with some calm, pleasant reading. Then, if I am spending all my time reading and writing, I think that I am being stupid for not having any balance and that there are more things in life than just reading and writing. If I spend my time in pleasant idleness, the same issues arise and I get bored of the dissipated life and the pleasure that comes in the flash of an eye. If I am in the casino, watching the beautiful faces of the dancers, I long for one letter from the beautiful aspect of Schopenhauer or Socrates’ slender frame. At another moment I curse Schopenhauer and his ugly face then flee from him and his grave companions.

However, the reader who intends one day to become a writer cannot also be a complete reader. This is because, instead of losing himself in the book and so getting pleasure and benefit from it, the feeling grows inside him that he is incapable of writing like that writer. He tries to understand how the writer formed one particular sentence or how he succeeded in expressing his opinion so simply. In short, he tortures himself and wears out his soul. What is harder than for someone who one day thinks of being a writer to read with any kind of pleasure?

When I was a student, I once tried to read the whole library. What madness! Day by day, I made my way right to left, up and down. For a number of days all I read or talked about was “Psychology”. At other times I was dominated by a thing called “Drama”, and then travel books and memoirs. Then I would leave this all aside and go to study electricity, the nervous system, or the digestive system. At first, I studied these things with great zeal but this soon faded away so I turned to other things. This could be biographies, great speeches, diaries, books about education, and all the other things that writers write and printers print.

Sometimes I get angry at my perverted mental state and my blind passion for books. I spend a whole day thinking about the bookshop I am not at. I imagine that new books from Russia or Germany might have arrived by surprise – yes, reader, by surprise! Laugh if you want! – so that very morning I hurry to the bookshop and begin my search operation.

God preserve me – what do you have to say about this?

Is it madness? Of course it is.

But it is a madness over which I have no power or control.


Ghantus al-Rusi (Ignatius the Russian)

27 Oct

FullSizeRender (7)

As a youth, C.L.R. James tells us, he used to read Thackery’s Vanity Fair from cover to cover and then, when he had finished, he would start all over again from the beginning. I have now found, for the first time, a book that has made me do the same thing: Ignatius Kratchkovsky’s Among Arabic Manuscripts: Memoirs of Libraries and Men.[1] Written during the Second World War as the author moved periodically Moscow and Leningrad, it is a restrained – but no less entertaining or moving for its restraint – account of a lifetime spent studying, editing, and writing about Arabic manuscripts.

We do not learn a huge amount about his own life from this book. We are given instead something more meaningful. “Please do not take this book for the author’s personal memoirs,” he begins. “These reminiscences are not about myself but about Arabic manuscripts which have played an important part in my life, or which I have been lucky enough to discover or have made available to the learned world.” This understated opening conceals something much more powerful. Through these Arabic manuscripts Kratchkovsky teases out an appealing and compelling world-view.

In this blog I am going to try to explain – in part to the reader and in part to myself – why I think this short collection of memories comes together to form a book that is so good. Part of the reason is, of course, because Kratchkovsky’s style of writing is so endearing: modest but always honest. No doubt, some credit for this must be due to the translator from Russian, Tatiana Minorsky. Another explanation for my attraction to the book is that it is peppered with really great anecdotes. In fact, it is a little tempting to make this a platform to simply re-tell them, but I won’t. It is, unquestionably, a well-written, well-constructed, rich book but this could be said of plenty of books. I felt this work has something more to it, beneath the surface, that is especially affecting. There are, I think, two particular reasons for this, which I shall attempt to elaborate upon now.

The first is that he captures something special and – at least as it appears to me – true about academic study. There are plenty of times when academic work can seem pretty awful. But there are also times when it is close to exhilarating. Kratchkovsky captures this adeptly. He even manages to do this without the normal chauvinism of the arts towards the sciences. He appears a devout believe in the church of human knowledge. Or, as he would put it, describing his time in the St. Petersburg Public Library he would see:

“Someone poring over a manuscript would suddenly throw himself back in his chair while a new unexpected idea thrilled him with the great joy of the scholar – the process of scientific creating equally precious to the man who stands beside a retort in a laboratory or who peers intently at the lines of a manuscript on his desk.”

The book manages to juggle the many contradictions of a scholarly ego in the portrayal of his own academic life. When discovering for the first time in several centuries an important and long forgotten-about manuscript, you can feel like a boundless pioneer with a Poirot-esque intellect. However, more often than not, you realise just how much you owe to others: colleagues, former academics, librarians (whom he never fails to mention), etc. Individual researchers are just one part in a huge interconnected web. Even those who did not seem to have a huge impact in their time (like J.J. Reiske or “Quiet” Girgas) can still speak through the ages.

