The Boulaq Museum


Written by Colin S. McLeod


"Deem not too eagerly to catch the promises;
fear not to undergo the curses.
Ye, even ye, know not this meaning all."
Liber El, III, 16


The artefacts from the cache were shipped north to the Boulaq museum, a building which had been a postal and shipping office, on the eastern bank of the Nile south of the town of Boulaq. Boulaq served as the port for Cairo. It was three miles north of old Cairo (the Roman Babylon), and a mile from the main city of Cairo which was built, originally above the flood plain, to the East. The name of Boulaq is said to have been derived from the French "Beau Lac". It possibly referred to a lake once formed by that branch of the Nile. Alternatively, there was a well known, indeed notorious, lake inland on the flood plain, upon which recreational boating was popular in the flood season, up until the mid- nineteenth century. The three towns were quite distinct at that time but in the rapid expansion of Cairo, first under Isma'il Pasha and then under the British occupation from 1882, the towns eventually merged. The Boulaq building was considered only a temporary home for the rapidly-growing collection. It was too small, was flooded in 1878, and also had fire-prone sheds containing undisplayed objects outside the museum proper. Mariette soldiered on with what he had and the museum became quite famous, often being asked to supply displays for worlds' fairs and exhibitions.

A now little-known feature of his career, though one which contributed to his fame at the time, was that he invented the story upon which Verdi's Aida was based. Aida was commissioned for the 1870 opening of the Suez canal but was not finished in time. Instead, it debuted in the new Opera House in Cairo in 1871 and was a tremendous success, going on to become a staple of opera houses around the world through to the present day. The "Alta cagion v'aduna" piece in it, with its "Ritorna vincitor!" (Return Victorious!) chorus, has been described as one of the finest calls-to-arms ever written - indeed as "war personified".

Mariette died in Cairo in 1881 and in 1889 the museum was transferred to a palace near the town of Gizeh on the western bank of the Nile, opposite old Cairo. The museum was formally opened in the January of 1890. As with many details of the history of the museum, this date is often given incorrectly, even by the Egyptian Museum itself. The building had been one of Isma'il Pasha's palaces and, though also not purpose-built and also considered fire-prone, it was much larger and served as home to the museum until a new purpose-built museum was constructed back on the east bank of the Nile. The new museum building had its foundation stone laid on April 1st, 1897 in a district which was, and is, known as "Kasr el-Nil" (meaning castle, or fort, on the Nile). It was on the periphery of the European district and faced south to the Kasr el-Aly palace across the Kasr el-Nil barracks parade ground. The latter is now Midan el-Tahrir (Liberation Square), the central square of Cairo, and across the midan now stands the Mogamaa, a bureaucratic monolith. The barracks by the Nile has been replaced, in part, by the Hilton Hotel . The transfer of the collection, under director Gaston Maspero, began in December 1901 and was completed in July 1902. The museum was formally opened on November 15th, 1902. There it remains, with its neo-classical facade, and massive but disorderly collection, as a veritable temple of ancient Egyptian religions; though there are now plans for a further museum - to be built in the desert west of Cairo.

It is a curious feature of Crowley's accounts of events that he persisted, throughout his life, in calling the museum in which Rose led him to the stÚlÚ "the Boulak museum"; or even as the "museum at Bulaq" ( in "The Equinox of the Gods"). The new museum was then, as it still is, known as the Egyptian Museum or as the Cairo Museum. However, he wrote of it, what very little he did write of it, as if there was no potential for confusion. The usual view, of the few students who have realised that there was a problem, is that the museum was generally known by that name since the days of the famous museum of Boulaq. This might have been the case: though, in much reading of the contemporary literature, I have not seen one single instance of that term in reference to the new museum. Another suggestion has been that as the new museum was itself in the Boulaq district the title was again appropriate. However it was not in Boulaq. Though it was not far from the location of the original Boulaq museum, there was the clear geographical boundary of the Ismailiyeh Canal (filled in around 1908), albeit only a few hundred yards to the north, separating it from the suburb of Boulaq.

