A journey from abused child to Egyptian antiquities collector

A journey from abused child to Egyptian antiquities collector
Updated 26 May 2017

A journey from abused child to Egyptian antiquities collector

A journey from abused child to Egyptian antiquities collector

Major Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson has given his name to one of the most enjoyable cultural outings in Cairo, a visit to the Bait Al-Kretliya, which consists of two beautifully restored old Islamic houses joined together by a bridge, popularly known as the Gayer-Anderson Museum.
For the first time a biography, “Gayer-Anderson: The Life and Afterlife of the Irish Pasha” explores the fascinating life of a man who was a colonial government representative and also received the title of Pasha by King Farouk. Known also as John, and P.U.M. (a mysterious acronymic nickname that his identical twin brother Thomas gave him), Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson studied to be a surgeon, but he was also a soldier, an adventurer, an enthusiastic collector of antiquities and a passionate Egyptologist. In this intimate portrait of a multifaceted and enigmatic figure Louise Foxcroft attempts to reveal the person behind the persona.
Gayer-Anderson is mostly remembered for acquiring a most remarkable collection of antiquities, mostly from ancient Egypt. He had always expressed his wish to visit an empty tomb. This rare privilege finally took place in 1923, a year marked by an extraordinary event, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb by Howard Carter. Gayer-Anderson was at the time posted in Egypt as assistant Oriental secretary. He was, therefore, a member of the official party invited at the private opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
When Gayer-Anderson entered the tomb, he immediately noticed the charming models of ships, baby chairs and chariots. The following day, he mentioned in a letter that he believed Tutankhamun was a youth about 17 or 18 years old. An X-ray examination proved that he was right: Tutankhamun was just under the age of 18 when he died. At the end of the visit, Gayer-Anderson decided that he had not seen enough and he made up his mind to return for another visit to the tomb with his mother.
Gayer-Anderson was very close to his mother, Mary. In an unpublished memoir, “Fateful Attractions,” on which this book is based, Gayer-Anderson acknowledges that he inherited from her a profound love of beauty, which he compared to the “bread of life.” His father, Henri Anderson had a violent and cruel nature. He submitted his child to a Spartan upbringing, which was deeply resented by young Pum and his siblings. Placed in a row in front of their father, the children were subjected to painful things. “He would give a sudden shout, quickly raise a threatening hand, tickle our ribs, pinch us or pull our hair… in spite of which none of us must show the slightest emotion of any sort. If we flinched, flushed, giggled, gasped, laughed or even flickered an eyelid we were shouted at and slapped,” writes Gayer-Anderson.
Henri Anderson played these mean and nasty games during their last year in North America. During their harrowing stay, Henri Anderson managed to make some money in real estate and a very young Pum developed his passion for collecting. He found some lead bullets and chipped flint arrowheads.
During his life, Gayer-Anderson had the knack to find exceptional pieces. He has a remarkable flair for discovering precious antiquities. One of his first important finds was an unusual bone, which he discovered during a walk over the Medway after the family had returned to the United Kingdom. He showed it to his form-master who suggested that he send it to the Royal Geological Society. The bone was a humerus, which turned out to be part of an unknown type of pterodactyl, or “flying dragon.” This fossil was the first in a long list of gifts that Gayer-Anderson gave to museums.
Henri Anderson decided that his son should become a doctor like his two uncles. At the age of 17, he started training at Guy’s Hospital in London and qualified five years later as Member of the Royal College of Surgeons and Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians.
During that time, he also found a man’s portrait in oils on a broken panel that he bought for a shilling. With his usual flair, Gayer-Anderson had noticed the signature of Van Dyck at the back. It was later confirmed by experts as authentic. Gayer-Anderson had become more than ever addicted to collecting. “It became both a vice and a mania,” he wrote.
When he finished his medical studies, Gayer-Anderson was appointed assistant house surgeon to William Arbuthnot-Lane. He had been encouraged to aim for a Harley Street career but that was not the life he wished to lead. He was looking for something else, something more adventurous. He was just 23 years old, young and restless, so he decided to follow his twin brother and join the Royal Army Medical Corps. In 1907, he was posted to Egypt with the rank of major.
“Pum’s lifelong affair with Egypt, its culture, and its people had begun” writes Foxcroft.
On a trip to Khartoum where he was replacing a local surgeon who had been taken ill, Gayer-Anderson bought a beautiful bronze Horus from a wealthy dealer. In time, he realized that he should be more careful and buy only from “less known and less-knowing” dealers, men who knew little and lacked the expertise so that one could buy rare antiquities for very little money.
After two years, Gayer-Anderson returned home for a holiday. As he was sailing back to England, he realized how much he had changed. He was no longer interested in medicine, and he desperately wanted to return to Egypt. At the end of 1909, he was posted back to Egypt as inspector of recruiting for the Sa’id, the seven provinces of Upper Egypt.
As he traveled along the Nile several times a year, he got to know local traders who would run after him as soon as they spotted his boat. Gayer-Anderson was doing an astonishing amount of dealing and collecting. In fact, collecting became his main occupation to the detriment of his service ambitions. Egypt was a cradle of civilization and Cairo was a center for Middle Eastern and Far Eastern art including India, China and Persia. Gayer-Anderson was particularly fond of Fayoum. Fayoum is the largest oasis in Egypt and the closest to the Nile and Cairo. It has a host of archaeological sites from the Middle Kingdom when Fayoum was a center of political power. Gayer-Anderson wrote in his memoires that Fayoum was the “most exciting and fascinating place I know from a historical and antique-collecting point of view. Nowhere in the world can one see history and pre-history more abundantly and consecutively written.”
He could find in Fayoum a pre-dynastic vessel, an early dynasty stone-relief, Ptolemaic statues, Greek terracotta figurines or Roman glass bottles, the choice of objects was endless and the price was very low.
Gayer-Anderson was becoming an expert in ancient Egyptian and Saracen antiquities. “He bought from the shopkeepers or from the original finders, the sebakheen, who had an ancient and legal right dating from the days of the Turkish suzerainty to sift the sebakb, the dust and debris from a site. And from these families he got the rarest pieces for a fraction of their final value. In this way, he amassed large collections of all sorts. He sold some of them, making himself good money but he also bought for many of the larger museums in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and America,” writes Foxcroft.
Gayer-Anderson now in his early 30s had amassed a certain wealth and yearned to live the life that really pleased him. However, he would still have to wait a few more years. He had enjoyed “supreme happiness” during the first decade of the 20th century unaware that the world was “on the brink of a volcano.” During World War I, he was posted in Egypt and in Gallipoli on the Turkish coast. He ended his official career in Egypt with a post of senior inspector in the Ministry of Interior and was finally appointed Oriental secretary to the high commissioner where he remained for about a year. He retired from the Egyptian government in 1923. He was only 42 and he wanted to spend the rest of his life with his antiques and writing poems and articles for magazines.
In the 1930s, he was offered a job as director of the Anglo-American Nile Tourist Company, which gave him the possibility to continue searching for antiques. During that period he purchased one of his most precious pieces known as the Gayer-Anderson Cat, the first life-size bronze cat he had ever seen. He would eventually bequeath it to the British Museum. His last philanthropic action was the internal renovation of the Bait Al-Kretliya.
He was allowed to live in this old Islamic house during his lifetime in order to restore it. When he died, it was returned to the government as the “Gayer-Anderson Pasha Museum of Oriental Arts and Crafts.” The Bait Al-Kretliya has been magnificently restored. The Damascus room is stunning with its ceilings and walls covered in inlaid and gilded wood. A scene from a James Bond movie, “The Spy Who Loved Me,” was filmed in Bait Al-Kretliya. Gayer-Anderson also entertained many visitors including the King of Siam, Howard Carter and Freya Stark.
The eight years Gayer-Anderson spent at Bait Al-Kretliya were the happiest of his life. He would certainly be proud to see how his beloved home is one of the most visited museums in Cairo.
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What We Are Reading Today: How Iceland Changed the World by Egill Bjarnason

