One of the world’s most important collections of ancient artefacts, the Egyptian Museum takes pride of place in Downtown Cairo, on the north side of Midan Tahrir. Inside the great domed, oddly pinkish building, the glittering treasures of Tutankhamun and other great pharaohs lie alongside the grave goods, mummies, jewellery, eating bowls and toys of Egyptians whose names are lost to history.
To walk around the museum is to embark on an adventure through time.
Some display cards have become obsolete as new discoveries have busted old theories. And the collection rapidly outgrew its sensible layout, as, for instance, Tutankhamun’s enormous trove and the tomb contents of Tanis were both unearthed after the museum opened, and then had to be shoehorned into the space. Now more than 100,000 objects are wedged into about 15,000 sq metres. Like the country itself, the museum is in flux. Most objects are still on display, although some are being moved to the Grand Egyptian Museum. While some rooms are being refurbished, the objects are deposited elsewhere in the museum. This museum will remain a major sight, but it is not yet clear when the Grand will open and what will remain here.
One of the most rewarding strategies is simply to walk around and see what catches your eye. But it’s hard to shake the sense that something even more stunning is waiting in the next room. We recommend a few highlights – they’re easy enough to spot because they usually have crowds around them – but be sure to stop and see some of the lesser items, as they often do just as well, if not better, in bringing the world of the pharaohs back to life.
The current museum has its origins in several earlier efforts at managing Egypt’s ancient heritage, beginning in 1835 when Egyptian ruler Mohammed Ali banned the export of antiquities. French architect Mariette’s growing collection, from 35 dig sites, bounced around various homes in Cairo until 1902, when the current building was erected, in a suitably prominent position in the city. There it has stood, in its original layout, a gem of early museum design.
Until 1996, museum security involved locking the door at night. When an enterprising thief stowed away overnight and helped himself to treasures, the museum authorities installed alarms and detectors, at the same time improving the lighting on many exhibits. During the 2011 revolution, the museum was broken into and a few artefacts went missing. To prevent further looting, activists formed a human chain around the building to guard its contents. By most reports, they were successful.
Before entering the museum, wander through the garden. To your left lies the tomb of Auguste Mariette (1821–81), with a statue of the archaeologist, arms folded, shaded under a spreading tree. Mariette’s tomb is overlooked by an arc of busts of two dozen Egyptological luminaries, including Jean-François Champollion, who cracked the code of the hieroglyphs; Gaston Maspero, Mariette’s successor as director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service; and Karl Lepsius, the preeminent 19th-century German Egyptologist.
The ground floor of the museum is laid out roughly chronologically, in a clockwise fashion starting at the entrance hall.
The central atrium (room 43) is filled with a miscellany of large and small Egyptological finds. In the central cabinet No 8, the double-sided Narmer Palette, found at the Temple of Horus in Kom al-Ahmar, near Edfu, is of great significance. Dating from around 3100 BC it depicts Pharaoh Narmer (also known as Menes) wearing, on one side, the crown of Upper Egypt and, on the other side, the crown of Lower Egypt, suggesting the first union of Upper and Lower Egypt under one ruler. Egyptologists take this as the birth of ancient Egyptian civilisation, and Narmer’s reign as the first of the 1st dynasty.
Look for the three exquisite black schist triads (room 47) that depict Pharaoh Menkaure (Mycerinus), builder of the smallest of the three Pyramids of Giza, flanked either side by a female figure. In the centre of room 42 is one of the museum’s masterpieces: a smooth, black statue of Khafre (Chephren). The builder of the second pyramid at Giza sits on a lion throne, and is protected by the wings of the falcon god Horus. Slightly to the left, in front of Khafre, the core of the stunning wooden statue of Ka-Aper (No 40) was carved out of a single piece of sycamore (the arms were ancient additions; the legs, modern restorations). His eyes are amazingly lifelike, set in copper lids with whites of opaque quartz and corneas of rock crystal, drilled and filled with black paste to form the pupils. Behind you, to the left of the door, sits the Seated Scribe (No 44), a wonderful painted limestone figure, hand poised as if waiting to take dictation, his inlaid eyes set in an asymmetrical face giving him a very vivid appearance.
Room 32 is dominated by the beautiful statues of Rahotep and Nofret (No 27), a noble couple from the 4th-dynasty reign of Sneferu, builder of the Bent and the Red Pyramids at Dahshur. In a cabinet off to the left, a limestone group shows Seneb, ‘chief of the royal wardrobe’, and his family (No 39). Seneb is notable for being a dwarf: he sits cross-legged, his two children strategically placed where his legs would otherwise have been. Room 37, entered via room 32, contains furniture from the Giza Plateau tomb of Queen Hetepheres, wife of Sneferu and mother of Khufu (Cheops), including a carrying chair, bed, bed canopy and jewellery box.
Akhenaten (1352–1336 BC), the ‘heretic pharaoh’, did more than build a new capital at Tell al-Amarna, close the temples of the traditional state god Amun, and promote the sun god Aten in his place. He also ushered in a period of great artistic freedom, as a glance around this room will show. Perhaps most striking of all is the unfinished head of Nefertiti (No 161, in the left alcove), wife of Akhenaten. Worked in brown quartzite, it’s an incredibly delicate and sensitive portrait and shows the queen to have been extremely beautiful – unlike some of the relief figures of her elsewhere in the room, in which she appears with exactly the same strange features as her husband.
Exhibits here are grouped thematically and can be viewed in any order, but if you come up the southeast stairs, you’ll enter the Tutankhamun Galleries at room 45 and experience the pieces in roughly the same order they were laid out in within the tomb (a poster on the wall outside room 45 illustrates the tomb and treasures as they were found).
The rooms of the Royal Mummies Halls house the remains of some of Egypt’s most illustrious pharaohs and queens from the 17th to the 21st dynasties (1650 to 945 BC). The ticket price is steep, but you certainly won’t see so many mummies in any other single museum, nor get to peer at them so closely. Parents should be aware that the mummies can be a frightening sight for young children.