Day 1, Mummy Dearest: The Egyptian Museum
Sara and I planned to spend our first full day in Cairo at the Egyptian Museum, home of the world’s greatest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. You could probably spend a week there, to be truthful, especially if you are a true Egyptologist and really know your stuff. As it was, we had studied quite a bit so it was very interesting, but a day was plenty. If you plan to go, at least read up on some of the major Egyptian pharaohs, or you will really not appreciate much of what the museum has to offer.
Ancient Egyptian history covers over 3000 years and is divided into three major periods: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom. These periods are separated by Intermediate Periods of lawlessness or foreign rule. The museum is divided into each of these periods, so as one walks through it, one travels through time from the beginning of recorded history, up to Cleopatra, the final pharaoh.
Egyptians did not like change and it is evidenced in their art. Starting from the early pharaohs of the Old Kingdom, it is difficult to tell the statues from the ones created thousands of years later in the New Kingdom. There are two major exceptions: the art of Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh, and the art of the Ptolemies, who were really Greeks, so their art has a very Greek look to it. Interestingly, the art of Akhenaten is, in my opinion, the most beautiful of all of the Egyptian art.
The entrance to the museum features the Narmer Palette, which is the oldest written document ever discovered. It is a stone tablet that is quite stunning. A fact that you might not have thought of is that history is considered to be events that are written. Therefore, everything that occured before the Narmer Palette is considered pre-historic. Its creation is the exact moment that we separate pre-historic from historic events, at least in Egypt. Every civilization has its own ‘first recorded event’, so while Egypt may no longer be in pre-historic times, Italy or Britain still might be. I bet you never really thought about that, eh?
The first floor of the museum represents all of the periods of ancient Egyptian history and is traversed in a clockwise direction. One of the drawbacks to the museum and to Cairo in general that we noticed is that it strangely does not seem to cater to the tourist. If you know nothing of the museum, you had best purchase or bring a guide book, because things are labeled sparsely at best and even then, the labels look to have been typed on an old typewriter, cut out and taped to the walls at least two decades ago. The Lonely Planet’s Egypt is the guide we used for our entire tour and has a good section on the museum.
After we saw the first floor, it was a bit past lunch time, so we thought we would take a break and try to find something to eat. We exited the museum and made our way in the direction of a restaurant recommended by the guidebook. Many cities that we have visited have had bad traffic and crazy drivers and Cairo ranks right up near the top in this category. More evidence for its almost disdain for tourists is the fact that the museum is surrounded by busy streets with no clear way to get across. Crosswalks are ignored by drivers and crossing the street is a leap of faith, a game of chicken and a battle of wills. By the time we left Cairo, we were pros at crossing, but on our first day we just stood there waiting and waiting for something to happen. In the morning, the traffic had not been that bad and we had come from a different direction. Now, at lunch, the crazies were out in full force.
As we stood there in the hot sun, thirsty for a Coke, a kind older gentleman motioned for us to follow him across. He magically held out his hand as he confidently stepped out in the middle of oncoming cars and they stopped in response. We obediently followed and he casually struck up a conversation. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Oh, America. I have a cousin in New Jersey. Where are you headed now? Oh, a Coke? I know where you can get a Coke. Follow me.”
I was happy that we had found a friendly face and once again, we obediently followed. I became a bit concerned when we kept passing small stores that clearly offered soda for sale. Having been raised in the South as I was, though, I felt that it was bad manners to point this out to this kind gentleman. We followed along for a few blocks and finally arrived, hot, sweaty and thirsty at “my family’s business. They will take good care of you. Come right in.” And that is how we experienced the first of several of the local scams THAT WE HAD READ ABOUT AND STILL FELL FOR.
We were now in a papyrus shop with two Cokes that were given to us. We explained that we really did not want to look at papyrus and we had just wanted a couple of cold drinks. We were willing to pay for these and be on our way. “No, no, no, no, no,” they said. “This is not about selling you anything, this is about friendship and family. It is about our two countries getting along. Don’t forget I have family in New Jersey.”
Ok, but we aren’t going to buy anything here. No problem, they took us deeper into the shop to the perfume room and sat us down on big comfortable couches. They gave us a menu of the different perfumes that they sold with an explanation of each: some for men, some for women. We then got samples of several on our wrists and arms until we smelled of a wonderful mixture of flowers and musks. Sara rarely wears perfume, and I never wear cologne, partly because we don’t like it and partly because Sara is allergic to nearly everything. About this time, Sara started to sneeze and her eyes were watering. Finally, we had our excuse! We quickly and kindly explained that we cannot buy anything because Sara cannot handle it physically. Now we were finished with our drinks and standing, almost on our way out, when they diverted us deeper into the store to the jewelry room. Aaarrrgghhhh!!! Sometimes nice just does not cut it. We said no thanks and left. It had been a somewhat creepy experience, but we laughed about our (ok, my) naivete and we got a free Coke. On to lunch…
For lunch, we found what turned out to be our favorite restaurant: Felfela Take Out. We ordered Shwarma, which is shaved meat (Excuse me sir, is this lamb? No, it’s meat) on a bun with some kind of secret sauce. You stand at tables inside the un-airconditioned restaurant, but the food itself is incredible. We also got another Coke.
After lunch, back to the museum for the second floor. The second floor is more specialized. There are different sections which feature specific types of relics. Much of the findings from King Tut’s tomb are here and this is a must see, of course. Even though he was a very minor, almost forgotten pharaoh, he is the most famous because his tomb is the only one ever found completely intact. His treasures are indescribably beautiful. It got me to thinking that since there are over sixty tombs in the Valley of the Kings that have been discovered and all but this one have been robbed and all of the artifacts sold on the black market, or melted down, I’ll bet there are some private collectors out there that have some incredible, priceless treasure, hiding from the world. Ramses the Great (Ramses II) was probably the most powerful and successful of all of the pharaohs. Can you imagine what his death mask would be worth today? Someone has it, somewhere.
Sara and I are notoriously cheap, and we debated having to pay extra to see the mummies ($20 each in addition to the admission to the museum), but we decided that it was a must-see experience. It was worth it. You can see most of them in pictures, but actually seeing the bodies of several pharaohs, including the aforementioned Ramses the Great, was pretty incredible. There are two separate rooms of mummies and in the second one, we were the only people in the room. It was a really eerie and uncomfortable experience, but in a good way. I would recommend that if you go all that way to Egypt, spend the extra dinero and see the mummies.
It’s funny, but you would think that a day at the museum would be a nice and relaxing way to start our trip. It was nice, but I was completely wiped out when we got back to the hotel. We went out to another great restaurant recommended by the guidebook and within walking distance from the hotel, Emara Hati all-Gish, and then retired early to bed. As we assumed our normal spooning bedtime position, I wrapped my arm around Sara. Unfortunately, my arm was right under her nose. I was quickly dispatched to the bathroom to wash off the remaining musk smell from my forearm. We laughed again about my trusting nature and drifted off to sleep thinking of tomorrow’s upcoming visit to the Pyramids of Giza. Little did we know that the next day would bring its own troubles and the Pyramids would have to wait…