cairo: egyptian museum

We had our last breakfast looking out onto the Giza Plateau, and the massive, ancient, extraordinary pyramids. I loved the Egyptian breakfast, and I loved the scenery. We packed up, left our things with our wonderful hosts, and took a taxi to the Giza metro station, and then to the Sadat station on Tahrir Square.

The Egyptian Museum is the most visited site in Cairo, and one of the most heavily visited sites in all of the Middle East. Every tour bus, every Nile cruise, every school group goes there. Almost everything that was excavated from the pyramids and ancient royal tombs and temples lives there. And it is famously awful.

The museum is notorious for its poor lighting, poor or nonexistent information, and haphazard displays. There are no audio guides -- a standard feature in museums for at least 40 years -- and no organized tours. Touts stroll through the halls, offering their services for a few coins. It’s clear that many of them have no specialized knowledge whatsoever.

Many pieces sit on unmarked shelves, collecting dust. There are packing crates, who knows what inside, left in galleries.

A mammoth new museum is being built near Giza. It supposedly will be modern in all ways. But this new “coming soon” museum cannot be a legitimate excuse for the state of the current museum. It's been this way since its opening in 1902.

However, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. The Lonely Planet guidebook has a nice “best of” itinerary; the museum is huge and a greatest-hits tour is very useful. I was thrilled to see the Narmer Palette, one of the oldest records of written language in the world, and a huge array of hieroglyphics with the colours intact. At Saqqara, we saw tombs with star shapes on the ceilings -- here, we saw the same designs, but gold stars on a deep blue background. It was extraordinary.

The Egyptian Museum’s most famous holdings are the royal mummies and the treasures from the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, best known as King Tut. (Queue Steve Martin.) For some reason there is an extra admission ticket for the mummies, but not for Tut. Allan did the mummies while I rested my feet. (This was surely the first time Allan wanted to spend more time in a museum than I did.) Maybe he will tell us about the mummies in a comment.

We were both in absolute awe over the Tut treasures. (No photography allowed in that room, and strictly enforced. The engraving work in the gold, the delicate and elaborate beadwork, the uniformity of the stone work, and of course, the excess -- the excessive excess -- is breathtaking. It seems nearly impossible that these works were created without the use of modern technology, but once again, the ancient civilizations dazzle us with their knowledge and capabilities.

The Tut death mask is one of the most famous antiquities, ever, and is certainly the most famous ancient Egyptian object. The death mask is indeed amazing, but the golden sarcophagi, each one more insanely elaborate than the next -- becoming more elaborate as they are closer to the body -- were stunning. The special King Tut room (included with your admission) is also full of gold jewellery, all in keeping the same themes, colours, and symbols.

The real capper on the commentary about the museum itself came on our way out: the gift shop. Museum gift shops are usually good places to buy quality gifts, and if you’ve been to any lately, you know the huge array of books, games, jewellery, accessories, tee-shirts, knick-knacks, and swag that is usually available. Here, there were some replica vases on a shelf, and guidebooks in different languages piled up, spilling over, and jammed into a display case. Another display case held a whole bunch of dusty DVDs, seemingly thrown in heap. Throw in a spinner-display of postcards, and that's it. Nothing else. We were so amazed by the gift shop that Allan took photos.

From a purely consumer perspective, can you imagine what a gold mine this gift shop could be? King Tut, mummies, Nefertiti...? From a cultural perspective, it’s just very, very sad.

We had some time before our train, and Allan (of course) had some cafes he wanted to find. One was a high-end patisserie called El Abd. We found it easily enough, but we had been hoping to relax with tea and dessert, and the place didn’t have tables. There was a crowd ordering gelato from a take-out window, and inside a brisk business in both traditional Egyptian and French sweet baked goods. We bought boxes of assorted Egyptian desserts, and another box for Abdul. Allan’s eyes flew open when he saw giant donuts, and he had to buy three of those.

I don’t know where Caireans eat when they shop in downtown Cairo, but on our second time walking around there, we saw fast-food takeouts only. It’s a very nice area -- wide sidewalks, relatively clean -- but as far as we can see, nothing to eat. We ended up at Cafe Riche again, the place where we recovered from market crush. The food is not very good, and we got into a thing with the waiter, and in general that was a waste of time and money, but at least we had something to eat.

We then made our way around the Tahrir Square traffic circle. Friends told me to be careful crossing streets in Cairo, but better advice would be “Don’t be careful, be bold”. When there’s a brief break in traffic, you must step out into the street, and you must keep walking until you get to the other side. At first, find a group of locals and tail them. Get a feel for it and jump in. The traffic circles are not littered with dead bodies, so something is working.

We took the metro to Giza, found the train station, and found Abdul. We went to his car and retrieved our bags, and were pleased to surprise him with a box of sweets. I was able to say, “This time we get the dessert.” He said, “Thank you for what you did for my family.”

It is strange to be in this position. Here, we are rich. Not just because our money stretches so far. We are rich simply because we are here -- we can travel halfway around the world, just because we want to see some famous things. Recreational travel is a first-world luxury. I have felt this before, but never as keenly as this.

Photos from the Egyptian Museum can be found here.

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