All of these eulogies to scholarship might seem a little cheesy, but for someone who had lived through the first 45 years of the 20th century in Russia, they were anything but banal. As he puts it himself (to quote him at length again):

“The shades of the teachers do not hide from us the shades of our pupils who passed away before us. Many of these do I see: a life full of hardships and two devastating wars cut down the young shoots before their prime and it was not given to all to attain full blossom. But they had all entered the realm of learning and had felt its fascination. To them, as to me, the manuscripts had spoken in the tongue of the living, and they had often come to me with the treasures which they had unearthed. We shared our joys and sorrows, and together we endured many difficult years when their enthusiasm sustained my failing spirits.”

His picture of scholarship, with an emphasis on the good but also acceptance of the bad, is the first reason I think I loved this book. The second reason is it exploration of manuscript. I do not mean the commonly used sense of the word manuscript (ancient roll of paper that sits on a library shelf) but its more technical sense (writing by hand). It is no surprise that someone who spends his entire life trying to decode the writings of those who are long dead had a feeling for the personality that handwritten texts can convey. “Manuscripts are jealous”, he says, “they like to claim one’s full attention and only then do they disclose their secrets and open their hearts – theirs and the hearts of those who have been connected to them. To a casual observer they remain dumb.” With an eye to the details “manuscripts [often leave] a truer picture of the man than [do] his contemporaries.”

He traces much in handwriting, the weakening script of the old man writing his final letters or the strange markings of a scribe who does not understand arabic Arabic. Perhaps most movingly, he is shown by a librarian in Leningrad a collection of papers written by Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi late in his life as he was succumbing to paralysis. The rough, jerky script “spoke of the stark tragedy of an ebbing life” and the fact that he was losing control of the hand that had written so much but that he was still fighting to use it.

Kratchkovsky, it will come as no surprise, was also a prolific letter-writer. In his life he did not spend much more than two years in an Arabic speaking country (in his defence, this was likely because the Soviet Union did not let him travel). However, he maintained regular correspondence with many Arabic writers. He worked together with Ahmed Taymur Pasha (father of Mohammad and Mahmud Taymur) on a little know manuscript of Abu-l-‘ala called the Epistle on Angels. Kratchkovsky notes that Taymur Pasha has “clear and even handwriting”. He seemed disappointed that “owing to the march of time [his son Mahmud Taymur’s] letters were often type-written instead of being written by hand.

Other correspondents included Mikhaʾil Naʿima, who wrote in excellent Russian but apologised for “being an “old believer” and using the old spelling”, and Amin Rayhani, who once enclosed a dried flower from the Freyka valley in the letter, which Kratchkovsky kept.

Of course it is easy to be nostalgic for past days of letter-writing (days which I myself barely lived through). Email has its advantages, other than being incredibly fast. It has its own idiosyncrasies which can tell us a little more about the author. See, for instance, how much a time stamp saying 3:00 AM can tell us about a correspondent. Still, reading Kratchkovsky it is hard not to feel that something is contained in handwriting, which it is hard to replicate elsewhere.

Perhaps, of course, I am being too starry-eyed about this old, Russian orientalist. He lived in a world that was almost entirely male and his wife, a famous epigraphist in her own right, is almost the only woman to get a passing mention in the book.[2] He is also a member of that discredited guild, the Orientalists. I do not seek to exonerate this group nor, as Robert Irwin has, use Kratschkovsky as an example to counter Said. He was, as we all are, a man of his time. However, I would say that it is to Ghantus al-Rusi’s (Ignatius the Russian, as he was called by Arabic speakers) great credit that he was a pioneer of the study of modern Arabic literature in its own right in Europe. Though, in typical Kratchkovskian style, he refused to be called “the first” to study Arabic literature in Europe when the title was imposed upon him by a publisher.


The copy of Among Arabic Manuscripts that I have in my hands now is from Leeds University. Inside the front cover is a Leeds University bookplate and in the bottom left hand corner two stamps. The top one reads STACK and the bottom one SEMITIC. In the back cover is an issue card from the University. On the left hand side it reads “Staff and Research Students”. This section is stamped once in Green in 16 DEC. 1958 and crossed out. The other side reads “Other Readers” and underneath they are warned in red “Overdue books: fine 1d. per day”. In this section has one similar crossed-out stamp in black ink reading “1 MAY 1961”. I note this partly because Kratchkovsky would have both noticed and noted the same thing.

