I have a friend who likes to get off the beaten path. Like waaaaayyyyy off the path. He does things you didn’t think were possible in places you didn’t know existed. His feats are extensive and either categorized as “wildly adventurous” in nature or “borderline reckless.” I get the feeling he likes to get into the underbelly of a city/country in an attempt to better understand why things are the way they are and what makes people tick. I’m always slightly amused when he recounts his stories, and shake my head in amazement in how he manages to find some pretty off the wall things to visit/do. While he’s unafraid to branch out beyond the typical pyramids/mosque/market visit on his own, he gets a kick out of bringing people along for the ride in order to share in his discovery, curiosity, wonder, enjoyment, shock, insert other adjective here.
Today, it seems, I was that lucky person.
Have you ever been to Cairo’s Agricultrual Museum? Has it been on your list of “must sees” when you visit Egypt? Nah, didn’t think so. My friend has though, several times in fact and it left such a lasting impression that he has been nagging me for ages to go. I didn’t manage to make it on my own, but thanks to my friend’s return to Cairo for a short sojourn I finally got to experience this fascinating world and was coerced into getting off the damn island of Zamalek for my first visit.
The institution, initially meant to be Egypt’s Museum of Natural History, was established in 1930 in Princess Fatma’s palace located between Dokki and Agouza (Wizarat al-Ziraa street). The museum is actually several buildings spread out over an acre of land, each one focusing on different aspects of life in Egypt along with a section on natural history from around the world. The Scientific Collections Museum, for example, is home to a variety of stuffed animals and birds, interestingly preserved fossils and various types of tapeworms and samples of foot and mouth disease. Also on the museum grounds is a cinema (that is never really open, you have to come early and ask for the guy who has the key), cotton repository, botanical garden, some biological labs and several halls dedicated to foodstuffs like wheat, corn, barley, spices, herbs and tinned/canned goods that look like they should have been cleaned and/or removed from their cases a while ago.
No judgement. Just saying.
While the buildings are amazing to behold architecturally (modernist influences are seen in the glorious high ceilings, breezy factory spaces, minimalistic columns and details) the museum has been in disrepair since the late 1960’s…and it shows. Thick layers of dust cover glass cases, while some wings are blocked off for no apparent reason. Certain “artifacts” look like they could be used as biological warfare should they ever come out of quarantine (e.g. samples of fruits like tomatoes and apples are kept in vials that look like they’ve been oozing and frothing over for some time) and many walls are covered with grime, dirt and, what we think was bat excrement.
It’s a little shop of horrors in there.
The expansive collection of animals is a mix between impressive and creepy. From desert foxes to zebras to giraffes to pigeons, moose, elk, springbok, crocs, cat fish and even…a baby hippo (*hangs head*), the majority of these creatures are stuffed and look like they’ve seen better days. There are also butterflies, rodents and all manner of insects you could possibly imagine.
Following our tour of the animal segment of the museum, we moved onto the neighbouring building that is home to plants, grains and food. On the ground floor there’s a whole wing filled with displays of different types of wheat and corn from around the world along with the tools used to cultivate and harvest these foods and how the final product is used in various countries. The upper floor is home to the food and plant section, which houses flowers/plants found in Egypt, as well as the fruits and vegetables that grow (or grew…back when the museum was in its prime) each season.
During our visit we were fortunate enough to hold court with the Supervisor General of the museum for a few minutes. Mr. El-Akkad is a sprightly and whip-smart man in his later years who warmly welcomed us and spoke brightly about the museum in its heyday along with the current challenges he and his colleagues face in keeping the doors of the museum open and rehabilitating several of the wings. He also divulged his “must see” exhibits, which include the cotton museum and the old-school cinema that King Farouk supposedly frequented.
Unfortunately, as our luck would have it, the guy with the keys to the cinema wasn’t around so we had to put that off for another day. Instead we spent our last half hour roaming through modestly lit rooms and ghostly halls that seemed frozen in time. Hollow spaces that served as a reminder of an era far gone that held a whole lot of intrigue and a great deal of promise.
If only the walls could talk.
There was something quite timeless and melancholic about the place. It bordered on being charming. It was also bizarre and somewhat disturbing.
It was intriguing.
One of my most riveting Cairo finds yet.
**The museum is open from 10:00 – 14:00 Sunday through Thursday; however, earlier you arrive the better as the countless keymasters (for the cotton museum, fine arts museum and cinema) are likely to be around. There’s supposedly an admission for this place, but we wound up paying 5LE to an elderly staff member who gave us a tour of a “secret room” on the ground floor of the Scientific Museum. Totally worth it.