Alexandria to Brussels, 1879

By Rachel Beckles Willson

There’s a bit of a mystery surrounding this oud.

Victor Mahillon, curator of the Museum of Musical Instruments at the Brussels Conservatoire, acquired it from Alexandria in 1879. Saskia Willaert, curator of African Collections at the museum, has gathered sources relating to the purchase, and from these we learn that Mahillon bought the oud and 28 other instruments with the help of several people in Egypt. One of these was a Belgian engineer called Auguste Herpin, who had been entrusted to develop commercial relations between Egypt and Belgium. He was assisted by a Belgian lawyer and amateur flute player Adolphe Courbarien, who in turn drew on his contacts with Hassan Mohammed, the head of the guild of Arab composers, and Mohamed Ibrahim, head of the corporation of poets. The Consul General of Belgium in Egypt was also involved; and the project was facilitated by the fact that the Brussels Conservatoire was under the protection of the Belgian King.

Mahillion oud soundboard

The instrument is decidedly modest, it seems not to be a piece of highly distinguished craftsmanship. Mahillon, who acquired it, observed in his Catalogue that it was ‘smaller and less beautiful than no. 0164’. And it is difficult to be entirely certain of its condition when he received it, as restoration work was conducted by the museum in 2005 in preparation for its exhibition at the Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris. You can read more about that here. It is also a strikingly small instrument, perhaps made for a woman, or perhaps made under the influence of other North African ouds – the so-called oud ‘arbi, for instance. Thanks to Joris De Valck of the museum in Brussels we have the following detailed measurements:

Vibrating String Length – 533mm
Soundboard Width – 298mm
Soundboard Length – 463mm
Neck Length –165mm
Top of Rosette to Bottom of Sound board – 318mm
Front of the Bridge to Bottom of Sound board – 91mm
Depth of body at its maximum point – 184mm
Diameter of the rosette – 78mm
Approx. weight – 675g

What purpose could this small, rather battered oud serve in the museum? According to the Echo Musical, it was to bring the Brussels institution a little closer to its ultimate point, which was to be a complete collection of instruments from around the world.

It is still owned by the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels. Many thanks to Saskia Willaert for sharing her valuable research.


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