Nevertheless, there is some contemporary evidence for the origin of this anomaly. In the Egyptian Gazette of Thursday, March 17th, 1904, in an article about Mariette on the occasion of the unveiling of a statue of the great man in the grounds of the museum, there is this: "The founding of the old Boulac museum, which was transferred to Ghizeh, and retransferred but a short time ago to Boulac, was due to the marvellous energy and perseverance of F. Auguste Ferdinand Mariette." It being the only English-language daily newspaper in Egypt at that time, it is quite possible that Crowley read that and it is quite possible he continued for the rest of his life with the impression that the museum was in Boulaq. Alternatively, it is possible that he was not even aware that there had been earlier museums or, if he had been, that he was not aware that the old Boulaq museum had been on a different site - and that that was all there was to it. Certainly his account of the museum tallies, by and large, with the actual museum. He wrote that he had dinner with a "Brugsch-Bey" of the museum, to talk about the stÚlÚ, and there was an Emile Brugsch who was actually a conservator at the museum ("Bey" being a title; one lower than that of "Pasha" which he was later awarded). Brugsch had been responsible for the recovery of the famous Deir el Bahari cache, that of the royal mummies. Also Crowley's description of the museum as having two floors fits. However, he was always very vague with the physical description; which is surprising for a writer of his experience writing about something which had been so important to him. Again, this may have been because it never occurred to him that there was any mystery to it and he thought that anyone who was interested could simply investigate it for themselves.

However, there is another possibility. Crowley was not above subtle dissemblement in The Equinox of the Gods - for instance in a passage describing his own morality - and there was, still, in 1904, another "Boulak" museum. The Gizeh museum building was still in the possession of the Antiquities Service and was, indeed, the residence of Maspero and other museum staff. It was in the grounds of a zoological garden (the old palace's garden) which was about halfway between Gizeh and the locality of Bulak el-Dakhrur. Furthermore, to cross the Nile to the Gizeh museum building one would cross by the island of Boulaq. Crowley, had he the need, could have rowed a royal barge around that lot.

The Gizeh museum also had two floors and, when the collection was still located there, the stÚlÚ was, according to the museum catalogue, located on the upper floor. Certainly, the heavy items had been transferred in 1902 (railway spurs having been laid in for the purpose). However, a dissenting author, one Percy F. Martin in "Egypt - Old & New" still refers to "the Gizeh Museum" as if it still existed - in 1923. He wrote of how Egyptology fared during the Great War, and how the English of Egyptians had been polluted by the vernacular of Australian "tommies", so it was definitely a post-war account and not the publishing of an earlier draft. He wrote: "It is always possible to get away from the noise and bustle, the dust and heat of Cairo's crowded thoroughfares and retire to the grateful coolness and comparative solitude of the Gizeh Museum - with few but the watchful, though never intrusive, custodians to interfere; to ruminate undisturbed over the past glories of wonderful, mysterious old Egypt."

Martin continues as if he had seen it personally: "To the real Egyptologist the rooms of the Palace of Gizeh, unsuitable as the building admittedly is for the adequate display of priceless relics... possess a power of attraction unmatched in any other land of interest or diversion." He goes on: "These remains of once-superb statues and colossal monuments, designed and carved with a patience and skill unexcelled by human hands, dust these thousand of years!" Whether Martin was writing from first-hand knowledge of Cairo or whether he cadged together a book from secondary sources, I don't know. He wouldn't have been the last to confuse the locations of the various museums but he certainly writes as if the Gizeh building was still open, at least to Egyptologists, and the possibility should be considered - at least for Thelemites to reflect upon how careless they have been with their history. However, the reference to "colossal monuments" would cast considerable doubt on his description, as the very large items were all, almost certainly, removed in 1902.

As it happens, one my grandfathers was one of those "tommies" in Cairo during that war and, in fact, he spent a short while in a Boulaq hospital as a result of his service. Defending the Imperial privilege of English gentlemen was probably not foremost in his mind at the time but he certainly contributed to the British continuing in Egypt for another few decades. Unfortunately he was not noted for an interest in Egyptology and he didn't leave me a report on the disposition of Cairo museums. Crowley described Australians as being a primitive race so perhaps that explains it. Whether Crowley would now be of the opinion that that has changed one can only speculate. Many Englishmen - and women - have yet to recover from their imperial conceits but one thing has certainly changed and that is that the British Empire has now vanished. The mummy of Lord Cromer does not litter a Cairo museum but the British have joined the ranks of the past rulers of Egypt.