What We Are Reading Today: How Iceland Changed the World by Egill Bjarnason
Updated 15 May 2021

What We Are Reading Today: How Iceland Changed the World by Egill Bjarnason

What We Are Reading Today: How Iceland Changed the World by Egill Bjarnason

How Iceland Changed the World takes readers on a tour of history, showing them how Iceland played a pivotal role in events as diverse as the French Revolution and the Moon Landing. 

It is an in-depth, informative, and fascinating chronicle of Iceland’s mostly unknown contributions to the world.

“Again and again, one humble nation has found itself at the frontline of historic events, shaping the world as we know it. How Iceland Changed the World paints a lively picture of just how it all happened,” said a review on goodreads.com. 

Author Egill Bjarnason is an Icelandic journalist, based in Reykjavík.

As a Fulbright Foreign Student grantee, he earned a master’s degree in social documentation at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he also worked as a teaching assistant in photography and statistics for two years.

Bjarnason “places Iceland at the center of everything, and his narrative not only entertains but enlightens, uncovering unexpected connections,” said Andri Magnason, author of On Time and Water, in a recent review.


What We Are Reading Today: Extra Life by Steven Johnson

What We Are Reading Today: Extra Life by Steven Johnson
Updated 14 May 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Extra Life by Steven Johnson

What We Are Reading Today: Extra Life by Steven Johnson

In Extra Life, Steven Johnson, a writer of popular books on science and technology, tells the stories behind what he calls, in an understatement, “one of the greatest achievements in the history of our species.” 

