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German house in Thebes2017-06-06T11:10:07+00:00

German House in Thebes.

Translation of the original article by Dr. Daniel Polz,
Originally published in the Festschrift “Begegnung mit der Vergangenheit.
100 Jahre in Ägypten, 1904 – 2004″,
as “Das Deutsche Haus in Theben: “Die Möglichkeit gründlicher Arbeit und frischen Schaffens”

Scenery painter Carl Wuttke lived at the German House in February 1909. He painted ths oil-painting. Shortly thereafter, the paiting was also published as a postcard (here seen).

Scenery painter Carl Wuttke lived at the German House in February 1909. He painted ths oil-painting. Shortly thereafter, the paiting was also published as a postcard (here seen).

On Christmas Day of 1904, a small group of Egyptologists and archaeologists met in the midst of the vast Pharaonic cemeteries on the west bank of Thebes. The occasion was the inauguration ceremony of the ‘German House at Thebes,’ which was formally opened on that day.

According to the first entry in the house’s guest book, which had been established for the occasion (fig. 2), the following people attended the festivities:

Ludwig Borchardt – the founder of the German House – and his wife Mimi (Fig. 3.); Borchardt’s assistant; Georg Müller, the Imperial German Consul to Luxor; Mohareb Todros, Chief Inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization; James Edward Quibell and his wife Annie Abernethie Quibell; the British Egyptologist Edward R. Ayrton, a Mr. Leo Pfahl, and Kurt Sethe, Professor of Egyptology at Göttingen University, whose job it was to record the texts of the Theban tombs and temples in Luxor.

Fig. 1. The first German House in Luxor.

Fig. 1. The first German House in Luxor.


Fig. 2. The Guest book at the German House in Luxor. Today, the guestbook is in the DAI Archives

Fig. 2. The Guest book at the German House in Luxor. Today, the guestbook is in the DAI Archives


In the guest book’s introduction, Borchardt tells about the establishment of the German house:

‘The German House in Thebes was formally opened on 24 December 1904. Funded by German Emperor Wilhelm II and built on a strip of land given to us by the Egyptian Viceroy Abbas II, it will offer German scholars and artists the opportunity of thorough work and fresh creativity amidst the most extensive and important area for Egyptian archaeology, while at the same time offering an hospitable reception to aspiring men of other nations, here for the same purpose.

‘German colleagues and friends have contributed to equip homely rooms, so they can provide, after a strenuous day’s work, not only accommodation but also leisure. May the new house become over the years a firm base from which our knowledge of the monuments, of history and language of this most ancient of countries, in the middle of which it stands, expand to perfection from generation to generation. ‘May the fact that, only 60 years ago, the Prussian expedition led by Lepsius conducted admirable scientific achievements under much less favourable conditions encourage us, and others after us, to equal their predecessors’ best science in these easier conditions at the ‘German House.

‘Ludwig Borchardt’


The establishment of the house was the fruit of intensive activity by representatives of German archaeology in general, but particularly by Ludwig Borchardt, who wanted to firmly root Germany’s scientific interest in Egypt by giving it a permanent base. This had also been the wish of the German academic world since the early eighties of the 19th century, but a wish that had failed, due to the general political climate in the German Empire in which Egypt did not play a dominant role.

It was not until Borchardt’s appointment as ‘Wissenschaftlicher Sachverständiger beim Kaiserlichen Generalkonsulat für Ägypten’ (Scientific Expert to the Imperial Consulate-General in Egypt), that the opportunity presented itself to intensify the efforts of establishing a permanent base in Egypt. Indeed, there had been a de facto institute since Borchardt’s appointment, in the form of Borchardt’s own house on the island of Zamalek.

Last but not least on the diplomatic track, Borchardt, with the enormous help of Adolf Erman, then-Director of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, in 1902 persuaded the Egyptian government, under Viceroy Abbas Helmi II, to hand over a strip of land to the German Empire – allegedly for the symbolic price of one Egyptian Pound. The building of the house itself was authorised by the ‘Highest decree of 11 March 1904’.

With funds provided by the German Emperor, as well as several private sponsors, the building of the house was managed by Borchardt, according to plans he drew himself. Inauguration of the house took place on 24 December 1904, three years before the formal establishment of the “Kaiserlich Deutsches Institut für Ägyptische Altertumskunde” (Imperial German Institute of Egyptian Archaeology) in Cairo, 1907.


The house consisted of two storeys, intended to offer ample space for up to ten residents. On the outside, it looked like a fortress, with crenulations that looked like ramparts, crowned by a huge flag of the German Empire (fig. 1).

Shortly after the inauguration, the house received a gift from the German Egyptologists Adolf Erman and Heinrich Schäfer, in the form of the 15-volume complete edition of the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe(1). This publication, still in the library of the German House at this day, contain the remarkable dedication:

„Dem Deutschen Hause in Theben gewidmet, in der Hoffnung, dass seine Bewohner über Tempeln und Gräbern nie vergessen, dass es auch noch Besseres gibt.

