May Tyssen-Amherst and the Crocodile in the Well

(Part 3)

Of course, it was not all holiday for the Amhersts. William was in Egypt to add to his own collection. He was often to be found in the old Museum in Boulaq and would take May with him.

The Arab Museum, Boulaq

The Arab Museum at Boulaq (Tuck's Oilette)

‘What happy hours I spent there learning the history and art of the ancient land, trying to absorb the conversations of my father and the learned Egyptologists who were then busy arranging the collection.’

May goes on to explain that her father was a great connoisseur, and could hardly be taken in by forgeries. Except for one instance when he bought a Mameluk’s helmet, but he was not entirely happy with it so examined it carefully and indeed discovered in Arabic letters, the words ‘Wilkinson, London.’ Whereupon the helmet was at once returned to the dealer with some suitable comments

May was not yet ‘out’ so went to few official dinners. However she was sometimes invited by Nubar Pasha, eminent statesman and future Prime Minister of Egypt, to come in during the evening along with a few other young people. On warm nights when there was a bright moon, donkeys were ordered and all the party went out for a moonlit race along the Chubra road, and on to the desert beyond. Apparently the donkeys galloped fast and furiously, entering fully into the spirit of the race. According to May, 'it was the most tremendous fun and really quite exciting.'

On 24th December 1871 May witnessed the notoriously extravagant performance of Aida at the Opera House which was later cited as one of many extravagances leading to the eventual removal of Ismail Pasha as Viceroy at the behest of the British in 1879. She describes the evening.

‘The house was full of Europeans and Egyptians and the veiled harem boxes crowded with the wives and daughters of the Khedivial family and of the chief officers of state. The scenery and dresses were quite magnificent. All the gold was genuine pure metal, all the jewels were real precious stones; there was no tinsel or paste. Of course the effect was really splendid. The new scenery and stage properties were copies and models of real Egyptian things.The music was good, though a trifle too noisy even for Aida. Flowers and presents were showered onto the performers after the last act and they made their exit amid a perfect hurricane of applause.’

Some of May’s happiest days in Cairo were spent in the palace of Inja Hanum, the widow of Said Pasha. She describes them in great detail.

The Vase Dance, The Cairo Postcard Trust

A Harem Dancer (The Cairo Trust)

‘She was perhaps the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, although she was no longer young. She was a Circassian, divinely tall, with stately grace and the sweetest of smiles… I looked upon her as a fairy princess of some enchanted land. She had two adopted daughters and many nephews and nieces, all of whom were my playmates.

‘At our first visit, the table… was laid with knives and forks, but afterwards we were treated as ‘of the family’ and we all ate with our fingers… Sometimes my mother came with me as she and the Princess were fast friends. Sometimes I came alone to spend the day there when there were other engagements where ‘schoolroom people’ were not wanted.'

May describes in detail arriving at the palace and crossing the small garden which was a wild tangle of roses, lemons and oranges, oleanders, hibiscus and palms to the door of the house where Gulperi and Ferial, the Princess’s adopted daughters, would welcome her with open arms. They would all sit on a satin covered divan and sip thick scented coffee from tiny china cups held in gold filigree egg-cup holders encrusted with diamonds. Pipes would also be brought and they would all, even the children, puff away through the big amber mouth-pieces each set with a band of diamonds, at rather sweet and very mild Turkish tobacco. Every visit began formally with pipes and coffee, but then the children would play games and chatter away in French.

A favourite game was sitting on the floor round a big basin of goldfish. The children would try to catch the slippery fish in their hands. May describes how ‘some of the slaves used to join in and shriek with laughter as the fish flopped away from their fingers.’

Sometimes the Princesses would ask innumerable questions about the world outside, at others they would teach May Turkish songs while she would teach them nursery rhymes. Three Blind Mice was a particular favourite.

Mysterious and exotic meals were served by slaves. Water and sweet sherbet made of limes, oranges or other fresh fruit, filled silver mounted glass jugs. However May explains that there could be difficulties.

The Princess generally made me sit next to her and she often insisted on popping some dainty morsel into my mouth; I did not mind the sweets, but found it hard to politely swallow a raw spring onion or a crushed piece of fresh garlic!

After dinner the children would drink coffee and smoke cigarettes before the Princess retired to her own apartments and the children were left alone.

