Founded by Frenchman Auguste Mariette (1821-81), Egypt's first national museum of Pharaonic antiquities opened in 1863. Housing the largest, most extensive collection of Pharaonic treasures in the world, it is one of Cairo's most popular sights.
Outgrowing the two homes it was previously housed in, the museum then settled on its present, purpose-built premises in 1902. It has more than 120,000 items on display and is rumoured to have another 150,000 stored in the basement!
The pride of the museum is without doubt the collection of artifacts recovered from the tomb of Tut-ankh-amun. However, that is not all the musuem is famous for, as it also houses excellent pieces from every period of ancient Egyptian history, dating from as far back as the Narmer Palette (c. 3100 BC) through 2nd-century AD portraits of the Graeco-Roman era.
Located on two levels, the artifacts on the ground floor are organised in a somewhat chronological order, running clockwise from the entrance and atrium, while the first-floor collection is arranged by themes. The central hall houses a large monumental statuary. While not particularly large, the museum is densely packed with artifacts, seemingly displayed haphazardly, but there is a method to the madness. Anybody with more than a passing interest in ancient Egypt will need more than one visit to take in everything.
During peak tourist seasons, the museum is busy with long queues to enter, and on the inside, even longer waiting lines just to see Tut-ankh-amun's funeral mask. The life-sized gold mask is just one of 1,700 items retrieved from the tomb. To view the mask at some leisure, it is best to visit just as the museum opens or late in the afternoon and make straight for the boy king's galleries on the first floor, then visiting the rest afterward.
For main highlights besides the Tut-ankh-amun Galleries, be sure to see the Fayoum Potraits, which depict remarkably lifelike Egyptians from the Graeco-Roman period. There is also an exhibit of exquisite ancient Egyptian jewellery, with necklaces made with beads of gold and lapis lazuli from around the 11th century BC. Also, be sure to visit the Amarna Room, with exhibits from Akhenaten's rule. During the 15-year reign of this radical king, not only was the old religion abandoned, but also was its art. A new style developed in which figures were depicted with elongated heads and protruding bellies. If you follow a clockwise direction, you will finish the ground floor tour in the wing where you'll meet Prince Rahotep and his bride Nofret, two life-size limestone statues (c. 2620BC) which were found in their mastaba near the Meidum Pyramid in Fayoum. You will also see the statue of Ka-Aper, whose eyes seem to be glaring at you with their copper rims, corneas of clear rock crystal, and whites of opaque quartz, drilled and filled with black paste!