Berlin 13.3.05 Adolf Erman Heinrich Schäfer
,,O Isis und Osiris, O wär ich euch doch los“

(‘Dedicated to the German House in Thebes, with the wish that its inhabitants, living amongst Temples and Tombs, may never forget that there are also better things out there.

‘Berlin 13.3.05 Adolf Erman Heinrich Schäfer
„Oh Isis and Osiris, Oh, if only I could get rid of you”)

fig. 3. Ludwig Borchardt & his wife Mimi

fig. 3. Ludwig Borchardt & his wife Mimi

As can also be said of the Cairo Institute, the German House in Thebes can look back at an eventful history. For the first ten years after it opened, it housed many an Egyptologist and archaeologist and, initially, also artists, in a rather comfortable way.

The Institute did not undertake any major projects in Thebes during the early years, allowing the house to also be used by foreign archaeological missions. Entries in the first pages of the Guest Book contain the names of scientists who, in many cases, are well known to us by their publications.

After the inauguration of the house, the Borchardts and Georg Müller lived in the German House for two weeks as a ‘trial’. After this, Édouard Naville (and his wife Marguerite) stayed there for five weeks, during his excavations at the temple of Mentuhotep at Deir el-Bahari.

Georg Schweinfurth started his explorations of the Theban Hills from the German House, and in November 1905 Georg Möller used the quiet environment of the house to write his preliminary report on his excavations at Abusir el-Meleq.

For the following years, the Borchardts often spent Christmas and New Year at the house. From January until March in 1906 and 1907, the Navilles stayed at the house, as did Somers B. Clarke, while taking part in the excavations at Deir el-Bahari on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund.

To mention a few of the guests, who visited the house in the years after the inauguration: the Egyptologists Alfred Wiedemann (January 1907), Walter Wreszinski (April 1908, November 1909 until February 1910, January 1913), Hedwig Fechheimer (February 1910), Borchardt’s new assistant, Hans Abel (April-July 1910), Heinrich Schäfer (January 1912), Alan H. Gardiner (January 1913), Max Burchardt and Max Pieper (March 1913); the returning Africa explorer Georg Schweinfurth (March/April 1907: “ … A true Eldorado for researchers, seeking peace and quiet…”); the architects and architectural historians Uvo Hölscher (March/April1908: “ … Studied the constructional history of Medinet Habu …”), Dietrich Marcks (April 1911) and photographer Friedrich Koch (March-April 1911).

With the excavation project at Deir el-Medina and on the plain, just south of Sheikh Abd el-Qurnah (South Assasif area), led by Georg Möller from the Berlin Museum, the German House got its first use as the institute’s regular dig house. Möller spent several weeks there in the spring of 1911 and 1913 and found the short distance from the house to the excavation site as quite pleasant (“…I was the first to experience the fact that ‘Beit Alemani’ is an ideal dig house…”)

The last entry in the guest book before the first World War dates back to the middle of May 1913. Borchardt’s correspondence, stored at the Swiss Institute in Cairo, shows that guests still stayed at the German House until the end of 1914, e.g. the geographers Wilhelm Meinardus and Siegfried Passarge. The next, undated, entry, in Borchardt’s handwriting shows the presence of the first German House in Thebes was only a short-lived one.

During the war against Germany (1914 – 1918), in 1915, the British army authorities tore down the German House in Thebes, “because it was found to be the centre of illicit antiquities trade and otherwise undesirable(2)”’


Fig. 4. This small memorial stone, in appreciation of the German House, was erected on the remains of the destroyed house in 1915 by British archaeologist and artist Norman de Garis Davies.

Fig. 4. This small memorial stone, in appreciation of the German House, was erected on the remains of the destroyed house in 1915 by British archaeologist and artist Norman de Garis Davies.

Immediately under Borchardt’s entry, Helmut Brunner, Egyptologist from the city of Tübingen, writes on 3 March 1976, that in 1938 he saw a photograph in the rebuilt German House of a small shrine in a form of a tile from the first German House, inscribed by Norman de Garis Davies, who, in spite of the war, had recovered a brick from the ruins of the house and inscribed it (fig. 4). The inscription on this modern-day Stêla read ‘Brick from the German House, 1905-1915, as a remembrance to its hospitality’.

The next entry reflects, on the one hand, the political situation in Egypt following the War, while on the other hand showing the admirable energy of the house’s founder:

‘On 1 April 1927, a breakfast in honour of the re-establishment of the German House was attended by a small group of German and Egyptian guests.’