'Then things could really hot up. Pillow fights were a favourite game; the big soft cushions of the divan that ran round all the rooms were perfectly splendid missiles to hurl at each other, and the fight often waxed fiercely until we were all exhausted, when sherbet and cigarettes were brought and we all rested on the cushions that had been our ammunition.'

During one of the early seasons in Cairo, the eminent Russian artist, Konstantin Makovsky was also staying at Shepheards. He made a great impression on May.

‘He allowed me to sit beside him and watch him paint the portraits of all sorts of picturesque models… He gave me much encouragement and many valuable hints about painting, which have been the greatest use to me.

While he was in Cairo, Makovsky wished to paint a picture of the great procession of the holy Carpet returning from Mecca.

The Arrival of the Holy Carpet in Cairo

The Arrival of the Holy Carpet in Cairo, by Konstantin Makovsky

‘He was very anxious to get a photograph of it as it passed through the streets. This was before the days of snap shots and the Kodak was not known. He consulted my father about it one day, and as father was dining with the Khedive the following evening he promised to ask him about it. Nothing could have been kinder that His Highness’s reply. The procession was to be ordered to stop at a certain point where the photographer was to be ready with a plate and focus fixed, and the photograph should betaken. Such a thing had never before been heard of; the greatest Mohamedan procession to be stopped so a Christian could take a picture of it.’

May found the procession ‘most interesting’, but her attention was particularly taken with ‘a camel led by two men on which sat a very holy dervish. He was quite naked and very fat, and as he wagged his head and his body wobbled about with the swaying of the camel he was a very ugly sight, but the ’faithful’ thought him particularly holy. He had wobbled and waggled and travelled like this for many years, going to and from Mecca with the carpet every year.’

The photograph went as planned and the painting was eventually completed. May saw it some years later hanging in the Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersberg. Currently it is to be found in the State Russian Museum.

This halting of the procession would not have endeared the Khedive to his people however. It was another example as far as they were concerned of the Viceroy falling over himself to impress wealthy travellers, at the expense of his own people, and in this particular case, putting their religion second.

Finally of course I should mention the crocodile. Hassanein was an elderly Egyptian of whom the Amhersts were very fond. He went up the Nile while they were in Cairo one time and before he left he asked May what he should bring her back.

‘Jokingly I said, ‘Please bring me back a crocodile.’ He returned some months later, and he came to see me carrying in his arms a good sized crocodile, some 12 feet long. It was not properly cured,in fact not cured at all, and the ‘bouquet’ of it may easily be imagined. It was quite dry and stiff and too big to pack as it was, so Hassanein said he would soak it in water and then it could be rolled up ‘small for pack.’

I left it to him to get this done after of course thanking him profusely for his gift. We thought no more about it, so just imagine our horror when going into the garden next day we found the beast with a long string tied to its tail soaking in the hotel well – the well from which all the daily supply of water was taken. Of course it was quickly hauled out and the well was cleaned out. Perhaps this was a lucky thing though for it was not over-clean, despite my crocodile – who perhaps was a blessing in disguise – and luckily no-one was any the worse.’

Portrait of May in a white dress

Lady William Cecil

May visited Egypt frequently throughout her life, and was always passionate about the country, its people and its history, as was her husband, Lord William Cecil, third son of the third Marquess of Exeter.

In 1901/02 and also in 1903/04 she ran her own excavations at Qubbet el-Hawa, Aswan. These were known for some time as the Cecil tombs, but they are now referred to as the Tombs of the Nobles and some can still be visited. May worked with the support and advice of Howard Carter then Chief Inspector for Antiquities in Upper Egypt. Both Lord William, and her eldest son, Billy, also contributed enthusiastically to the excavations. Detailed accounts of her finds were published in the Annales du Service des Antiquites de L'Egypte. Some of these were claimed by the Egyptian authorities, others were sent back to England to join the Didlington collection as was normal practice at that time.

May never lost her passion for Egypt and when financial disaster hit the family in 1906, following the embezzlment of many hundreds of thousands of pounds by the family solicitor, Charles Cheston, the Egyptian collection was one of the few things that was not sold. Indeed it was only after May's death from breast cancer in 1919, that the collection was catalogued, with the assistance of Howard Carter, and auctioned in 1921 by Sothebys.