I also note it, though, for another reason. I have spent over 1,000 words praising this book of less than 200 pages published by Brill in 1953 (the translation that is. The Original Russian was published in 1945-6) but if you want to read a copy it will be hard to get one. There are 13 copies of the book available in UK libraries but other than that it seems very hard to get hold of one. None of the online book-buying sites appear to have copies and Brill has never reprinted it. For the moment I will have to do with re-reading the Leeds edition until I have to return it. I am painfully aware, too, that I have spent this time describing a book that the reader is going to find it difficult to locate. I can only apologise for this. I hope that it does not mean the whole blog is painfully unreadable.

[1] Thanks are due to Margaret Litvin, without whose lecture in Cairo that began with Sheikh Tantawi I would never have thought to pick up an obscure Russian orientalist’s memoirs. And who also sent me additional information about Kratchkovsky.

[2] The only other who springs to mind is a rather eccentric owner of a Kufic Quran

Reginald Davies Papers

9 Oct

               Sometimes, when I am tired from doing the work I have to do, I take refuge in the letters of dead old white men. Leafing through Scottish archives can be a lot of fun and quite therapeutic, in the way that doing the washing-up can be quite therapeutic. I have, in the past, gone through George Henry Farmer’s diaries of the Conference of Arab music in Cairo in the 1930s and Douglas Haig’s letters from the British invasion of Sudan in 1898.

This week I have been looking at the Reginald Davies papers in the Special Collections of the University of Edinburgh. I have decided to write about them because they are a richer mine of information than I ever expected and they would be well worth looking at, if you are the kind of person who looks at that kind of thing.

He went to Khartoum in 1911 and stayed there on and off until 1935 when he went to Egypt, where he stayed until 1942. Often when you go through the papers of colonial officials they are mostly full of invitations to parties and most of the letters you get are narratives of their holidays to Bournemouth (vel sim.). However, Davies, in his letters to his parents and siblings kept them constantly up to date of his movements. When in Alexandria, he sends a letter about every week. A good deal of it is about his children Marigold (Goldie) and Christopher (Kiff) but there is enough about his work and acquaintances to be a useful historical resource. He also even makes some good jokes to keep you chuckling through.

To whet your appetite, I will give a few examples:

In one letter home he describes a performance of Hamlet in Egypt by the Old Vic. “Many of the audience were in tears. This company is organised on the plan that the well-tried members shall be in the lesser parts and the coming young things in the leads. Thus we had Lewis Casson as Polonius and Cathleen Nesbitt as the Queen, while Hamlet was, we thought, superbly presented by a young man, Alec Guinness, who should have a brilliant future.” [hohoho].

He also describes his meeting with several Sudanese politicians and other notable men. He tells how El Sharif Yusif Effendi (whom the British call ‘Holy Joe’) narrated to him the story of the birth of the bat. “They were fashioned of clay by the Prophet Jesus, who blew upon them and gave them life.” It is for this reason they have no feathers (“Naturally, being of clay they would have no feathers”, Yusif Effendi is reported to have argued). He also often describes meetings with Sayyid Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi and Sayyid Ali Mirghani. It was Davies who relaxed the British crackdown on followers of the Mahdi that had been in force since the invasion of 1898.

One of the more interesting (though sadly only sporadically written) artefacts is a diary that contains stories of his time spent in Darfur in 1920 as well as his journey across the continent to Nigeria. One particularly lurid story (which I do not repeat in its entirety here, partly out of taste) is about his colleague in Darfur, a man named Porcelli. Very soon after he met him a woman, who is Porcelli’s Sudanese mistress, emerges from his tent saying that he only gives him a small amount of money for maintenance and that he beats her. Davies advises the woman to confront Porcelli and say she will go back home. When she has done this Porcelli beats her more and Davies takes it upon himself to return her to her family. It is a small, but significant, illustration of the brutality that colonial rule could entail.

He also has a habit of writing and collecting “comic” doggerel (much of which pushes the definition of the word comic). This one below was by a friend of his called Hilly (R.J. Hillard?) and is one of the better ones. That probably tells you something about the overall quality. However, as might be of interest to some, he also received from Freya Stark two poems of not particularly high quality. He became a friend of Freya Stark in Egypt and they continued their correspondence into later life.


Sa’ad Pasha Zaghlul

Detested British rule

The mere thought of a protectorate,

Made him want to expectorate

Sarwat Pasha and Adli

Didn’t do so badly.

Their passion for autonomy

Was not inconsistent with bonhomie.

There were few things that Hassan Nash’at

Didn’t have a dash at,

But his character was far too sinister,

For him to be a cabinet minister.

