Having postponed my trip to Cairo until my last full day in Egypt, I was pretty darn excited when I woke up before dawn Thursday morning. As I child, one of my very first books was a book of Egyptian mythology. I knew about Isis and Osiris (along with the Norse and Greek gods) before I knew about Jehovah or any of the Abrahamic religious stories. Our family didn’t worship them, they were just fun stories, but the fascination with ancient Egypt gripped me at an early age.
I went through a phase of life where I really thought I wanted to be an archaeologist (I think Indiana Jones did that to a lot of kids in the 80s) and especially and Egyptologist. I have written book reports, given speeches, and made dioramas about ancient Egypt. I have also watched nearly every documentary out there on the topic of the pyramids and the sphinx (yes, even some of the nutty ones about aliens). Stargate SG-1 was my sci-fi tv show hero for delving into the more obscure gods and myths to create characters. I lived in Memphis, TN which is named after the necropolis on the western side of the river Nile. I watched the glass and steel pyramid on the Mississippi River imagining the real things. I wanted to go to Cairo. Really bad. So when I saw a day trip from my resort to Cairo that included the museum, the pyramids and the sphinx for about 200$ including airfare, buses, ticket entries, and lunch… well it was an opportunity not to be missed.
Our van picked us up in the dark small hours of the morning, collecting tourists from several resorts around Sharm before taking us to the airport. We rode a tiny little plane for about an hour, crossing over the vast emptiness of the desert of eastern Egypt that lies between the Red Sea and the Nile river. As we approached Cairo, I was really struck by the contrast of the river valley with the desert around it. There was so much green, and what was clearly acres and acres of flourishing farmland around the winding water that ended abruptly in sand. I was also struck by how long we flew over developed land. Along with the agriculture, there were buildings, extensions of the city that is overflowing it’s borders. Wikipedia says Cairo is 7.7 million people, but our guide told us that if you count the whole metropolitan area that it’s closer to 25 million. Looking down from the air I certainly could not have told you where one “city” ended and another began.
We were told about Old and New Cairo, but also that “old Cairo” is still only about 200-300 years old, and “new” Cairo is about 15-20 years old. Of course people have been living there much, much longer. And there’s also Giza, formerly Memphis. It used to be strictly a necropolis, no one lived on the west bank of the river. But as population pressures continued, people eventually had to join the dead and build housing for the living there too. The government is so concerned with the population pressures in Cairo that they are building a new capital city even farther out and plan to move the seat of government there. It would be astonishingly huge, but hopefully alleviate some of the population squeeze and attract more tourists to the region. Construction is set to begin by 2020 and since “New Cairo” is already in use, there isn’t a name for it yet.
Driving through Cairo
When we arrived at the airport we were divided up by tour group and shown to our buses, where we then waited for a very long time. The Egyptian government is still mightily concerned for the safety of tourists, so we had to get the entire caravan assembled and a police escort readied before we could make the drive from the airport to the museum at Tahrir square. This gave us plenty of time to talk to the guide. It was quite interesting to hear about the last 5 years of Egyptian history from the inside. He didn’t actually intend to get in to a political discussion but there was more than one person who asked questions about it, but it also set up a curious and respectful tone for the trip, and our guide was a font of information with a good sense of humor.
As we drove through the city, he pointed out various landmarks and told us about some of the history of the city. Egypt has been a part of many Empires and colonized by many outsiders over the millennia and it shows strongly in the architecture. There were parts of the city that reminded me of French baroque, Italian Renaissance, and Ottoman Arabic. It was fascinating to see them all side by side. There were former palaces of Egyptian royalty (ruling as recently as 1952), and the once reserved necropolis sites that were a blend of ancient, medieval, and modern graveyards interspersed with post modern apartment buildings an businesses. We saw the city’s only synagogue (the Ben Ezra) and passed by a Coptic cathedral, but since we were only in town for a day, there was no stopping at any of these wonderful cultural sites, just quick explanations from the highway.
