on October 5, 2008
Egypt and its incredible history deserves better than the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. This Museum has been the repository for many of the relics of the Pharoanic period for 150 years now, and its treasures are legion: statues and sphinxes, murals and mummies, ornaments both religious and practical in nature, and of course the treasures of King Tutankhamun. Yet, maybe do to the sheer bulk of its collection (some 136,000 pieces), it does not seem to have been extensively reorganised since the 1920s. Exhibits are crammed in, poorly labelled, many open to be pawed by every passing visitor. In general it is a crowded, poorly-labelled jumble of relics, with only some pretence at order. This is not an Egyptian disease; the Egyptians can run fantastic museums of the standard of the Nubian Museum in Aswan, the Luxor Museum, and the Coptic Museum here in Cairo. A new museum is currently being constructed out on Pyramids Road, and I have a well-supported belief that once relocated (in around 2015 unfortunately), the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities will once more take its place as one of the world’s great museums, and not just a building housing great exhibits poorly.The nearest Metro station is Sadat at Midan Tahrir to the south beyond the Nile Hilton. Taxis can be hailed to the north of the museum or outside the Hilton – bear in mind that drivers will artificially inflate their starting prices if you catch one from either of these locations. It costs LE50 to visit the museum (around £4.50GBP). Cameras need to be left in one of the security offices outside the grand rosehip-pink building (remember to reclaim them afterwards!). Inside there is a vague itinerary. The ground floor is loosely chronological in order; the upper is devoted to individual aspects - Tutankhamun’s treasure, royal mummies, model boats, tools etc. In general the displays are not great at contextualising what you see. It is therefore advisable to have some form of guide. Our guide, Laila said that as we only had two-and-a-half hours she would just cover the highlights! You could easily spend a half-day or longer here. If I’d had more time I would have used my introductory tour as a basis, and then returned to look around at further length under my own steam. We started in the Atrium with Zoser, occupant of the very first pyramid. I was later to see a replica of this statue in its original location, the serdab outside his step-pyramid at Saqqara, staring off north for eternity. There is a copy of the famous Rosetta stone that enabled translation of hieroglyphics; the original I had seen previously in the British Museum. From there we went upstairs to see the treasures of the boy-king Tutankhamun. His grave had survived looting until its rediscovery in the Valley of the Kings by Howard Carter in 1922, and hence the vast bulk of his grave goods (some 1700 pieces) remained intact. Here you will can see leopard-skin shields, still in good condition after 2300 years.The walls are lined with 365 ushabtis, holding the spirits of the servants, soldiers and farmers who would cater to his needs in the afterlife. There is a fabulous folding bed with modern-looking hinges, and ornate thrones where the pharoah could rest his feet on depictions of his defeated foes. Who were these foes? Well, his walking sticks (the ‘Prisoners’ Canes’) show effigies of Nubians, Persians – even Chinese, stylized in such a way that they could have been 19th century artifacts, rather than dating from the 1352 BC!A separate room is given over to Tut’s most personal effects – the jewellery and ornaments that went into his sarcophagus with him. His funeral mask is everything you dream. Gold, black and turquoise, ears pierced, cobra rearing from the forehead, it is truly stunning. I am used to the full-on face-on viewpoint, so I was enraptured by the profile (you can do a full 360 around the mask). Whisper it quietly for fear of controversy, but from the side the jawline and thick lips look much more ‘African’ than the Semitic Egyptians of today…From here we returned downstairs to see his parents, Akhenaten and Nefertiti and the Amarna period. Akhenaten dispossed the powerful priesthoods of Amun and instituted a monotheistic religion centered on the Aten sun-disk. Conventional art also went out the window, as you can see by their exaggerated depictions – wide hips, distended bellies, elongated heads. Laila said this was a genetic deformity due to inbreeding. Not a choice made by binding their heads? "No no no! Who old you they bound their heads?" Um, no one. Just a guess. Sore nerve?With that little controversy dying down we went on to see relics of Hatshepsut (the loathed female pharoah), the Hyksos, and the ‘big three’ pyramid builders from Giza (including the famed mural of the ‘Meidum Geese’).For another LE100, you can see the Royal Mummies. Quite expensive, considering that you can see other mummies for no additional fee elsewhere in Egypt (the Luxor Museum for instance). There are eleven bodies displayed here, all looking pretty much the same – dark skin, seemingly cut from stone, withered stick-like limbs, oily waves of black hair, teeth ivory against the ebony skin. You are expected to show respect for these fathers of Egypt and no guides are allowed; you are expected to progress in silence and read the panels (which for once are actually very informative). So what did I learn about those cousin-marrying dynasties? Well, mainly that they suffered from a wide variety of ailments – elongated skulls, very bad teeth, arthritis, arteriosclerosis, obesity (Hatshepsut), and – in the case of Ramses V – a distended scrotum! Outside there are animal mummies that require no additional fee to view. Two giant crocodiles steal the show, but there are also cats, baboons, and even shrews. The easiest job must have been the mummified snake!I’ll have to give the Egyptian Museum five-stars as a must see. You cannot come to Cairo and pass on the opportunity of seeing the glorious grave goods of Tutankhamun. But that doesn’t mean I like the museum. I personally think it gives a very bad image of Egypt as a ramshackle, disorganised collection of historical treasures and little more to commend it. I look forward to the completion of the new, larger museum out by the Pyramids. Having seen some of the country’s newer museums I have little doubt that it will be a professional and cutting-edge gallery that will happily make most of my words above redundant.
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