Base: Windsor Hotel, Cairo
Site: Museum of Egyptian Antiquites, Cairo
Surely, a vist to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (more commonly, simply the “Egyptian Museum” or “Cairo Museum”, though it’s far from the only one in either) is at the same time both one of the most rewarding and frustrating experiences possible for anyone with a passion for all things Ancient Egyptian.
The Egyptian Museum is blessed with the single largest collection of Pharaonic artefacts in the world, roughly 120,000, in a woefully inadequate 1900′s building in Midan Tahrir. The museum is the single biggest draw for tourists to Cairo city itself (the Pyramids being over the river in Giza). Although I have seen the Cairo museum several times before now, this is the first time I have seen it in peak tourist season (winter), and I truly had underestimated just how crowded the place can get. Surfacing from the metro and running the gauntlet with the traffic (the building work going on opposite seems not to have progressed a single block since last summer) I was faced with a procession of buses carrying a veritable United Nations of eager tourists.
Security at the Museum is taken more seriously than at other sites, perhaps due to the vulnerability of the collection, or perhaps because of it’s city centre location, which makes establishing a security “bubble” (a la the Luxor West Bank) impossible. Once through this though, the full Egyptian Museum experience begins. You are immediately greeted by a round entrance hall, immediately bringing you face to face with a splendid statue of Ramesses II, beyond which lies the long gallery leading up to a colossal statue of Amunhotep III with his Great Royal Wife, Tiye. It’s a splendid entrance, and is perhaps one of the few times in the museum where real thought has gone into how to awe the visitor. This I feel is an important point, since these pieces were, in part, designed to do precisely that, and never fail to achieve.
Here you have a choice as to how to tackle this building, either bearing left off to the Old Kingdom sculpture, or heading straight into the rather mixed main gallery, or right to a collection of Late Period sarcophagi. Heading to the OK section you are immediately faced with a statue of none other than Djoser himself. Pharaohs never had themselves depicted with the “sneer of cold command” beloved of Shelley, and Djoser is no exception. His statue, however, showing him sat upon his throne, does give a serious air of unsmiling authority that comes as something of a surprise, given the emphasis in most Old Kingdom art to project serenity and calm. It’s impact however, is immediate and powerful. One can only wonder what the impression would have been when the inlaid eyes were present.
Beyond this lies a forest of Old Kingdom pieces, including some beautiful small statues and models, even the walls of an entire burial chamber, as well as several false doors and interesting stela. Hidden at the back behind some sarcophagi is an unusual round offering table set into a oblong block of calcite. Note that most photographic equipment is banned in the museum, hence the lack of pictures with this post. The sarcophagi here are some of the finest carving I have ever seen. The details and preservation are truly amazing, as is some of the colouring which remains. The beautiful temple facade style (“Copyright Imhotep”) truly shines to the fore here, and as is so often the case, the cramped display conditions and poor lighting (as well as a lack of clear and accurate information on display) do hide some true gems. Realsing this, I took my time here and actually made several visits to the museum over a few days, and added an additional day at the end of my before flying back to the UK, to really get a feel for the place.
Following through from here and staying on the ground floor you will eventually come to the New Kingdom sculpture section, and some more of the museums highlights, one of which is hard to miss. A colossal statue of Ramesses II (naturally) as a child in front of a colossal Horus (some reports say the hawk actually, in this case, represents a Levantine hawk deity), made in basalt. The proportions and finish are both perfect. In one hand he holds a sw hieroglyph as if it were a staff or cane.
In the rooms around this gallery you will also find beautiful statury, both private and royal, including the famous diorite statue of Khafra, found at his valley temple (see post on the Giza Plateau). This piece, words do not do it justice. Go. See it for yourself. This statue is well over 4,000 years old. The stone from which it was cut lies hundreds of miles to the south in the Western Desert (near to modern day Toshka, between Aswan and Abu Simbel). It is beautiful.
Nearby in one of the other rooms of the gallery you will find the statues (almost perfectly preserved) of Rahotep and his wife, Nofret. Nothing, not the unchanging aspects of land and sky-scapes, animals or riverside life quite links the past to the present like this couple. I would not describe either as a truly beautiful sculpture but it is quite unnervingly life like, and leaves little doubt as to the nature and character of both man and wife.