Esoteric or Interesting Museums of Cairo and Khartoum (part 1)

21 Sep

This blog is called Curiosities and I am going to take this title to the next logical step. I.e: what better place to find curiosities than a museum? Surely, this is what they were designed for? Over the last few years I have been going to museums in Cairo and Khartoum, seeking out particularly characterful, interesting or obscure ones. Part of what, I find, makes a museum characterful is, ironically, the lack of any other people. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to go through a museum guest book to find that the last visitors were a school party, who toured the place three weeks ago. So it goes against everything I believe in to let other people know about these museums but I am biting my tongue and doing it. I also do not quite have the delusions of grandeur to think that this blog will substantially alter the visitor figure at any of these museums.

Obviously the list is not comprehensive. I have not put, for instance, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo nor the National Museum in Khartoum. These are both well worth visiting but I assume that people already know that. I have also held back from putting “house-museums” on the list, such as the Gayer-Anderson, Bayt al-Umma, Bayt Sinnari etc. I was particularly tempted to put on Bayt al-Umma twinned with Saad Zaghloul’s mausoleum across the road, partly because I used to live in a room with a balcony which overlooked both (those were the days!). However I have kept house museums out for two reasons 1) I hate the fact that you always get guided tours which don’t let you just wander around. 2) I want to maintain this as a list for museums: collections of curiosities, which span different times and themes assembled for the museum. I am not going to count houses of famous people in a frozen state as museums. Though, doubtless, some sober academic could argue that I am being deeply conservative.

On a final note, if anyone else has any suggestions I would love to hear them, particularly for Khartoum, whose museums lying behind unassuming doors must number more than I know at the moment.


1. The Agricultural Museum

agricultural museum

The agricultural museum just across the bridge into Doqqi is entry level for obscure museums with faded charm but it is still perhaps the best. Many people will tell you that this is their favourite museum and Cairo and rightly so. For me, it is like The Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. As a double album it is their most complete musical work, also their best-selling, and I do not want to argue against it. However, in this blog-post I will also try to take you through the Siamese Dreams and the Adores of Nilotic Museums.

Installed in the grounds Princess Fatima’s old Palace, the setting of  Agricultural alone makes the visit worthwhile. However, the collection itself is astounding enough that if it were in a blank shed from the 1990s it would still charm. Fortunately for the visitor it has it all. There is a vast (if not always explicable) array of themes and displays from taxidermied animals, case after case of model fruits, Egyptian village scenes (including tattoists, fortune-tellers and rural cafes), and much more. In fact, it is a lot like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in its diversity of styles too. Hmm.

This really is a humdinger. If you don’t like this museum, you probably won’t like the rest of the museums on this list.

How to get there: This one is relatively simple (map provided above). It is in a big complex, which includes, I believe, parts of the ministry of agriculture. People around will know where it is. You officially only pay a few pounds to get in (or you did last time I went) but I have heard the staff appreciate generosity.

See also:

2. The Geographical Society and Ethnographic Museum

Geographical Society

After the Agricultural Museum, this is probably the next best off-the-beaten-track museum that I have been to in Cairo. It is divided into two parts. Upstairs is the main hall of the old Khedival-Royal-Egyptian Geographical Society. Done in a very similar style to the American University in Cairo’s Oriental Hall (perhaps by the same people), this hall was once used to give lectures, particularly by travellers returning from south of the Sahara. Two of the most famous people the society hosted were Burton and Stanley. I am not aware that the hall is currently used for its original purpose, even though there are chairs set up ready should anyone want to deliver a talk. The back half is, however, used as a library and a number of people are there taking advantage of this books and cool, high ceilinged hall. The library owns, among other things, Prince Mohammed Ali’s old personal library, which he bequested to the society. Of the things on display, the majority of the books appear to have been in French but perhaps the Arabic works are put elsewhere.

Downstairs is the ethnographic museum, which when I went was half in restoration but is still a real cracker. There is lots of material on Egyptian life, but that was shut when I went. The two best parts are

1) the Suez Canal room, which contains dioramas of the towns along the Suez canal. There are two particularly charming pieces in the room which are models of passenger steamers (complete with passengers in full early 20th Century attire) flanked on both sides by rollers with pictures of the Suez Canal shore on them. If the rollers are worked, which I could not persuade out guide to do but it can be done, one is given the impression that one is cruising down the Suez Canal on a steam ship, accompanied by a group of ancestors from the turn of the century.

2) The Sudan Room. The whole thing was in fact set up as the Sudan museum and was originally filled, primarily, with the spoils of the war in Sudan. In particular, with the spoils of the conquest of Sultan Ali Dinar. It is all still on display together with things brought back by travellers up the Nile. Not that it all follows the logic entirely. Much of my visit was spent discussing whether the stuff animal on display was a mongoose or a “gigantic weasel” (‘ursa wahsheyya). I asked myself, what is a mongoose but a giant weasel? A question we ought to leave to the taxonomists, no doubt.

ethnographiccairo ethnographiccairo2

How to get there: This is a little more complicated but still not too hard. The museum lies inside the parliament complex up Qasr al-Aini from Tahrir Square and just beyond the AUC. You will therefore need to bring your passport in order to get inside. At the gate ask for the museum al-mathaf  (add al-Geographi, if you feel, I think that is what it is known by) There is a small fee (but I can’t remember what it is. I guess around 20LE).

