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Insinger House; an introduction.
(Written by Dr. R. Demarée)

Jan Herman Insinger was born in 1854 of well to do banking family. He was sent by his parents to Egypt in 1879 for health reasons (some of his brothers had died from tuberculosis).

Insinger became fascinated by the country and almost immediately undertook expeditions by boat southwards, first in 1880 to Aswan and in 1883 even beyond the second cataract in what is now Sudan, on the eve of the Mahdist uprising and the heroic deeds of General Gordon later.

About this last journey he wrote a diary which was published finally some years ago (in Dutch) by Maarten Raven of the Museum of Antiquities Leiden.

Since 1884 Insinger first lived mainly in Luxor on his own dahabiyah, the "Meermin" ("Mermaid"). He was a great friend of the French community in Egypt and especially Maspero, assisted him as a photographer (e.g. he made the first pictures ever of the finds of the royal mummies in the Cachette at Deir el-Bahari), a friend also of Charles Wilbour.

Insinger was well-to-do, but also made a living as a local money lender and middle man in antique dealings. In the 1890s he had bought a plot of land where he began building his own home, called "Palmenburg" ("Palm Castle") a play on words of his ancestral home in the Netherlands which is called "Pijnenburg" ("Pine Castle").

Jan Herman Insinger in 1904
fig. a. Jan Herman Insinger in 1904

Jan Herman Insinger and his daughter Minan on Insingers Dahabyah "Meermin"
fig. B. Jan Herman Insinger and his daughter Minan
on Insingers Dahabyah "Meermin"

It took several years to complete this gigantic building which he designed himself. It was south of the present-day Iberotel.

During these years he was in regular contact with a curator of the Museum in Leiden and these contacts resulted in the accession of a number of objects by the museum: The famous Papyrus Insinger, but also pottery and ostraca etc., and an extremely valuable set of early photographs of monuments (he was an excellent photographer).

On his journeys southwards he also collected ethnographical objects, many of which are now in the Tropics Museum Amsterdam. After his death in 1918, indeed his wife and children soon left Egypt.

The house was thereupon taken (I still do not know whether it was bought or just 'taken') by the royal family and became the second home of the second wife of Khedive/Sultan Hussein Kamel, known as Sultana Melek. Since then the house bore the name "Sultana Melek Palace".

After the 1952 revolution it was briefly used as a girl's school and in the final years it was a store for watermelons (sic transit gloria mundi). The house was finally demolished in the 1960s. I (Rob Demarée) think that even as late as 1967 a part of the house was still standing (because I made an aerial photo of Luxor myself in September 1967, which seems to show part of a building between trees). The Leiden Muesum are planning an exhibition here in our Leiden Museum, but no time has been fixed.

The Netherlands in Upper Egypt

As an introduction to further research into the history of a huge house, at one time present in Luxor, we would like to present to you the translation of a short account, written in 1904 about the house, built by Jan Herman Insinger, the man who discovered the world famous "Insinger Papyrus".

The article was written by "G. van Stolk" for the magazine "Neerlandia", published by the "Algemeen Nederlandsch Verbond" (General Dutch Alliance).

fig. 1: Cover of the Magazine "Neerlandia" in which this article was published in 1904.

fig. 1: Cover of the Magazine "Neerlandia" in which this article was published in 1904.

“…… And when you arrive in Luxor, you will there find a fellow Dutchman – Insinger is his name - ; he lives in a house, build like a castle……”

This was the first clue I received about  “The Netherlands in Upper Egypt” and it was one of the first Dutch judges of the so-called “mixed court” in Cairo, Mr. De Stoppelaar, who told me so.

Jan Herman Insinger in 1904
fig. 2. Jan Herman Insinger in 1904

Nileview and the Insinger House at Luxor.
fig. 3. Nileview and the Insinger House at Luxor.

In those days, the railroad didn’t go all the way from Cairo to Luxor. There were no “Compagnie internationale des Wagons-Lits et des grands Expres européens” run “Trains de Luxe” either, like they have now. Anyone who wanted to travel to Luxor, had to arrive by boat.

Usually, one arrived just after sunset, as was the case when I arrived. De skies in the west were lit in a golden glow to which all eyes turned.

Automatically, my eyes were drawn to a large, strange building in the south-west, about half a kilometre upstream. The reader can see it on the first image (here fig. 3.)

I deemed it to be and old Egyptian stronghold. Naturally, a flag could not be seen. It had been lowered at sunset.

All the greater my astonishment and pride, when I saw the Dutch, tricoloured flag on top of the tower!

It goes without saying that, on that day, I immediately made my way to the castle, where I found Mr. J.H. Insinger, a man of true oriental hospitality, extraordinary  well-read, with extensive knowledge of the country and its people, which becomes obvious immediately after he starts recounting his twenty-four years of experience in this amazing Upper Egypt, so rich in all kinds of things, nowhere else to be found in this world.

To build such a large mansion, anywhere else in the world, would foremost and almost exclusively require money. Here, in Upper Egypt, things are, and especially were, totally different.

Castle Insinger, seen from the East.
fig. 4. Castle Insinger, seen from the East.

The entrance to Castle Insinger.
fig. 5. The entrance to Castle Insinger.

Here, one first needs perseverance, then knowledge and only after that, money. But, in no way as much money as in Europe, because wages are low in Upper Egypt (an Egyptian worker is satisfied with fl. 0,25 per day).

Furthermore, there are no architects and not enough burned bricks. Lime stones are not produced in a large enough quantity, because rich local people use Nile clay to hold together there unbaked bricks (the majority of the Egyptians only use clay and straw as building materials).

Proper carpenters are nowhere to be found, so Mr. Insinger had to be his own architect, bake his own bricks, burn parts of his own limestone and had to educate a couple of young boys to become good carpenters.

The house has not been built by beforehand made plan. Mr. Insinger started by building two rooms and one kitchen, but as his family grew, the house had to grow with it; another floor arose on top of the southern part of the house. After that, the tower was build, then the northern half and finally the grounds were closed by a monumental gate, as can be seen on photograph no. 3. (here fig. 5.)This gate is an exact copy of the “Puerto del Sol” in Toledo.

From on top of the tower, one has a magnificent view; to the East confined by the desert mountains, to the West, across the river, by the Limestone hills of Lybia. To the North and the South-West one can see, as the famers say, “A face far”. In Egypt, with its dry, and subsequently clear, atmosphere, that means that one can see véry far.

The immediate area exclusively consists of farmland, as far as the canals will bring the water, caused by the yearly inundation of the river Nile.

The title of this little essay might sound a bit exaggerated. Nevertheless it quite specifically indicates how this “house as a castle” should be looked upon. Figurative the title is correct, because Mr. Insinger has such a great interest in the Dutch people, that any Dutchman,  who resides in this hospitable house, tends to forget how far away he is from home.

But also verbatim, little can be said against the title. The house is Dutch territory, under the capitulations. No Egyptian official may enter the house without the permission of the owner.

And, in case Mr. Insinger should be set prisoner ( I hope and trust this will never happen), such could only be done by of on behalf of the Dutch Consulat in Cairo.

G.v. Stolk
Luxor, 1904

Hallway of the Castle.
fig. 6. Hallway of the Castle.

Castle Insinger, as seen form the West.
fig. 7. Castle Insinger, as seen form the West.

Status of historical research Ongoing
Status of article Unfinished