Ancient Egypt In London: 10 Places

Ah London. Land of sphinxes, pyramids and obelisks. Home of hieroglyphics. Final resting place of great pharaohs. Nope, we haven’t gone off our rocker. Since the late 18th century London has been gaga for all things ancient Egyptian. In fact, we reckon it’s the best place to see Egypt outside of Egypt. Here’s why.

sphinxembankment

A sphinx guards Cleopatra’s Needle, by DB007 on Flickr

1. Richmond Avenue

Nelson trounced Napoleon’s navy in the 1798 Battle of the Nile. This roused the first wave of Egyptmania in London, which would never truly fizzle out. Go to Richmond Avenue in Islington and you’ll find many of the villas here guarded by miniature sphinxes and obelisks. Joseph Kay — surveyor for Islington’s Thornhill Estate — had these cute Egyptian touches installed in 1841, that’s 43 years after Nelson’s victory. A certain Anthony Blair looked out on this Egyptian scene from his former home at Richmond Crescent, which is possibly what imbued him with a pharaoh-like sense of power.

2. Crystal Palace

Joseph Paxton’s glass-terpiece the Crystal Palace went and burned down in 1936. Not much survived the blaze but six sphinxes did, and they’re still standing their ground in Crystal Palace Park today. The sphinxes added extra bling to the Crystal Palace in 1854 when it relocated from Hyde Park to Sydenham. They’re full-sized copies of properly ancient sphinxes housed in the Louvre, Paris.

3. British Museum

The British Museum provides a double header of delights for aspiring Egyptologists. Firstly there’s the museum itself, laden with poems on papyrus, hefty blocks pilfered from pyramids and the wooden coffin of a priest called Nesperennub. It’s the biggest collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities outside Cairo.

The museum’s link with Egypt doesn’t stop there. The disused platform of the former British Museum Tube station is said to be haunted by a mummy sporting a headdress and a loin cloth. Allegedly, while the station was still open, a national newspaper offered a cash reward to anyone brave enough to spend a night alone there. No one was. The British Museum has popped up in many a curse-driven B-movie, including the 1935 comedy Bulldog Jack. The museum’s Egyptian heritage is now referenced inside nearby Holborn station (pic below).

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Holborn’s Egyptian heritage, by tezzer57 on Flickr

4. Carreras Cigarette Factory

The  redoubtable faux Egyptian facade of the Carreras Cigarette Factory could easily be a Bond villain’s lair. It is flanked by two jumbo black cats, which you half expect to whack you with a massive paw as you sidle past. Built in 1926, the factory is a prime example of 20th century Egyptian revival, prompted by people like Howard Carter, who was busy digging up pharaohs at the time. At the factory’s opening ceremony, heaps of sand were piled in front of the building, while actors from a production of Aida launched into song. Today, the former fag factory calls itself Greater London House and is somewhat ironically occupied by the British Heart Foundation. By the way, you can pay your tributes to Howard Carter at Putney Vale Cemetery (where there are also some Egyptian revival mausoleums).

5. Harrods

While most Art Deco architects pulled off Egyptian chic with aplomb, it’s debatable whether the same can be said for the Egyptian Hall and Escalator at Harrods. London’s notorious Egyptian Mohammed Al Fayed commissioned both these Vegasesque features complete with busts of pharaohs, some of which bear a striking resemblance to him. But who are we to scoff? Both the Egyptian Hall and the Escalator are now listed by English Heritage.

6. Petrie Museum

The Petrie Museum — named after Egyptologist extraordinaire Flinders Petrie — stockpiles 80,000 ancient artifacts. Here, and for free, you can ogle huge chunks of hieroglyphic-covered stone down to intimate personal items like combs, toys and musical instruments. The Petrie’s calendar is chocka with everything from pottery making to sand dancing classes.

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Exploring the Petrie Museum, by Nigel Bewley on Flickr

7. Cleopatra’s Needle

New York’s got one, Paris has got one, and London’s got the third. Cleopatra’s Needle is another Battle of the Nile token, gifted to England in 1819 by Muhammed Ali (nope, not that one). Unfortunately, Ali’s gift didn’t include postage, and the 21 metre high red granite stone remained in Egypt until 1878. It was eventually erected on the Victoria Embankment following a disastrous voyage in which six men drowned. When you’re next at Cleopatra’s Needle, check out the accompanying cast iron camel benches. During the London 2012 Games, an Egyptian Wenlock mascot stood close by. It was even more baffling than the normal Wenlock.

8. Magnificent Seven Cemeteries

The Egyptians knew a thing or two about shuffling off this mortal coil in style. And the Victorians knew a thing or two about copying them. In Highgate Cemetery, the column flanked Egyptian Avenue is the final resting place of the fortunate few who could afford a mausoleum at this salubrious address. Meanwhile, the Egyptian revival entrance lodges of Abney Park in Stoke Newington are decorated with the likes of lotus flower heads and sepals. And if you go to Kensal Green Cemetery, you’ll find it peppered with Egyptian style mausoleums.

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Highgate Cemetery’s Egyptian Avenue, by Michael Goldrei on Flickr

9. LMNT

Eatery decor doesn’t get much quirkier than LMNT in Hackney. It’s a screwball hodgepodge of ancient Roman, Greek and Egyptian. The latter is represented by hieroglyphic panels, fake mummy coffins nailed to the wall and sphinx shaped fireplaces. The whole lot must have been tacked together for a fraction of the price of Harrods’ Egyptian Hall, yet LMNT’s tongue in cheek touch makes it infinitely more tasteful. Whether the archaic erotica in the toilets is tasteful, we’ll leave up to you.

10. They sphinx it’s all over…

London is dripping with so much Egyptian history and influence, the final place on this list is actually another list of places. Deep breath then. The facade (and gaudy clock) of the former Daily Telegraph building on Fleet Street, the Hoover Building in Perivale, the Egyptian treasure trove at the Soane Museum (including the Sarcophagus of Seti I), the tableau above the entrance to 35 New Broad Street, Piccadilly’s Egyptian Hall (no longer with us). And let’s not forget Canary Wharf, surely London’s most famous pyramid.

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  • Kenji

    Colonial loot

  • Isa

    Don’t forget the old cinema/bingo hall in Essex Road or the entrance to the Wellcome Collection, bedecked with its Eye of Horus…

    • Will Noble

      Yup, both very good calls.

  • Kenji

    All the stolen loot during colonial times should be returned, I.e the original Rosetta Stone and everything else, would it be fair if Egypt kept a lot of important British Historical loot in their country? I did not think so..

  • Kenji

    Return Japanese stolen loot also please..

  • carmasabry

    Now I know why I love London ;-)

  • Panda Bearrister

    And whilst on the subject of stolen loot, can whoever borrowed my Enemy at the Gates DVD ten years ago kindly return it?

  • Riche@

    A cannon from the battle of the Nile sits almost unnoticed in Horse Guards Parade

  • James

    Everyone swaying these things should be returned needs to remember that radical preachers in Egypt have been making noises for a long time about wanting to destroy the pyramids and other treasures of Egypt’s “infidel” past. That has died down somewhat with the decapitation of the Muslim Brotherhood, but until we can absolutely guarantee these wonders will be safe there, they should not be returned. I agree they belong to Egypt in the long run, but again, better they sit in the hands of conquerors than the hands of destroyers.

    • http://www.atphoto.biz/blog e3alan

      Agree. All this stuff needs a secure and stable home.