If you’ve been following our trip, you’ve seen the warning about how blog posts will be a few weeks (or more) behind our visit. While it won’t matter as much for posterity’s sake, do take a moment to follow the story on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram =)
Cairo is not precisely a hotbed of tourism at the moment. Thank the recent revolution and coup d’etat of 2013 for that, and some anti-American sentiment still lingers which never helps. Just days before we arrived, a bombing took out a bridge checkpoint and killed a policeman, putting security on high alert in a country already known for a heightened state of awareness.
Officially the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, I’ve heard or seen it as the Egyptian museum or the National Museum in various places, but there’s only one like it — and it’s the world’s largest collection of antiques from the age of Pharaohs.
Security measures (while reasonably swift and necessary) ensure a bit of a frustrating start to your visit. Pass through the single entrance, plop your bag on an x-ray scanner, walk through a metal detector and (for men) get a brief pat-down scan. No cameras are allowed inside the museum, so after purchasing your ticket, deposit your bag nearby and be on your way… to another x-ray scanner and another metal detector (and yes, another pat-down scan).
Before depositing your camera, however, take in the pleasant enough outer area, which features plenty of antiques like the ones you’ll see inside. You won’t be allowed in if you have a camera with you at the second security checkpoint, however, forcing you to turn around and walk back to the bag deposit building. This is not the place to cop an attitude about the whole ‘no photos’ thing or slyly try to get pictures with your phone. Try to accept it as part of the conditions of admission — believe me, it’s part of my joy to take pictures of my travels…
First established in 1835, the museum found its permanent home here in 1902, and has 120,000 items in its collection. Only a fraction are on display at any given time due to space limitations. It kind of feels like you’re walking through a warehouse club type store with millennia of history on display instead of oversized boxes of snacks. It’s a tall task, to be sure, but it seems the museum isn’t up to it. Exhibits lacked context and descriptions, and the few that had anything in English were essentially typewritten labels that must date back decades. I wouldn’t expect a perfectly made sign for each exhibit since they rotate so frequently, but they’ve had over a century to figure something out. (Keep reading for what might end being a rather elegant solution.)
The ground floor features plenty of ancient statues — one of the largest and most prominent is King Amenophis III, along with his wife Queen Tyi and their three daughters. It was certainly an incredible feat of engineering to get all these statues and artwork in place… something you’ll almost hear more about if you listen to a tour guide for more than a few seconds. A number of ‘freelance tour guides’ are waiting for tourists willing to listen for a price — perhaps that’s why the museum has gone a century without putting signs and labels on things…
You’ll see a number of artists sketching from the antiques and works of art on display — a fine place to serve as a classroom, though you’ll want to be conscious of where you step. A temporary exhibit displays the papyri of a tax collector from the 2nd century AD — a great set-up complete with plenty of info in English, and proof that it can be done.
Head up to the second floor for a bit of a shock — the exhibit of the royal mummies is a separate one from the museum. This single exhibit costs 100 Egyptian pounds (about $13 USD as of our visit) — although you’ve already paid 75 Egyptian pounds to enter the museum, the gouging is far from complete. We passed and still saw a number of mummies, sarcophaguses, and enough stuff to keep you walking for hours.
While seemingly everything inside could be a highlight to someone, I was drawn to the ostraca, the scrap pieces of rocks that artists drew on for fun — perhaps doodles from several millennia ago. While most were supposedly broken after they finished doodling, a number of them are on display like an animation’s rough draft.
The exhibits are unquestionably authentic, and I was rather surprised that there was very little musty smell to the place. There is enough to see inside (even without the mummies exhibit) to keep you moving and on your feet for several hours of exploring. Some maintenance work (painting and such) is ongoing, and being one of the country’s largest attractions means you might see a camera crew blissfully able to break the ‘no photo’ rule.
It’s one of two must-see places in Cairo that seemingly every tourist checks out — and perhaps that’s part of the problem. Despite the rather expensive admission fees, it seems the facilities are in a ‘let’s make this last as long as we can’ mode. For example, the building where we dropped off our cameras looked to have self-service lockers in the back. Instead of replacing the lockers when keys were lost or lockers broken, they switched to a person handling the goods (and handing you the plastic fob that once held a key as your receipt).
In the end, it’s a must-see place with outstanding exhibits, yet run in a way that I’d usually tell people to avoid. You’re more likely to find the Egyptian museum in Berlin to offer more useful info into the sights, or perhaps the still-to-open $800 million Grand Egyptian Museum will leapfrog this fading collection.
Name: Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (AKA the Egyptian museum or the National Museum, المتحف المصري in Arabic)
Address: Tahrir Square, Meret Basha, Ismailia, Qasr an Nile, Cairo Governorate 11516,, Egypt (GPS: 30.046795, 31.233594)
Directions: It’s closest to Sadat station on the Metro, which was closed during our trip. Tehrir Square is the major landmark nearby — take a taxi here and cross the street to the museum.
Admission: 75 LE (Egyptian pounds, or about $10 USD at time of publication) — locals pay a tiny fraction of that. The royal mummies exhibition on the second floor is a separate admission fee of 100 LE.
Phone: (02) 5794596