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 In an unpublished memoir, “Fateful Attractions,” on which this book is based, Gayer-Anderson acknowledges that he inherited from her a profound love of beauty, which he compared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: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

What We Are Reading Today: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Updated 08 March 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

What We Are Reading Today: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

In his latest novel, “Klara and the Sun,” Kazuo Ishiguro turns his focus to artificial intelligence. 

In his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Ishiguro insists he is an optimist about technology. “I’m not one of these people who thinks it’s going to come and destroy us,” he said in a recent interview in December about his latest work, his lockdown reading list, and his fears about the future.

As with many of his previous works, the book doesn’t fit neatly into one genre but has elements of science fiction and also works as a coming-of-age tale. 

The story follows Klara, an intelligent robot known as an “artificial friend,” who joins a human family in a dystopian America in a deeply disturbing novel about human cloning.  

What he fears, Ishiguro explained, is the devastating injustice that may result if society isn’t careful with scientific progress as he rattled off a list of promising breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and genetics. 

“We’ve all got to start to think and worry about these questions,” he said, “because at the moment, they’re in the hands of very, very few people.”


What We Are Reading Today: Trees of Life

What We Are Reading Today: Trees of Life
Updated 07 March 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Trees of Life

What We Are Reading Today: Trees of Life

Author: Max Adams

Our planet is home to some 3 trillion trees — roughly four hundred for every person on Earth. In Trees of Life, Max Adams selects, from 60,000 extant species, 80 remarkable trees through which to celebrate the richness of humanity’s relationship with trees, woods, and forests.
In a sequence of informative and beautifully illustrated portraits, divided between six thematic sections, Adams investigates the trees that human cultures have found most useful across the world and ages.
In a section titled Supertrees, Adams considers trees that have played a pivotal role in maintaining natural and social communities, while a final section, Trees for the Planet, looks at a group of trees so valuable to humanity that they must be protected at all costs from loss.
From the apple to the oak, the logwood to the breadfruit, and the paper mulberry to the Dahurian larch, these are trees that offer not merely shelter, timber, and fuel but also drugs, foods, and fibers. Trees of Life presents a plethora of fascinating stories about them, says a review on the Princeton University Press website.


What We Are Reading Today: Fears of a Setting Sun

What We Are Reading Today: Fears of a Setting Sun
Updated 06 March 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Fears of a Setting Sun

What We Are Reading Today: Fears of a Setting Sun

Author: Dennis C. Rasmussen

Americans seldom deify their Founding Fathers any longer, but they do still tend to venerate the Constitution and the republican government that the founders created. Strikingly, the founders themselves were far less confident in what they had wrought, particularly by the end of their lives.
In fact, most of them — including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson — came to deem America’s constitutional experiment an utter failure that was unlikely to last beyond their own generation. Fears of a Setting Sun is the first book to tell the fascinating and too-little-known story of the founders’ disillusionment, says a review on the Princeton University Press website.
As much as Americans today may worry about their country’s future, Rasmussen reveals, the founders faced even graver problems and harbored even deeper misgivings.
A vividly written account of a chapter of American history that has received too little attention, Fears of a Setting Sun will change the way that you look at the American founding, the Constitution, and indeed the United States itself.


What We Are Reading Today: The Invisible Gorilla

What We Are Reading Today: The Invisible Gorilla
Updated 04 March 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Invisible Gorilla

What We Are Reading Today: The Invisible Gorilla

AUTHORS: Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, creators of one of psychology’s most famous experiments, use remarkable stories and counterintuitive scientific findings to demonstrate an important truth: Our minds don’t work the way we think they do. We think we see ourselves and the world as they really are, but we’re actually missing a whole lot.

Again and again, we think we experience and understand the world as it is, but our thoughts are beset by everyday illusions. We write traffic laws and build criminal cases on the assumption that people will notice when something unusual happens right in front of them. We’re sure we know where we were on 9/11, falsely believing that vivid memories are seared into our minds with perfect fidelity. We spend billions on devices to train our brains because we’re continually tempted by the lure of quick fixes and effortless self-improvement.

 The Invisible Gorilla reveals the myriad ways that our intuitions can deceive us. Chabris and Simons explain why we succumb to these everyday illusions and what we can do to inoculate ourselves against their effects.


Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa’s ‘Against the Loveless World’ nominated for US literary award 

Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa’s ‘Against the Loveless World’ nominated for US literary award 
Updated 03 March 2021

Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa’s ‘Against the Loveless World’ nominated for US literary award 

Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa’s ‘Against the Loveless World’ nominated for US literary award 

DUBAI: US-Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa’s book “Against the Loveless World” is among the finalists for the 2020 Athenaeum of Philadelphia Literary Award, organizers announced this week. 

Susan Abulhawa is a US-Palestinian writer. (Supplied)

The political activist’s book begins in the Hawalli neighborhood of Kuwait. It tells the story of a woman who has as many names as she has homes, moving from place to place as a child of exiles and becoming one herself during the Gulf War.

With her mother, brother, and grandmother Sitti Wasfiyeh, Nahr navigates a life through Kuwait, Jordan, Palestine, a home she knows so little of, and then an Israeli prison.

With dreams of marriage, of her own children and of freedom, Nahr’s fight to survive a world that is intent on testing her lands her in situations that could break the weak.

In an unthinkably harsh reality, and one that is a continuous experiment in resilience, Abulhawa pushes to the fore themes of identity and adaptability, posing the question: How can an oppressor know roots when they live by unearthing trees?

Read Arab News’ full review of “Against the Loveless World” here.

Abulhawa is competing against author Michele Harper for her book “The Beauty in Breaking” and writer Kiley Reid for her novel “Such a Fun Age.” 

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia museum established its literary award in 1950.

The last two winners for the award in 2019 were British author Edward Posnett and Canadian- American writer Witold Rybczynski for their books “Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects” and “Charleston Fancy: Little Houses and Big Dreams in the Holy City” respectively.