Egypt doesn’t have a natural history museum. Instead, there’s a museum of agriculture, a weird and wild hall of wonders tucked into a residential district that demands to be heralded with the bark of a 19th century circus huckster shouting, “Step right up!”
Until 2009, the entrance fee was the same as when the museum opened, less than one cent. Now you have to pay fifty cents, and it’s worth every one.
There are no one-eyed men or bearded ladies. Instead, you’ll find hundreds of taxidermy animals, thousands of varieties of corn, barley, wheat, and cotton, from all over the world, canned goods from the 1940’s, over fifty plaster models of different cultures’ bread loaves, hundreds of dioramas depicting agricultural and industrial work, doll house factories, and a life-size statue-filled Syrian market (One jazzed visitor has written, ‘They are actual human size and they seem so real that one feels they would suddenly begin speaking’). There are also reliefs and monuments depicting Egyptian farmers sweating and toiling in glorious socialist steeliness, looking farm more muscular and unwrinkled than any Egyptian farmers I’ve ever seen.
The museum was founded in 1931 and opened in 1938, and it seems to have been in a constant state of decay and restoration ever since. There is a great deal from the 1950’s, when Nasser tended towards socialist glorification of the farmer. The Syrian market was clearly built around 1960, because that’s when Syria was part of the United Arab Republic with Egypt.
In every other hall, dust caked high on every glass case and yet men also seemed to be drilling and pounding and remodeling against the creep of time, like scruffy, paint-splattered Sisyphuses. Random junk was scattered in the corners of each room.
As we entered the hall of animals, a short old man in a galabiya approached us and yelled over the whir of drills. “It’s closed.” I made a face of disappointment. “Go right upstairs and don’t let anyone see you.”
His name is Mohamed and he has been tending the hall of animals for thirty years. He showed us a whale’s skeleton under the eerie view of a hundred taxidermy deer heads. There is a chicken coup, frozen in dead time, and a secret room full of lions, tigers, and bears (Oh my!).
We saw a camel’s stomach, various diseased organs, human and animal, sitting in formaldehyde jars, and mummified crocodiles. After a while, it felt like I was looking at what might happen if a mad collector had been given six buildings, unlimited funds, and a loose mandate to leave paths for visitors. Everything smelled like mothballs. The typography on most of the signs looked like that stereotypical Wild West font.
Mohamed used a wooden stick to point at various things, telling us what was real and what wasn’t. He had a devious grin.