See also:

Donald Malcom Reid’s article on the Society, for those with access to Jstor

3. The Geological Museum

Geological Museumgeo museum sign

We are starting to get into less obviously exciting territory here but Cairo’s Geological Museum is still a lot of fun. It in no longer in its original site but it till appears to have its original cases, which are stuffed full of rocks of more different kinds that I was aware existed. They also have some slightly terrifying prehistoric fossils, a bit of moon-rock given by the Americans, a conch with King Fuad’s head carved into it and an early edition of James Bruce’s “Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile”

It can at times feel like you are visiting an aeroplane hanger full of rocks but you won’t regret the trip. Who knows, perhaps an aeroplane hanger full of rocks sounds like a fun day out. It also has model dinosaurs in the garden and bizarre taxidermy experiments gone wrong.

geologicalfouadmineralsevil headgeological museum

How to get there: I am not 100% sure that the map above is correct but if it is wrong it is certainly close.As you are driving up the corniche towards Maadi you can see the place quite easily if you keep a look out. At one point you get to a roundabout, crossroads with a big blue petrol station on the south side. The Museum is just beyond that on the corniche with a big sign outside advertising its presence. Go down some stairs towards the museum, which is below the ground level of the road by the river.

See also:

4. The National Theatre Centre’s Museum

National Theatre Centre

We are now getting into territory which requires a bit of effort to access. If you thought museum visiting was supposed to be easy, you picked the wrong blog to read. People at the National Theatre Centre have complained to me that not enough people come to the museum but once you have read the instructions for this place, you will see why. I can assure you, though, that it is not the quality of the museum that is keeping the punters out.

The walls of the first large hall are lined with the photos of the stars of Egyptian theatre from the late 19th century. At one end of this main room are two large dioramas. The first is of the Opera House, in its European-style grandeur, the second is of a coffee-house theatre performance. In the middle is a large table which is perhaps more suited to a conference centre than a museum.

Then you have a choice of two side rooms. In one of them they display Sayyid Darwish’s Oud and Tarboosh (if memory serves) along with trinkets belonging to other theatre stars. If you chose the other room you would find theatre programmes from the early 20th century as well as theatre posters from around the same time.  Two that have ignited my curiosity are written in Hebrew script and I have been wanting to get photos of them so I can show them to someone who speaks the language.

It may not come as a surprise, given my other dire warnings, to learn that they do not allow photographs inside so I cannot give you any pictures. Sorry.

How to get there:

The museum is inside the National Theatre Centre’s villa on Hassan Sabry Street in Zamalek. Actually getting in to the place is a little difficult. This is another one where you will need to bring your passport to get past the guards, who are often more diligent in their duties than the Capitoline geese. Once through this challenge the museum is on in the villa, up the entrace stairs and straight ahead when you go in. It will probably not be open so you will have to ask someone for the key. If you are lucky they will be there to let you in but you might have to come back another day. Persevere.

5. Qasr al-Aini Hospital Museum

qasr al-aini

A museum focused on the history of the study of medicine in Egypt. It is small and disappointingly low on medical monstraria but has a few really excellent pieces. The Best things on display by a long way are the 4 2-metre wide oil paintings which depict old egyptian hospitals and the medical experiments of Clot Bey. but various other trinkets (such as Khorshid Pasha’s medical box, and several interesting old documents and photos) make it worth a short visit. It also gives you an excuse to go inside the old Qasr al-Aini hospital, without having to injure a friend or relative, which is pleasant to stroll around.

clot bey dissection detailclot bey pus

ezbekiyya abu zaabal

How to get there:

This is quite a hard one and it took me about an hour walking around to actually get there. But this is mostly because no-one seemed to know about its existence. What you need to do is go inside the old Qasr al-Aini hospital (across the river from the big red one, which people call the faransawi). The guard at the gate told me that he thought the museum was only open in the morning but I should go and give it a try. Once in the main gate go a little forward and then head to the left. The museum is inside the large Conference Centre (Markaz al-Mu’tamarat), on the first floor directly on the left when you go in. It is free and was welcomingly supervised by two women and a young child when I went.

6. Cairo University Museum

cairo university

This is a one room (albeit a large room) museum inside the library of Cairo University. It is, again, tough to access but. again, worth it if you can. It seems to have two main briefs. The first, which perhaps proves too ambitious for the small space, is the entire history of Egypt. The second is the history of Cairo university.