Eventually we arrived at our first stop and our police and security escorts took their leave. We were in the famous Tahrir square where both revolutions of 2011 and 2013 held massive protests. I looked around and saw a huge amount of military hardware around the square including a long line of tanks. I have no idea if they were there to protect the museum or to ward off any further mass gatherings in the area. I was a little surprised at how small the square felt. I realize that after being in Tiananmen, that (other than maybe Moscow) all public squares are going to seem a little small, but the numbers of protesters cited in the media made it feel huge. So I did some research when I got home, you should too because the images of the protests are very striking. I realize now that they must have done the same thing to Tahrir that Beijing did to Tiananmen, which was to use cleverly placed monuments and gardens to break up what had once been a wide open space.
Our guide pointed out with pride that the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities had not been damaged at all during the protests and then showed us a building right next to it that remained a burnt out concrete husk. That building had once been the headquarters of the Mubarak regime that was brought down in 2011. It is a stone’s throw from the museum, the blackened and abandoned remains loom large over the square and the gardens and remain a vivid monument to the struggles and success of the revolution. We were escorted through the gates of the museum and into the surrounding gardens to enjoy the view and take pictures while our guide arranged our tickets and our group headsets. Cameras, alas, were not allowed inside the museum back in 2015, so I only have my memories of this trip, but you can generally find the most amazing displays have been recorded by an approved media outlet for a magazine or documentary. There are so many tourists at the museum that guides get a special microphone and headset arrangement so that only their group will hear them talking (so they don’t have to shout) and tourists can clearly hear their own guide no matter where they are standing. It was kind of neat actually.
The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities
As I recall the space in an attempt to describe to you what I experienced, my eyes are misting up a little. I love museums. I have a love affair that goes back to my childhood days in the Smithsonian. I love them all, big and small, but oh my god this museum is amazing. If you don’t love museums, feel free to skip to the next section, because I am going to gush. Although I was not allowed to take pictures inside the museum at the time, I later returned in 2019 and I’ve updated this older article with some of those.
The building itself is enormous and some of the artifacts housed within are so large that the vaulted ceilings go up 3 stories to accommodate them. There are enormous stone statues rescued from dig sites that had been nearly entirely pillaged. There are halls and side rooms and pillars and stacks and rows and buckets of ancient Egyptian artifacts. I went to the travelling Tut exhibit when it was in the US and just.. no. If you love all things ancient Egypt, this place is your temple. I could probably have spent the entire day happily exploring all the rooms and exhibits there, but we only had a couple hours.
The tour guide said he would explain a few highlights to us and then turn us loose for the remainder of the time. (we were free to wander really at any time, but I liked his explanations and stories so far, so I stuck around) Our first stop was a statue of a king where he explained the traditional imagery of the statues, why one foot was always taking a step forward, why the hands were always down at the sides and holding something, and what the meaning of the beard shapes was. It turns out most of these are design features to make it easier to carve strong, long lasting and above all huge statues. The foot forward makes a more stable base than feet together, and the closed hands are both easier to carve (less detail) and stronger. The left foot became the standard because the heart is on the left side of the body, and some significance was attached to that. Square beards indicated humans and curved ones belonged to gods. Since pharos were born human and ascended to godhood, statues of them in life may have square beards while statues of them after death will have curved ones.
The next stop was the Rosetta Stone, only it wasn’t because the British Museum won’t give it back to the Egyptian government. So the most important artifact in helping us to understand the civilization of ancient Egypt is a replica in it’s own country. There were beautiful alabaster sarcophagi that weighed several tons each. Alabaster was chosen because it was the only stone that light could pass through. Specially carved lids required equal lifting from four corners to remove, preventing lone grave robbers from desecrating the bodies. Tombs were often found with two such sarcophagi, but it was not the king and his queen, but rather the body and the organs. No more than one person was ever entombed in single pyramid. We saw the only surviving relic from the tomb of Khufu (Cheops) that had been so thoroughly looted before the sites became protected that all that remained to find was a tiny carved figurine only 7cm high.
