Egypt’s Museums: The hidden treasure of the Shura Council

Inside the Shoura Council complex – Egypt’s upper house of Parliament — on Qasr al-Aini Street, is a peculiar museum that is reminiscent of old times. Stepping inside the National Geographic Society Museum feels like entering a time machine.

The National Geographic Society Museum – an umbrella term used to refer to several mini-museums and a library – is a haven for pre-Nasser patriots and ethnography fiends. At the entrance of the two-floor building, Mohamed Abdel Fatah – the janitor, self-proclaimed supervisor and occasional fill-in for tour guides – greets visitors. His enthusiasm gives the impression that he is bursting to tell a story.

“A lot of people used to come here before the revolution,” sighed Abdel Fatah. “Now it’s just random foreigners and graduate geography students.”

The walls of the hallway are lined with paintings of pashas and foreign generals who Abdel Fatah confirms are the founders of the museum. In the glass cases running along the walls, however, are fascinating artifacts and trinkets including ceramic lanterns, geographical manuscripts and boards displaying old tattoo designs which look like pre-modernist pop-art drawings of cartoon camels and pashas.

“Most of these items were donated by people at the request of Khedive Ismail,” said Abdel Fatah.

Khedive Ismail, who ruled Egypt and Sudan during the second half of the 19th century, founded the National Geographic Society Museum in 1875.

“The collection consists mostly of artifacts that date back to the time of Muhammed Ali Pasha who is often referred to as the founder of modern Egypt. Not much has been added to it since the Khedive died in 1895,” said Abdel Fatah.

The Suez Canal room contains paintings, statues and large cartographic models of the canal stretch, from its conception up until 1925. The most peculiar object in the room is a diorama of the ship which Khedive Ismail provided for his guests during the inaugural ceremony of the Suez Canal in 1869. Sitting in a glass display case are miniature dolls of pashas, British generals and their mistresses proudly overlooking the canal.

On the right side of the hall is the African room, whose entrance is flanked by two huge elephant tusks standing vertically by the door. Inside the room are stuffed crocodiles, spears, drums, horns and 'boats', which look more like odd arrangements of bamboo sticks.

Further down the main hall on the right is the Cairo History room with fancy wooden wedding carriages as well as old Kaaba covers, which Egypt used to make and send every year to Hijaz in a magnificent caravan for Hajj. Another interesting object is a pair of large wooden shoes – very similar in shape to double bladed ice skates. When asked what they were used for, Abdel Fatah explained that, “In the old days, the plumbing and sewage systems in Cairo were poor, so people would often have to wear these shoes to go to the bathroom or do their laundry without treading through the mess.”

The museum’s collection is quite fascinating; it shows not only the evolution of technology and culture over the past 200 years, but also evokes the feelings of pride, achievement and aesthetic grandeur common at the time.

Entry to the museum is free. And when I inquired about funding sources, Ragab Hassan, the enthusiastic, on-site librarian replied, “Funding? Ha! There is no funding these days as you can see.” A wealthy donor dedicated an endowment for the museum, but his grandchildren took it back, cutting funding, Hassan explained. “ We’re actually still in lawsuits about it, I believe.”

On the second floor lies a beautiful library room, decorated with intricate Arabic patterns and stained glass and holding 40,000 geographic and ethnographic books, as well as an open lecture theater at its center.

“It’s now only used for very special cultural events,” said Hassan. “But initially it served as the primary meeting hall for members of the National Geographic Society.”

In addition to its beautiful architecture, the National Geographic Society Museum's proximity to Tahrir Square and free entry makes this little-known museum attractive. It seems imperative to create awareness about the place to counter the impression that Egypt is only interesting in terms of its ancient history or its very recent 25 January revolution.

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