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


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