As in his previous books Where Good Ideas Come From and How We Got to Now, Johnson argues convincingly that critical changes occur not from the endeavors of lone geniuses but from a network of researchers, activists, reformers, publicists, producers, and marketers.

Human interest aside, Extra Life is an important book, said a review in The New York Times. 

Johnson “shakes us out of our damnable ingratitude and explains features of modernity that are reviled by sectors of the right and left: Government regulation, processed food, high-tech farming, big data and bureaucracies like the US Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. He is open about their shortcomings and dangers. But much depends on whether we see them as evils that must be abolished or as lifesavers with flaws that must be mitigated.”


What We Are Reading Today: Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne

What We Are Reading Today: Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne
Updated 13 May 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne

What We Are Reading Today: Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne

S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon spans two astonishing stories. 

The first traces the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history. 

The second entails one of the most remarkable narratives ever to come out of the Old West: The epic saga of the pioneer woman Cynthia Ann Parker and her mixed-blood son Quanah, who became the last and greatest chief of the Comanches.

Although readers may be more familiar with the tribal names Apache and Sioux, it was in fact the legendary fighting ability of the Comanches that determined just how and when the American West opened up.

The book delivers a sweeping narrative that encompasses Spanish colonialism, the Civil War, the destruction of the buffalo herds, and the arrival of the railroads — a historical feast for anyone interested in how the US came into being.

S. C. Gwynne’s account of these events is meticulously researched, intellectually provocative, and, above all, thrillingly told.


What We Are Reading Today: Blood, Sweat and Chalk by Tim Layden

What We Are Reading Today: Blood, Sweat and Chalk by Tim Layden
Updated 12 May 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Blood, Sweat and Chalk by Tim Layden

What We Are Reading Today: Blood, Sweat and Chalk by Tim Layden

In Blood, Sweat and Chalk, Tim Layden takes readers into the meeting rooms where football’s most significant ideas were hatched. He goes to the coaches and to the players who inspired them, and lets them tell their stories. 

The modern game of football is filled with plays and formations with names like the Counter Trey, the Wildcat, the Zone Blitz and the Cover Two. 

They have become part of the sport’s vernacular, and yet for many fans they remain just names, often confusing ones. To rectify that, Layden has drilled deep into the core of the game to reveal not only how these chalkboard X’s and O’s really work on the field, but also where they came from and who dreamed them up. 

These playbook schemes, many of them illuminated by diagrams, bear the insignia of some of the game’s great innovators, men like Vince Lombardi, Don Coryell, Tom Osborne, Bill Walsh, Tony Dungy and Buddy Ryan. 

In this book, Layden provides a fascinating guide to the game, helping fans to better see the subtleties of America’s favorite sport.


Renowned US authors Tayari Jones, Brent Weeks join Abu Dhabi Book Fair lineup

US author Tayari Jones is set to take part in the event. (File/ AFP)
US author Tayari Jones is set to take part in the event. (File/ AFP)
Updated 11 May 2021

Renowned US authors Tayari Jones, Brent Weeks join Abu Dhabi Book Fair lineup

US author Tayari Jones is set to take part in the event. (File/ AFP)

DUBAI: Renowned US fantasy author Brent Weeks, US author Tayari Jones, Emirati writer Eman Alyousuf and Kuwaiti writer Taleb Alrefai are all set to participate at the upcoming Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

Organised by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre at the Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi, the 30th edition of ADIBF will see the participation of more than 800 exhibitors from 46 countries around the world, and will comprise more than 104 virtual and physical sessions.

Dr. Ali bin Tamim, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, said: “Despite the challenges we have faced in the wake of the pandemic, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is committed to ramping up its efforts to support the publishing industry and to promote cross-cultural dialogue. We are proud to host this event which reinforces our position as one of the most prominent intellectual and literary forums in region, and gives us the opportunity to highlight Arab literary output while simultaneously celebrating the pioneers of arts and culture from across the world.”

As part of its cultural programme, the fair will feature the artistic and literary works of authors and artists from multiple fields. Among those will be American author Tayari Jones, considered one of the most important writers of her generation, who will hold a session to discuss her latest work. In another session, the fantasy great Weeks will talk about the importance of science fiction novels in transporting readers away from the monotony of their daily lives. Providing a regional perspective, Kuwait’s Alrefai will participate in a dialogue with Emirati writer Alyousuf, to discuss how the pandemic has encouraged reading.

British television presenter and historian Bettany Hughes will join a conversation about the impact of plagues and pandemics on civilisations, while Emirati writer Sultan Al-Amimi will speak about with the importance of short stories and their role in enhancing literary diversity. .