Take time also in the rooms along here to see more beautiful statues of Thutmose III. Whilst not as beautiful as the statue of his in Luxor Museum (which can rightfully, in my own personal opinion, take the crown from the head of Michael Angelo’s “David”) they are nonetheless incredibly beautiful, just to appreciate.
Further along the main gallery I came to a statue I saw on my last visit here but had far too many people around to truly take in, the wooden Ka statue of the otherwise little known Pharaoh, Awibra-Hor. One of relatively few statues to survive complete with his inlaid eyes, you cannot help but get the impression that this statue has fulfilled the aim of it’s creation, to provide a place for the Ka of it’s owner. The impression of looking right into the soul is disturbingly intense. This is not simply a case of the eyes remaining, as other statues this complete – including dear old Rahotep – give little or no sense of this kind of depth. The artist truly has created something absolutely and totally unique, capturing not so much a particular emotion, or moment or time, or likeness, but a state of mind, outlook and individual character, literally immortalising an individual.
Back in the main central gallery, it’s impossible to miss the colossal statue of Amunhotep III and Tiye, his Great Royal Wife. Like any of the larger statues it’s actually best appreciated from a distance, as the faces are particularly beautiful, but cannot be seen close to due to the height. I admit to not really properly noticing and appreciating it, since it so dominates the room as to become something of a glorious architectural feature rather than an exhibit. As such my words fail to do it justice.
Also here you will find a preserved piece of flooring from Amarna. There are more Amarna artefacts to be found in the chamber beyond the statue of Amunhotep III and Tiye, including a colossal statue of Amunhotep IV/Akhenaten in typically bizarre Amarna style. Regardless of ones perspective on the brief yet surreal desert escapade that was the Amarna period, one undeniably beautiful artefact is the sarcophagus that is believed to have belonged to Tutankhamun’s elder brother, Semenkhare. A fragile mummy was found in the sarcophagus when it was discovered but was destroyed during investigation. Identification is compounded by the fact that on the sarcophagus itself the cartouches have been systematically destroyed. Some stamped gold leaf inside the coffin was all that remained for ID. Hacked out cartouches aside, it’s a beautiful sarcophagus, and worth detouring to see, as it’s much better displayed than the others in the main Sarcophagi collection upstairs.
Other things to note back in the main gallery is the two funeral barques displayed here. These were found in Dashur where six pits were found. A project was recently launched to try to find out more about the site from where they originate, as although six pits are mentioned, the archaeological records taken at the time only describe five of them. Satellite imaging has proven extremely useful in resolving the unanswered questions over the original investigation, and is one example of how modern advances can contribute to archaeology, as well as makes things more difficult with agricultural expansion and the likes. Google Earth, it seems, really can be a gift from the gods. Indeed, satellite imaging from the delta region shows clearly the two sides of modern technology. It has assisted in finding literally hundreds of sites, and also, at the exact same time, allow us to see and document precisely the danger that they are facing from modern building and agriculture works.
Still in the main gallery it’s hard to miss (not impossible, but hard) the restored Pyramidion of Amenemhat. Beautiful and perfect in every way, this piece would once have stood atop his pyramid as a capstone. It is probably (but not certainly) was gilded in electrum (a natural alloy of gold and silver) that the Egyptians routinely used on similar pyramidions that topped obelisks. With a capstone like this and the original polished limestone on the casing, all the pyramids would one have looked quite different to the modern “jagged” appearance, being extremely smooth and white on the main body, with a sharp, golden tip designed to reflect the sun.
There are many more beautiful artefacts on the ground floor, and it’s easy to spend many hours (and countless pages) on this floor alone, however I wish to keep this article reasonably brief, so shall skip over the remainder of the ground floor and go upstairs.
There are several areas of interest on the upper floor, but most visitors are drawn in the treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun and the Royal Mummies room (separate tickets needed). The “Mummy Room” has something of an interesting modern political history. The current set up is very different to that which used to exist.
President Sadat, affected by accusations that the display of mummies in the museum was disrespectful and voyeuristic ordered the mummy rooms to be closed. They remained that way until 1985, when the display was re-opened in a different room. The lighting is kept much more subdued, and the display has been reduced and made more respectful. A separate entry charge has been implemented to also try and manage crowds. I have not visited it in person, so I cannot say if I myself feel the new display to be respectful.