Immediately following the return of the site by a decree from the now-Royal Egyptian government on 13.06.1925, Borchardt had begun to rebuild the house to his own plan ‘basically on the old foundations’ (fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Plan of the second German House

Fig. 5. Plan of the second German House

In this second version he abandoned all architectural adornments and exterior flourishes and gave the house a more functional design, both inside and out (fig. 6).

The reconstruction of the house was financed by the German foreign ministry as well as private sponsors, such as Aaron Hirsh from Eberswalde (in Brandenburg (3)) who owned a brass factory (Hirsch and his family were also present at the opening breakfast), the industrialist Otto Wolf from Cologne, as well as the Siemens-Schuckert company in Siemenstadt, near Berlin.

Fig. 6. The second German House, build on the foundation of the first one, three years after its inauguration in 1930..

Fig. 6. The second German House, build on the foundation of the first one, three years after its inauguration in 1930..

In the following ten years, until 1937, the guest book shows only few entries: most of them are from Borchardt and his wife who, once again, spend the time between Christmas and New Year in Luxor. At first, they were accompanied by Rudolf Anthes and, as of 1929 (the year of Borchardt’s retirement), by Herbert Ricke and his wife.

As the quarterly reports (as of 1930) to the Institute’s Central administration by Borchardt’s successor, Hermann Junker, show, the few entries in the guest book concealed great numbers of actual visitors to the German House. At first, Junker only mentions the number of guests, but as of autumn 1932 until the end of the first six months of 1939, he starts to meticulously enter their names and purpose of their visits.

The entries show, that the Borchardts (often accompanied by Ricke and his wife) regularly spent the time between Christmas and New Year at the house, until the year of Borchardt’s death in 1938. Further inhabitants of the house were the Egyptologists Hermann Grapow (January 1933), Hermann Ranke (January – March 1935), Hans Wolfgang Müller (January and February 1935), Alexander Scharff (November and December 1935), Friedrich Wilhelm von Bissing, who was the only one to report about the house in a somewhat negative way: “ ..trotz mancher, auf seinen Erbauer zurückzuführenden Mängel, …” (“… in spite of some flaws, which can be lead back to its builder …” – March to April 1936); Heinrich Schäfer praised the house in every aspect: “ … bis ins einzelste meisterhaft durchdacht …” (… “brilliantly thought through in every aspect” – January 1938), Hellmut and Emma Brunner (January until March 1938), Jacques Jean Clére and his wife (February until May 1938 and February until April 1939), whose entry was the last remaining one before the start of the Second World War. Besides the previous mentioned people, various scholarship-students lived in the German House: Joachim Werner (April 1935), Wolfgang Kinnig and Frank Brommer (May 1938). Other guests were, amongst others, Albert Jenke and his wife, Inge Jenke-Ribbentrop(4) (January 1939), and diplomat and head of the eastern department of the Foreign Ministry, Werner Otto von Hentig (March 1939) (5).

Fig. 7. The condition of the house at reopening in 1958.

Fig. 7. The condition of the house at reopening in 1958.

On 3 September 1939, after the breaking of diplomatic relations between Germany and Egypt, the Egyptian government closed the German Institute and the house in Thebes until further notice. During the war, family members of Egyptian Antiquities officials used the house as their home. During 1945-46 it also was the home of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy who, at that time, was involved in an ambitious project of building an entire village the traditional way, out of mud brick, on the West Bank of Luxor at New Qurna, known as ‘Hassan Fathy Village’. It is fairly obvious, considering this background of traditional building, that Fathy was not very enthusiastic about Borchardt’s architecture (“It proved to be a square, oppressive, Teutonic building, apparently transplanted from Tewfikieh Street in Cairo, and it had once belonged to the German Archaeological School. I never liked it, because of its windowsills at chin level and its garish floor tiles …”)(6).

After the Second World War, negotiations with the Egyptian Government about returning the impounded German property proved to be difficult. The official return of the House and the ground it stood upon occurred on 1 September 1958 (fig. 7). The Guest Book saw at least one entry between the last one before the second World War (J. J. Clére on April 14th 1939) and the first one after the war (Hans Stock on 8 December 1958). On a fold, the only remaining part of a torn out page, can be read: ‘May this missing page be a remembrance of the time between autumn 1939 until 1958’.

Fig. 8. And in October 1960.

Fig. 8. And in October 1960.

With the help of the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation, the former representative of the Institute, and later Professor of Egyptology at Basel University, Erik Hornung, succeeded in retrieving part of the house’s original furniture from the surrounding villages.

Bit by bit, the house was renovated during the following years: at first, there was neither water nor electricity. Even the supply of furniture and building material went slowly and expensively: on several occasions, the Institute-owned boat Amada brought material (cement) on its way from Cairo to Aswan. For the year 1961, Germany’s Interior Ministry had granted the means for ‘Restoring the entire German House which had not been altered in 30 years’(22.12.1960)’. This restoration was finished, for the greater part, by the end of 1962.