They have made a valiant effort to incorporate as much of the history of Egypt as possible, with Pharaonic animal mummies, Greek coins and papyri, Islamic manuscripts and even two signatures in the hand of Napoleon Bonaparte from the French invasion of 1798. They also said to me that the have a copy of the first representation of the death of General Cleber ever made.

Their section on the history of Cairo University is perhaps more one for those with those specific interests but it is, none-the-less full of curiosities. Including the first register of students at Cairo University and pictures of the first students sent on educational missions to Europe, including one Hussein Ramzi, who studied anthropology in the University of Torino.

bonaparte  chairclebereducational mission

How to get there:

I went to this one with someone I knew at Cairo University though it would be, no doubt, possible to do so without but you need to convince the person with the key to let you in. First you need to get inside the campus (but that shouldn’t be too hard if you want to say you want to visit the museum). Then you must go to the library (the huge building designed in the shape of a book, if you squint a little). I think that it is the things circled on the map but I am not sure. Whichever way, you can see it from the Cairo University metro station. I attach a picture below. If you are lucky the person with the key to the museum will be there and willing to let you in. Again, persevere.

cairo university library

7. The Abdeen Palace Museums

abdeen map

There is one thing of which you can be certain when it comes to Egyptian Museums, if there is a “royal collection” of anything, there will be more of it than you ever thought existed. The royal family (I like to think particularly Farouq) were avid collectors of just about anything. The Abdeen Palace Museum contains not just one but several different royal collections. Be prepared for sensory overload.

First, after passing a charming little shrine to Sidi Badran, which you can pop into, this is the royal arms collection. Every time you turn the corner and think you have finished there is another huge hall to go through. When you breathe a sigh of relief, having finished the swords, you find case after case of rifles. After the rifles, pistols. Then after the pistols, medals and badges. Then historical documents. By the time you get to the royal silverware collection you probably won’t have the energy to be infused by King Farouq’s punchbowl.

Still there is a lot of fun stuff in here, a sword belonging to Sultan Ali Dinar, a dagger belonging to Rommel, a pistol belonging to Queen Farida, king Farouq’s Shisha. My particular favourite is a bronze equestrian statue of Mohammed Ali, decorated on the sides with the achievements of his reign. It also includes a relief of the conquest of Sudan, clearly influenced by colonial iconography, showing the grateful Sudanese paying tribute to Mohammed Ali’s men.

As if this wasn’t all enough we also have a selection of the gifts given to the presidents of Egypt, with a room that must have been done very recently showing gifts to the new president Sisi. It includes a particularly striking oil painting of Sisi, done by a Russian artists and given to the President by Mahmoud Abbas. The Saudis also gave two separate models of their infamous new clock in Mecca.

The final attraction of this museum is that it is in the grounds of Abdeen palace, which are still impeccably maintained. Your official route is pretty circumscribed but one imagines that it might be possible to take a promenade if you really wanted (but don’t say I told you, you could). The museum cafe, in so far as it exists, is a collection of comfy chairs under umbrellas placed next to the lawn and that ought to be enough for anyone.

room mohammed ali mohammed ali london conquest of sudan

saudi clock farouq's shisha palace grounds

How to get there:

Abdeen Palace is pretty easy to find. It’s huge and very near downtown. However, the museum is a little more tricky. You need to go in the entrance round the back (something they called the Paris Gate, you’ll see why when you get there). Also you need to get a ticket before you go in. The ticket office is across the road from the Paris Gate. It is not directly opposite but about 30 metres in the direction of Sheikh Rihan Street. The full price foreigner ticket is 100EGP, which seems pretty steep. However, the student price is only 25EGP, which seems pretty reasonable. Or the Egyptian price is 20EGP, if you can get that.

8. The ones that got away

For me, still the most galling thing to deal with is that I never went to the Railway Museum before it closed. Perhaps they will re-open it again soon but it is current going through extensive refurbishments that will likely change it forever. Still, I will always have this old guide to the museum. IT apparently contained, amongst other things, Said Pasha’s old train engine, designed by Stephenson and several scale-models of Egyptian railway stations.

railway cover edfu station Stephenson engine

Another legendary museum currently in restoration, for an indefinite period, is the Postal Museum, which contains a comprehensive history of delivering messages from the Pharaonic period until today, including some pretty natty postal uniforms by all accounts.

