The other

St Petersburg

The Egyptian House

(ulitsa Zakharovskaya 23, Architect: M.A. Songaylo, 1911-1913)

This curiosity of a building can seem crude or camp, but can equally work a strange magic on the onlooker. Come across it late on a spring or early summer evening, its windows blankly returning the undying light into an empty street, its gigantic oak doors slightly ajar between the twin pharaohs that stand guard over them, and it’s difficult not to fall under its spell – an oppressive, irresistible sensation of the imminence, the almost-presence of a vanished past.

St Petersburg laps up the dust of dead civilizations, but its relationship with ancient Egypt is particularly close. What other major European city has so many sphinxes (ten)? What other European capital has an Egyptian Bridge (the city's first metal bridge, flanked by two pairs of sphinxes, was built in 1825-6; it collapsed in 1905 when soldiers marched over it, and was rebuilt only in 1955)? And what other city has felt the shadow of Egyptian civilization pass so darkly over its literature? In Petersburg (1905), the seminal Petersburg novel by Andrey Bely, Egypt and St Petersburg become inextricably intertwined. The Stereoscope (Aleksandr Ivanov, 1907), a macabre short story about a return to the past, has a key scene set in the Egyptian Room of the Hermitage Museum. The brilliant and ill-fated Osip Mandelshtam entitled one of his Petersburg short stories ‘The Egyptian Stamp' (1927); its hero describes himself as ‘the last Egyptian ... a collegiate assessor from the city of Thebes’. In all these stories Egypt signifies a realm somewhere between life and death – a sort of limbo in which the living are not fully alive, the dead not fully dead, and the past not fully past but almost present, ready to reawake and intervene at any moment. In the mythology of this city, St Petersburg is just such a limbo.

The tall pharaohs standing duty outside the two main entrances to the Egyptian House on ulitsa Zakharevskaya are part of a comprehensive system of Egyptian motifs. Other elements are the Hathoric columns (columns decorated with the head of the cow-headed goddess Hathor) supporting the third storey, an archway whose caissoned ceiling whirrs with the beating of phoenix wings, inscriptions from the Book of the Dead on the walls in the main entrance hall, and a staircase whose railings unfurl a procession of ibises.

Built for Larisa Nezhinskaya, the wife of a Counsellor of State, the original design for Zakhraveskaya 23 was Neoclassical, a style in which Mikhail Songailo, the architect, had great expertise (see, for example, his house at Bolshaya Konyushennaya, 17). Currently (April 2008), the facade of the house is undergoing restoration. This is good news for the integrity of the building, but one cannot help wondering whether some of its magic – its promise of a connection with another, more ancient world (be it ancient Egypt or pre-Revolutionary Petersburg, worlds which now seem equally distant) – will be lost.
Pharaoh guarding one of the entrances
to Zakharevskaya 23