The House now offered the Institute an ideal base for new excavation projects (fig. 8). In 1968, excavation of the Asasif area, led by Jürgen Settgast and Dieter Arnold, began and, as of 1969/1970 work in the El-Tarif cemetery by Arnold and at the Sethy I by Rainer Stadelmann was also begun. A project to record the tombs of Theban officials was also added. The German House now finally had turned into a real dig house, since the excavation campaigns took several months, each year.


Fig. 9. The houses' condition in 1980. Three years before it was demolished. Pne immediately sees the huge cracks in the corners of the walls and over the entrance.

Fig. 9. The houses’ condition in 1980. Three years before it was demolished. Pne immediately sees the huge cracks in the corners of the walls and over the entrance.

Unfortunately, the construction of the house already showed significant structural weaknesses as early as the late 1960s, so the house had to be partially taken down and rebuilt between 1969 and 1974. The rebuilding of the house, however, did not result in the expected better- constructed building.

By the end of the 1970s, a fissure several centimetres wide had appeared between the west wall and the rest of the house, rendering the house uninhabitable (fig. 8).

In 1979, a new kitchen was built, as was a new L-shaped annex, originally intended as storage space. This L-Shaped annex served as temporary living quarters, since the old house was now uninhabitable.

After almost 60 years, the old German House was demolished in early spring of 1983 and replaced by another L-Shaped building, which was being completed in 1989, using traditional mud brick, on a solid foundation.

Both L-Shaped buildings, set around an open courtyard, comprise the current configuration of the house, which can accommodate up to 20 people and holds several working rooms, as well as a library (fig. 10,11).

For the past few years, the house has been occupied almost constantly during excavation season from September until May.

This is partly owing to the works in the Dra Abu’l-Naga area, which started in 1991, and in part because of the works at the Coptic monastery of Deir el- Bakhit, which started in 2002.

The house is also open for archaeological missions that do not belong to the German Institute, e.g. the mission to the Valley of the Kings from Basel University and the joint Heidelberg, Leipzig and Philadelphia Universities’ project on the tombs of the High Priest of Amun, Nebwenenef.


Fig.10. View of the German House in its current condition. View of the inner courtyard and the sleeping quarters behind the courtyard

Fig.10. View of the German House in its current condition. View of the inner courtyard and the sleeping quarters behind the courtyard

Fig. 11. View of the Library.

Fig. 11. View of the Library.

Some of the many visitors to the house, over recent years, were: Danish Queen Margarethe II (1985), German Federal President Rau (2000), Minister for Foreign Affairs Joschka Fischer (2000), the German Ambassador in Cairo Peter Dingens (2002), Paul Freiherr von Maltzahn (2002) and Martin Kobler (2004 until 2006), former chairman of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, and Ali Radwan, Dean of the Egyptological Faculty of Cairo University (2004)

On the 100th anniversary of its existence, on Christmas Eve 2004, a festive dinner was arranged at the German House in Thebes which was, besides by the Institute’s employees, attended by representatives of American, Austrian and Swiss archaeological bodies in Egypt, as well as by students of the German Institute. It was an event which would have been very much in accordance with the wishes of Ludwig and Mimi Borchardt.


  • W. Kaiser, 75 Jahre Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Kairo: 1907-1982, SDAIK 12, Mainz 1982.
  • W. Kaiser, Abteilung Kairo, in: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (Hg.): Das Deutsche Archäologische Institut, Geschichte und Dokumente 3. Beiträge zur Geschichte des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 1929 bis 1979, part 1, Mainz’ 1979, P. 93-116.
  1. Edition: Cotta’sche Buchhandlung, Stuttgart 1881.
  2. This somewhat mysterious entry by Borchardt has recently been used by the American Author Elizabeth Peters (AKA the Egyptologist Barbara Mertz) in her crime novel Lord of the Silent (Constable and Robinson 2001, p. 227-228) she attributes the destruction of the house to the archaeologists Howard Carter and Charles Kuentz.
  3. In whose factory grounds the famous Iron Age Eberswalde Hoard was found in 1913.
  4. Jenke was the brother-in-law of Hitler’s Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and was sent by him to the Embassy of Ankara in 1943.
  5. von Hentig was the driving force behind the so-called Niedermayer-Hentig-Expedition, which, during the first World War attempted to have Afghanistan choose the side of the German Empire.
  6. H. Fathy, Architecture for the Poor, The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo 1989, p. 152-53.

Original article written by Dr. Daniel Polz, D.A.I.K.

Translation by Marcel Maessen

Proof reading by Aidan Dodson

Copyright Image 1 – 9: D.A.I.K. or Schweizerische Institut für Ägyptische Bauforschung und Altertumskunde in Kairo.

Copyright image 10-11: Abla el-Bahrawy.