Also, looking through an old copy of al-Hilal from the 1940s I came across a mention of the “Museum of Civilisation”, which charted civilisation from the earliest man. Here is a picture of a man shaking hands with a caveman.

museum of civilization


1. Ethnographic Museum

ethnographic museum

Another exciting Ethnographic museum. This time in Khartoum, in an nice old building with a green little garden attached. It was set up, seemingly, to showcase the ethnic diversity of Sudan and has material from various different tribes and cultures from across the historic boundaries of the Sudan (before the independence of the south). Includes material from Darfur, The Blue Nile, Nubia, Omdurman, South Sudan etc. etc. Also exciting are the life-sized models of nomadic life, which greet you from around the corners.

zande shield coffee jug                 khartoum ethnographicsudan tribes

kassala nomad

How to get there: Very easy, just walk in the entrance and they let you in! a marvel. (See map above)

2. The Khalifa’s House

khalifas house map

One of my favourite museums full stop. Perhaps not that off-the-beaten-track but it usually fulfills the requirement of being almost empty besides yourself and staff. It is also one of the most perfect places to spend a hot afternoon, sitting in the shade, with a view of the Mahdi’s tomb. It was all, apparently designed by an Italian called Pedro and, besides being a nice house to pass your time, you walk in weighty knowledge that you share space, if not time, with the Mahdi’s Khalifa. Also, it is full of exciting trinkets, including a printing-press, relics of the Khalifa’s army and a truly enormous angareeb (rope bed). I am happy to break my no-house-museums rule for this one because it has so much material not connected to the house itself that it is as much a museum in a house as a house-museum.

khalifa's house italian khalifa's quran

bayt al-khalifa angareeb

How to get there: It is in the Square just beside’s the entrance to the Mahdi’s tomb. It can and should be combined with a visit there.

3. Republican Palace Museum

Republican Palace Museum Map

This building housed in the old Anglican cathedral designed by Robert Weir-Schultz it a fine example of a post-colonial national museum. The modern history of the country and, in particular, its struggle to liberate itself from colonial rule sits alongside the old colonial paraphernalia of the Anglican Cathedral. A Bust of Kitchener Pasha, along with paintings of Wingate and the Egyptian Royalty stand in dialogue with the catalogue of their atrocities, then gifts of other countries to the new nation state and also the table on which Bashir and John Garang signed the interim constitution. People lacking in imagination (and I pray forgiveness that I was once such a person) might put this down to lack of design but it now seems clear to me that it represents the palimpsestic nature of the problematic post colonial era. It also gives some evidence of how vulgar the gifts that the gulf states give to other nations (below Emir of Qatar’s gift)

In the garden is the collection of imperial Rolls Royce’s and in the background to this whole scene is the newly-Chinese-built Republican Palace which The People’s Republic has given as a gift to Sudan. With any luck, this means that the old Republican palace will soon be opened as a museum one can tour around. Here’s hoping.

republican palace Qatar gift CPA table lee stack kitchener

How to get there: Again an easy one to navigate, it’s by the Nile overshadowed by a huge newly built palace. You can’t miss it. But watch out for the slightly odd opening times.

See also:

4. Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum Map

This is the only Museum on the list which I have not yet visited. However, I am putting it in with the others as a spur to make myself go when I am next in Khartoum (and I expect to be held to this promise). It is along the same museum axis as the Ethnographic and Republican Palace Museum and is right next to the University. In it there are apparently all kinds of stuffed animals and birds. One for the taxidermy fans, you may say, but nowadays aren’t we all taxidermy fans.

5. Ones that got away

In this 1949 list of Museums in Sudan it lists a Geological Museum and as, somewhat intimidatingly named “Graphic Museum” of medical history. I am not sure which use of the word graphic they are employing but I hope, for our sake, that it just involves nice silk-screen prints &c.

museums in Khartoum

Najib al-Rihani Memoirs (excerpt)

6 Jun



This is a short section from Najib al-Rihani’s Memoirs. He was one of the most popular farce/ vaudeville acts in Cairo in the early 20th century, most famous for creating that character Kishkish Bey, a man from the countryside who comes to Cairo and is confronted with all the decadence of the city. Apparently that character came to him in a dream.

This section comes from a time just before he began performing Kishkish Bey. He is broke and needs to make some money so gets into a rather odd line of work.

Other than the obvious points of interest in this section it is worth noting that Stephan and Najib get into shadow theatre. This is said to be the oldest form of Arabic Drama going back, in Egypt, to at least the 13th century (see here) and it seems to be happening here too. To what extent it can be said to be a continuous tradition is hard to know but it is none the less interesting.

In terms of his Arabic. Rihani writes in very colloquial style, even when he is writing in Standard Arabic. His text, like his plays, are full of references, word play, and odd phrases (the “father’s day being like a cabbage” is probably the oddest). Beyond that he uses some quite old fashioned words. I have done my best but, as always, it is not perfect:


The Split


In May 1916, I still remember the date exactly, I left the “Arabic Comedy” troupe, without thinking how I would make a living.

