Gail Howard's Egypt Travel Adventures Story Continued
The museum expert explained to me that often in genuine pieces there are mistakes in the writing. One of the pieces he gave an 80 percent chance of being genuine, and the other one a 20 percent chance. He said there were many pieces in the museum that the experts were not 100 percent certain of. I was surprised to learn that not every piece in a museum is guaranteed to be 100 percent genuine.
Long ago, a man from Luxor named Matani made such fine fake scarabs that they became collectors’ items. Because of the extremely fine workmanship, his scarabs always sold for high prices even by an honest dealer who would tell the customer they were Matani scarabs. I had a chance to see some of these rare Matani scarabs at Henri Shiha’s home.
Robert Hosni told me about a German who had bought an antique vase in Luxor from a dealer. He paid $5,000 for it. Later, on a trip to London he visited the British Museum and saw on display a vase that looked very much like his own. After the curator told him it had been purchased in Luxor, he asked to photograph it from all sides. When he returned to Germany and compared the photographs to his own vase, he found them to be identical. So, he caught the next flight to Egypt and headed immediately for Luxor to see the dealer who had sold him the vase.
“Hand over the real one,” the German demanded.
The dealer told him he could have the original, but for $15,000. The German paid the $15,000 and took the original back to Germany. The fake is still on display in the British Museum. The dealer had been using the original to make fakes which he sold for $5,000 each.
Living in Egypt was quite inexpensive for me because of the black market. Through a contact of Godowski's, I got the best possible exchange rate I could find anywhere: $1.50 for an Egyptian pound vs. the official rate of $2.38.
Godowski and I made the three hour drive to Alexandria. While there, we visited King Farouk's summer palace, which was now a museum. I was disappointed to see the trash in Farouk's palace. Although the palace had marble walls, Italian stained glass windows and huge chandeliers, his wife's jewelry, their art collection and personal effects and furniture looked like pure junk to me.
When I told Robert Hosni about my disappointment in King Farouk’s taste, he explained that it wasn't that way in the good old days when he was a guest there. After the palace was confiscated by the military regime, an inventory was made of everything in the building. A Renoir was itemized as ‘painting of nude,’ a Vacheron Constantin watch of solid gold was listed as ‘watch,’ and so on. The officials and officers replaced the original expensive items with cheap items of their own that fit within the description of the inventory. So, none of Farouk’s original belongings remained in the palace.
Omar Khyyam Oriental Perfumes in Cairo was a shop any woman would be crazy about. The House of Sayed Abd El-Latif opened for business in 1845, selling perfume oils – the original aromatherapy. I sampled many of the 16 delightful fragrances – lotus flower, jasmine, lily of the valley, gardenia and 12 blends. I was in olfactory heaven. They also sold incense, ambergris and kohl -- the black powder that heals and beautifies the eyes.
I was puzzled that I was the only woman in the shop. The other eight customers were men, who seemed embarrassed and uncomfortable while I was there. On another day, I returned to the shop to buy more flower oils, and again the store was full of men sitting on chairs waiting for their orders, again appearing to be embarrassed.
I bought some ambergris, which is a waxy substance coughed up by the sperm whale. It is used as a fixative in making expensive perfume. Coating the tip of a toothpick with ambergris and dipping it in a cup of tea or coffee gives a uniquely marvelous flavor.
The brochure describes ambergris as “Delicious in taste, it possesses the magical charm which allows you once more to enjoy the springtime of your youth, harmless, healthy and blood-warming.” Suddenly, I understood why the men were there. Ambergris was touted as an aphrodisiac – the Viagra of the time!
I met a 35 year-old Egyptian, Ali Ashour El-Gabry, in his father’s souvenir store. When Ali invited me to “The Other Side of the Moon,” I thought he was suggesting a nightclub. But I was mistaken.
The Other Side of the Moon was a magnificent tent set in the desert not far from the pyramids. But what a tent! This family treasure had just been given to Ali by his grandfather as a birthday gift.
The walls and ceiling of the tent were made of a huge handmade tapestry of strips of cloth sewn on cloth in beautiful intricate designs with Roman, Coptic and Arabic symbols. It had taken several people two years to make this tapestry. The walls were lined with soft low sofas and leather poufs. It was beautifully done. In separate tents were a kitchen, a bedroom and a privy.
From the tent there was a beautiful view of the pyramids and an endless expanse of barren undulating desert. Ali and I sat outside on Persian carpets, attended by two servants. We watched the sun set over the pyramids.
Suddenly, Egyptians mounted on magnificent Arabian horses galloped across the desert into view, their flowing galabiyyas (robes) fluttering in the breeze. Men from Ali’s village had come to entertain me – six musicians and the trainer of a dancing horse.
Inside the tent, the musicians arranged themselves on the dais. Music of three flutes harmonized and intermingled like a fugue. The drum and outsized tambourines picked up the rhythm. An old servant, hypnotized by the music, danced on the carpet. He raised his arms and closed his eyes, moving his hips to the rhythm.
After listening to the beautiful exotic music for awhile, we all went outside to see the dancing horse. The musicians lined up on the sand, a man leaped onto his horse and the show began. The horse danced in perfect time to the music, with little mincing cross steps, his head bobbing up and down.