One of the first and last places I visited in Egypt was the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. I was so nervous that my hands would not stop shaking. The unrelenting sun beat down on my shoulders as I made my way from the underground parking structure to the first security checkpoint. Behind a small gate, five fully armed soldiers sat under a white canvas tent. I reluctantly approached, climbed over the closed gate, and waited for them to acknowledge me. One of the men outstretched his hand. I wasn’t sure what he wanted, so I just stood there looking at him. He peered at me over the top of his mirrored, aviator glasses and said, “Passport.” I quickly handed mine over. He took the last breath of his cigarette, glanced over my document, handed it back, and waved me off without another word. As I turned away to head toward the museum, I stopped in my tracks. An army vehicle overloaded with soldiers sat at the midway. Hesitantly, I made my way passed them to the next gate.
After a metal detector, purse check, and full body pat down, I was finally at the ticket counter. I purchased my entry ticket, along with a separate ticket that gave me permission to take photographs inside. The entrance to the museum was quite grand, as seen in the movies. Magnificent palms shaded the courtyard. I snapped my first picture, and was then approached by a short man in cargo pants and a floppy hat.
“Madam,” he said, with a smile. “Would you like a guide?”
“No, thank you,” I replied.
“I will show you the important points.”
“I’d rather see it on my own.”
“It will take long time,” he insisted. “I can show you quickly.”
“Lah,” I said. “I know what I want. Shokran.”
He bowed his head and walked off to the next tourist. I made my way up the stairs, handed over my ticket, went through another metal detector and purse check, and was finally inside.
The sight stopped me dead in my tracks. It was somewhat like stepping into the Tardis. The inside was far larger than it appeared on outside. The grandeur of the size alone was staggering. I immediately understood why the tour guide was so insistent. Alas, I was hell-bent on finding my own way around. I decided to start from the left side and work my way around from the first floor and then upstairs. This thought quickly vanished once I got a glimpse of what was on the second floor. I ended up spending all of my time on the left side of floors one and two, leaving the entire right side of the museum for the next trip.
The display cases looked like something from The Mummy Returns. They were made of dark wood and dusty glass and were secured with small padlocks that I could probably open with one of those generic diary keys from my pre-teen years. Not everything was encased. In fact, most of the larger artifacts were not even closed off by rope. They sat in the open, and I didn’t see any “Do Not Touch” signs. I may or may not have caressed Akhenaten’s face. What? He is one of my favorite people in history.
FUN FACT: Akhenaten was the first person in recorded history to suggest that there is only one God. Granted he claimed that God was his father, Aten, and this was his reason for demanding that everyone else do exactly what he said. Sounds familiar, does it not? In reality, his father was Amenhotep III, and his mother was Tiye. If all of that doesn’t ring a bell, maybe King Tut will. Akhenaten was Tutankhamun's father, and one of his many wives was Nefertiti.
Now back to our regularly scheduled article!
Besides my questionable fondling of the ancient pharaoh, I saw tombs, giant statues, gold jewelry that looked more like armored chest pieces, figurines, tattered shoes, and thick, black wigs with gold beads woven into the hair. Grand ceremonious receptions entered my head at the sight of the chariots made of gold. Priests and scribes performing rituals and rites danced around my imagination, sparked by jeweled daggers and ancient stone tablets. I stared at Gods, who stared right back at me through their glass encasements. Some were made of gold, others of turquoise or obsidian, and some were simply stone images of powerful ancient deities.
I was so enthralled by my surroundings that the exhibit for the mummies completely snuck up on me. After purchasing another ticket (the mummies are not included in the entrance ticket price) I walked through a hallway surrounded by glass and into the Room of the Ancient Dead. That is not the official name for the exhibit, but I find it to be much cooler than “Royal Mummies Room.” The room is climate controlled (the rest of the museum is like a sauna) and photography is prohibited. What did I pay for at the gate? The only evidence I have that I stood next the corpses of ancient kings is my ticket stub. Totally kept that.
Their sarcophaguses had been replaced by glass tombs. I could still see the family resemblance in most. Father like son. Son like grandfather. They were all exceptionally short. I asked the attendant if that was due to the mummification process or simply that they were so old. He said, “No. They were short.” I still am not sure if he was being sarcastic or not.
FUN FACT: After death, a priest wearing an Anubis mask would rip the brain out through the nose and remove all of the internal organs. The lungs, intestines, stomach, and liver were then placed in canopic jars while the heart was left inside the body. After a quick, full body spa treatment of wine and spices, he would cover the body in salt and allow it to dry for 70 days. At the 40-day mark, the body would be stuffed with cloth or sand, kind of like a scarecrow. When the 70 days were up, the body would be wrapped in bandages and placed inside the sarcophagus. Some were sent to the afterlife with gold masks or gold finger and toe coverings.
“For the record, don’t put me down for mummification.” - Rick O’Connell, The Mummy.
Never having seen an actual mummy before, I became very emotional. My chest swelled and my breath caught in my throat. I felt sad for them. I felt sad for looking at them. Their tombs were sacred and never to be opened. Now, here they were on display for everyone in the world to see. It was as if I was betraying some secret, ancient code. In a way, I suppose I’m thankful that photography isn’t allowed. Preserve a bit of their dignity, I guess.
I left the mummy exhibit feeling overwhelmed and drained at the same time. Then I came across something I had waited my whole life to see. It was King Tut, or rather King Tut’s famous golden mask. This was the only other place in the museum where photography was prohibited. I studied his face for the longest time. The Boy King who had captivated the world since his excavation was right in front of me. Only glass separated him from the rest of the world. I had seen and even owned replicas of this mask, but none of those trinkets do him justice. His face was smooth and pleasant, like he was having a good day. You know when you smell a lovely perfume? Like that. As I stood there gazing at him, day dreaming about scenes from his life, an attendant announced that the museum was closing. I looked at my phone and argued, “We still have 15 minutes.”
“Closed,” he said, bluntly.
Dragging my feet like a five year old, taking my sweet-ass time, and giving the attendant a dirty look, I made my out of the exhibit. Everyone in the building was being shuffled to the exit. A quick look inside my purse and another metal detector, and I was outside. Within seconds, a man with an armload of papyrus drawings jumped in my face, attempting to make a sale. I was unable to enjoy my exit due to his constant hounding. As I moved closer to the soldiers’ station, he backed off.
On my second visit to the museum, I learned that they are building a new museum in another part of the city. It is supposed to rival the best, modern museums in Europe and the United States. Dozens of displays and artifacts were being wrapped up. I couldn’t help but think that this new museum will not be the same. The Egyptian Museum has charm and character. It is full of energy, and I fear the new museum will be cold and stark. I guess I can’t judge it until it’s finished. We shall see!
Thanks for sharing in my experience.