Tanks, barbed wire and mummies–a day at the museum in Cairo

Cairo is a big, noisy, filthy city.  It doesn’t hum with organized activity—it roars with  mayhem.  Lanes on the road are suggestions to be blatantly ignored, crossing an intersection on foot is an adrenaline sport, and I often have to pick my way around large tumbleweeds of barbed wire that block the sidewalk because, well, no one has bothered to clean them up since 2011.

Tangle of barbed wire on the streets of Cairo

Tangle of barbed wire on the streets of Cairo

On my third day in Cairo I meet up with Jess, a new friend and fellow Richard Halliburton fan.  We share a nice lunch then make our way to Cairo’s famous Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.  Along the way we pass a tree-lined, barbed wire-laden street in front of the museum.  A dozen manned tanks park in the shade, ready should trouble erupt in adjacent Tahrir Square.

Could be a nice street if not for the barbed wire and...

Could be a nice street if not for the barbed wire and…

...the tanks lined up in front of the Cairo Museum

…the tanks lined up in front of the Cairo Museum

One ticket booth and two (count ‘em) metal detectors later we’re in the museum.  I pull out a digital copy of “A Guide to the Cairo Museum” published in 1903, which is weirdly accurate today in 2014.  It describes the portico of the museum, where “two colossal figures stand facing each other on the inner side of the two southern columns,” then leads us into a room flanked by “two large wooden boats of peculiar construction” that carried a mummified Pharaoh to his final resting place around 2700 BC.  The book is a wealth of information on the history and significance of each item in the museum—and scarcely a detail of the ground floor has changed in 111 years.

The upper floor is a different story.  While many of the artifacts are the same, the organization has changed over the past century.  The Royal Mummies have been moved to glass cases in humidity-controlled rooms, and the room they previously occupied has been given over to Tutankhamun, commonly known at King Tut.  His tomb wasn’t uncovered until November 1922, meaning Richard Halliburton missed seeing King Tut’s glorious remains by a matter of months.

Detail of King Tut's vulture collar (credit: bmasry2.blogspot.com)

Detail of King Tut’s vulture collar (credit: bmasry2.blogspot.com)

While the paucity of tourists in Cairo has made for a lonely stay, there’s one definite perk:  Jess and I are virtually alone in the room containing Tut’s relics.  I have all the time in the world to stare at the famous gold-and-glass funereal mask and examine the intricate hieroglyphs on his three coffins.  And it’s a good thing I can get my nose right up to the displays—the lighting in the room is poor, the glass is smudged, and many of the relics are coated in layers of dust.

Continuing on, we wander past alcoves stuffed haphazardly with priceless Egyptian artifacts, some with pallets leaning against them, others supporting mops and brooms.  Less than ten percent of the artifacts in the museum have placards.

“This place desperately needs a graduate student to make information cards for all the exhibits,” I say to Jess, wondering how many people before me have made the same comment.

Mummy of Ramses II at the Cairo Museum (credit: kennethgarrett.photoshelter.com)

Mummy of Ramses II at the Cairo Museum (credit: kennethgarrett.photoshelter.com)

The mummy rooms are thoroughly creepy.  While it’s amazing to look at the faces of such famous rulers as Ramses II and Seti I, their missing noses and small, crooked teeth are straight out of a horror film.  Those men never wanted to be displayed in a museum, stripped of their sarcophagi and jewels, naked in front of the eyes of irreverent tourists, but the modern world had no respect for their graves, and plunderers rendered them destitute long before archaeologists came along.

In another room we find the mummified remains of animals, including cats, dogs, goats, two enormous crocodiles, and a meter-long Nile perch.  They’re coated in dust too thick to see through, and none of the cases have lights.  Jess uses the flashlight on his phone to match an information card to a mummified bird that ends up being an eagle.

Mummified baboon and dog at the Cairo Museum (credit: time-theegyptian.blogspot.com)

Mummified baboon and dog at the Cairo Museum (credit: time-theegyptian.blogspot.com)

Eventually we leave the dust and disorder of the museum and emerge back into the dust and disorder of Cairo.  Some of the buildings and avenues around Tahrir Square would be quite scenic if it weren’t for the layers of grime rendering white buildings black, and the piles of garbage and barbed wire lining every street.  An endless cacophony of car horns deafens us, and even at 4:00 in the afternoon the sky has a sunset-like quality due to air pollution.

Negotiating the tangle of people, cars and barbed wire in front of the museum

Negotiating the tangle of people, cars and barbed wire in front of the museum

The museum and the city have a lot in common—both are veritable treasure troves, one of ancient Egyptian history, and one of the modern Egyptians people and their lives, stories and culture.  Both have a lot to offer, but both are too impoverished, dirty and neglected to let their good sides shine through.

A new museum is slated to open at Giza in 2015, and a new Cairo has been in the works for the past few years.  Hopefully the future will allow both the opportunity to showcase the good this country has to offer.

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  1. Great recap, Sarah! Safe travels on the next phases of your (awesome) journey.

  2. Great descriptions Sarah. It makes me a little sad to read how depressed the area is.
    Be well!

  3. As usual, a graphic, cleverly crafted report with a touch of humor. Well done, Sarah. My wife and I were in Cairo seven years ago and recognize many of the places and conditions you chronicled. The traffic then was hectic and the grime pharonic as you describe. However, the museum was teeming with visitors and there was no barbed wire that we can remember. I do remember the need for more modern cataloging and display methods. Your description reminds me of all that civilization owes to the British, French, and other archaeologists who brought back priceless artifacts to display safely in museums where they would be preserved for posterity.

  4. Ellie Rose Elliott

    A pellucidly clear, thoughtful and honest description, and thank you, Sarah. I’ve added a link to this page in the Egyptology Group on LinkedIn, where I hope it will bring you many more visitors. A number of our members live and work in Cairo, some of them at the Museum. They get a little sad, too . . .

    • Thank you for your feedback, and for re-posting the story!

    • I look forward to the new museums but a change of mentality is also needed. Museums like the one on Cairo are invaluable to researchers but not when it takes eight years (so far in my case) to see requested objects and photography without flash remains forbidden. The Egyptian Museum is not a friendly place to most scholars.

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