Also here in the tomb treasures of Tutankhamun. Much of these are simply kept in the usual corridors and displays and include the outer sarcophagi, furniture and many of his canes. There is too much to describe, but the “animal hide effect” throne cannot be ignored. Less well known than the golden throne with the image of Tutankhamun, Ankhsenamun and the Aten, this design is in some ways even more intricate and truly beautiful. The quality of the workmanship, and time it must have taken is incredible. The impression of a folding chair (an Egyptian invention) is very real and it takes a second to realise that it is just that, an impression. The seat, being wood not hide, couldn’t fold. Like the golden throne, the Sema Tawy motif is very prominent.
On a sadder note, the collection of canes that is in many ways unique is clearly suffering from neglect. In the case lie close together (too close to really examine each individually) several canes, each different. All of them crumbling, flakes of gold leaf and wood lying on the bottom of the case. One cannot help but wonder how long they have lain there in that state.
The main exhibit room of the Tutankhamun section is glassed off and cleanly decorated, with modern spacious cases and modern lighting. The famous mummy mask of Tutankhamun is unsurprisingly the main draw. It’s not hard to see why. It is displayed quite high, and as such it is better to stand back. When you do, the eyes do not look at you. Like so many pieces of Pharaonic sculpture, the rekhyet stare at it, but it does not stare back. The piece captures perfectly the expression of the ruler as one who looks not through, but beyond the staring hordes to something unseen. It is difficult for the artists to capture but Egyptian sculpture does so extremely well. The mask is made from pure gold whilst the decoration is made up of glass and gemstones. Much of the jewellery also lies in this room. There is no point in trying to describe it, for it is all beautiful and has to be seen.
Also on this floor is the Tanis Treasure room. The Tanis treasures are in many ways every bit as beautiful as those of Tutankhamun, particularly the solid silver coffin of Psusennes I. It is one of the most beautiful sculptures in metal I’ve seen anywhere. Unfortunately, although this room has had a degree of modernisation, the lighting of several artefacts is still poor, and, bizarrely, Psuennes’ coffin is one of them that suffers most from this, along with thick layers of dust and grime on the glass, making it impossible to truly appreciate, and it truly deserves appreciation.
Some of the jewellery in the collection is also incredibly beautiful. Do not miss the wristbands of Shoshenq I, which are truly masterpieces of craftsmanship, and certainly rival the quality of goods left with Tutankhamun. As well simple things such as mirror handles display beautiful design and attention to detail that is incredible, as well as things like ear rings. Many people miss this collection and is a tragic shame, as it highlights some of the best craftsman ship in any Egyptian jewellery, dispels myths about the Third Intermediate period, and highlights some achievements in Egyptian jewellery and design that are simply not represented in the Tutankhamun collection.
Also on the upper floor, and of great interest for it’s insight into everyday life is the collection of models, including a very large section dedicated to model boats. These models (of workers of various kinds, boats, buildings, homes and animals) were included in tomb equipment for the deceased, to supply him (or her) with these things in the afterlife. The collection is spread over a few rooms and is often ignored by visitors, but gives a wonderful and realistic insight into everyday life beyond the formal ideals religious and royal artwork. The scene of the cattle count is particularly detailed and realistic, though there are many other fine ones, including a scene in a bakery.
Egyptian Antiquities Museum Practicalities (Visitors Info)
Location: Midan Tahrir, Cairo.
Transport: Excellent. Sadat metro station is a few minutes walk away. The exit nearest to the museum is signposted in English and Arabic within the station. From this exit it is a simple straight walk along one road, and just a few hundred metres to the museum. Cairo metro is safe, efficient and bi-lingual. Flat rate fare of LE1 per trip. Avoid rush hour when the system becomes very crowded, and be prepared to push.
Costs: LE50 entry. Extra for mummy rooms.
Times: Hours change, but generally 9am to 5 or 6pm.
Notes: No camera permits. Photography is completely prohibited, though many people use mobile phone cameras. Be discreet. Be aware lighting conditions are generally poor. A pocket torch is recommend. Also bring some drink (no A/C, so hot in summer) and food as the cafeteria is in the same building, but involves leaving the building to enter it, going past the ticket check.