I think I may have glazed out for a few things, because honestly there was a lot to take in. At some point I began to get tired from standing still and trying to pay attention and caught myself leaning against the nearest thing, which happened to be a small (less than 3m) sphinx. We passed into the part of the museum that housed the Tut exhibit. Our guide explained that our perceptions in the West that Tut was very important stemmed from the fact that the find was important, being untouched by looters or grave robbers. Tut himself was a child king and only ruled for 9 years. Yet there is over a ton of gold among his treasures. How much more elaborate then would have been the tombs of kings who ruled for decades and accomplished great deeds?
We passed by the nesting boxes of Tut’s tomb, these were small room sized boxes of gold, covered with writing that nested within one another. This was the only way they could create enough wall space to write everything down apparently, since the actual burial chamber sections of the tombs are rather small. There were loads and loads of display cases that showed smaller items, jewelry, clothing and sundries. Our guide stopped at one with a particularly amused look on his face and pointed out a small item of indeterminate form or function. He asked us if we could tell what it was for with a slight smirk and finally revealed that the item was King Tut’s condom. They knew this, he explained, not just because of the material (animal intestine) or shape (and no, Egyptian men aren’t that small, he said, the material has shrunk and dried out over time), but also because they found a residue of semen inside the condom which they were able to DNA match to Tut himself. (Please note, this is not my photo because the display was gone when I went back in 2019. You can read more about it here.
Guides are not allowed in the room with Tut’s most famous treasures, so ours pointed out the exit and told us when to meet there to catch the bus to our next stop. I took a quick peek into the Tut treasure room and was not disappointed. All of the most famous and rich treasures including the mask are in this room. Jewelry made from gold and precious stones were in cases all around the mask and it was really only the glowering gazes of two old men at the back of the room that kept me from trying to whip out my phone for a Tut selfie. It really doesn’t seem to matter how often you see these things in pictures or movies, there is just no substitute for the real thing. Upon my return in 2019, the mask was the only thing still photo restricted, probably to prevent a traffic jam of eager Instagrammers trying for that Tut-Selfie, but here’s some other beautiful treasures from the room.
Soon the attractions of more rooms of unseen artifacts pulled me forward into the museum. The further I wandered, the less it seemed like a well ordered display and the more I began to feel like I was wandering among the archives. Eventually I came across two men doing active restoration on a piece and watched them for a bit. Then I found a whole section of artifacts that were only partially unpacked, crates still stacked up around them. I walked through a tunnel that had been taken from a crumbling tomb and I stood at the feet of statues so tall that their big toes were at least a foot high. I felt surrounded by the history on all sides. The pressure and weight of civilizations past was overwhelming and eventually I couldn’t hold thoughts any longer but simply stared at the treasures around me. I noticed that there were people throughout the museum perched in front of one object or another making detailed sketches in lieu of photographs. (This photo is also not mine, it is a press release photo given by the museum for promotional purposes)
UPDATE: When I first wrote this piece, I reflected that I would plan 2 days for the museum with my own sketchbook, yet when I returned in 2019, much had changed. The biggest being that photos were now allowed, but the displays had changed as well. There were more barriers to keep tourists from lounging on the statues, the condom of King Tut was gone, but in it’s place were two actual mummies. Additionally, the half unpacked room seems to have made it to fully unpacked in the intervening 4 years. Our guide also drove us by the site of the GEM, the Grand Egyptian Museum which was under construction to replace the century old museum in Tahrir Square and to properly display many of the artifacts that didn’t have enough room despite the enormous size of the old museum. The opening of the GEM was pushed back due to Covid, and is now set to open in 2023. The old museum is, last I heard, scheduled for demolition once all the artifacts are relocated, which is rather a shame because it’s a historical building in it’s own right.
2 thoughts on “Royal Decree Holiday: A Day in Cairo (Part 1)”
Wouldn’t it be an adventure to hide somewhere then emerge and resume a tour of the museum on your own? I hope the specimens don’t come alive at night though! 😀
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