I spend about a month and a half cursing my foolish brain and thinking of things to do; wide-ranging projects, some were 24 carat successes but, brother, what a shame there was certainly no money in them!

At exactly one o’clock on the 1st of June I was sitting in the Buffet at the Brintania Theatre, skint as always. Suddenly, I saw a man coming up to me with a fancy jacket, a cane with a golden handle, and a ring that shone in everyone’s eyes. Then, when he had sat down next to me, he produced a fine silver cigarette case and, with an aristocratic flourish, presented me with a cigarette!

Do you know, dear reader, who this amazing dandy who I described was? It was none other than Stephane Rosti, my companion in hardship and distress. Stephan who, like me, used to smoke Hamali brand cigarettes or even Kawz![1]

“Who died and left you this, son? Where’s all this fancy get up from? Did you break into the national bank vault? Or did you killa banker and empty his pockets?”

Stephan coldly shook his head and answered “None of that. All you need to know is that God bestowed it upon me. Goodbye.”

Shadow Theatre

After a number of discussions to try to find out the secret of this sudden wealth, Stephan mentioned to me that there was a cabaret behind the Brintania theatre called “Epie de Rose” [Or I think it is likely, Epine de Rose – Rose’s thorn –  mis-transliterated] and that he had found a job there that paid 60 piasters per night.

“You lucky blighter Stephan Rosti![2] 60 piasters a night, which means God knows how much a month, if it keeps up like that.”

So Stephan went on to explain to me the nature of the work.

He would appear behind a white curtain during a black-out in the room. From his hiding-place he would make some comical movements… and some non-comic ones. In Arabic it is called “Shadow Theatre”.

I said to him: “I am aware that the place doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a respectable night-spot.”

“I don’t care about that or the rubbish you are talking. I work ‘behind the curtain’. No-one sees me and no-one knows I am there.

“I only spend quarter of an hour working every night I get my 60 piasters and no-one sees, no-one knows.”

I thought for a second and then, as happened to Moses, I “put my hand in my pocket and it came out white, unblemished” that is without a mark or trace. Bankruptcy was taking root, of the sort that could make a man sell his clothes.[3]

I stretched out my hand to Stephane and said “You don’t have work for someone like me do you? Any role: servant, master, Pasha, Bey, Effendi, some penniless man, anything, I’ll do it! I’m not greedy either, I’ll do it for half a riyal [10 piasters] a night, that’s great, even 8 piasters … fine!”

Stephan bid me farewell and left. In the evening I met him in front of the door of the “Epi[n]e de Rose” and he lead me to the owner of the nightclub, and Italian called Khawaga Rosetti.

The sketch that they had agreed upon for that night had a Berber servant in it. So Stephan presented me to Rosetti, saying that I was a big, famous actor and that I was… and Stephan did not get the chance to finish his string of compliments and descriptions because the man cut him off saying, in French, “No, I don’t want a big, famous actor. I want a normal actor because the role is not an important one.”

At this point I entered the discussion and said to the Khawaga: “Sir, I am just a simple actor. I am not big or famous.”

He said, “I’m not going to pay more than 40 piasters.”

So my face lit up and I looked at Stephan with a questioning look because I could hardly believe I would get a salary like that.


I was worried for a while, afraid that what he had said was the monthly salary not the daily! But when the traces of shock had left me, Stephan congratulated me and led me to the theatre boss, an assistant of Mr. Rosetti. She was a young woman of great beauty. Everyone called her “Lilian al-Gamila [the Beautiful]”. Here Lilian explained to me the subject of the shadow play that we would be putting on that night. Apparently the nightclub’s administration had announced a big surprise all across Cairo: a French woman of great beauty and allure would appear for the audience behind a thin curtain for three nights in a row. Then on the forth night she would appear in the flesh, in front of the curtain and not behind it. The advertisements succeeded in bringing in a big audience on all four nights. When it came for the time for the surprise, the audience discovered that the alluring French woman was none other than Stephan, with his eyes, his nose, and his moustache.



[1] I don’t know anything about this brands but I assume they are cheap and rubbish. The equivalent of Cleopatras

[2] I am slightly guessing the meaning of this phrase which is literally in Arabic nehar abuk zayy al-kurumb: Your father’s day is like a cabbage

[3] The quote is from Quran 27:12 when God tells Moses to put his hand in his pocket and it will come out white as one of the signs to the Pharaoh of his divine power. Here it seems to be being used to show that he has nothing in his pockets. i.e. no money