Egyptian Museum Cairo, Egypt
It’s easy to become blasé with so much here, surrounded by a collection of 150,000 items that all start to blend into each other after a while.
Not all are always on display but each one is extremely significant. However, if you don’t know what you’re looking at (or for), everything becomes a bit blurry. Until that special moment when you are jolted back into a moment of clarity.
That’s what happens when I walk past the layers of majestic boxes that held the mummy of Tutankhamun and into the room full of the treasures found in his tomb.
Displayed in the cabinets here are delicate pieces of gold jewellery, small vessels used to store his organs, and the golden coffin.
And in the centre is the famous death mask of Tutankhamun (that I manage to take a photo of through the glass door, with no photography allowed in the room).
It’s quite a surreal moment to look around and realise that these are the possessions of the Egyptian boy-king that were protected in his tomb for thousands of years.
What makes the experience even stranger is looking at the small flimsy padlocks keeping closed the glass cabinet I’m leaning over. There’s probably more security than I realise, but it really feels as though you could prise them open and take these priceless treasures.
Of course, it’s because robbers didn’t steal these items millennia ago that we can enjoy them now. And the Tutankhamun exhibits are without doubt the highlight of visiting the Egyptian Museum Cairo.
I often get a sense of despair when I’m told about the tombs in the Valley of the Kings that were cleared out by thieves, the statues at temples that were destroyed by Christians, or the structures that were dismantled to be used for new buildings.
But when you walk around this museum you realise how much of the Ancient Egyptian civilisation has survived.
Of course, it’s impossible to see it all. I mean, it would be impossible to see even just a fraction of the collection – remember, there are 150,000 pieces in total!
I’ve come as part of a G Adventures tour through Egypt and our guide takes us around for an hour, pointing out some of the highlights, giving us some information about the most famous pieces and an overview of the museum. Then we’re left to explore.
But after wandering around and getting a sense of the breadth and depth of the collection (and the civilisation it represents), I think the best thing is just to focus on a particular topic or two.
Of course, Tutankhamun is a popular topic and there is more to see here than just his jewellery. A whole section of the museum is dedicated to the items left inside his tomb.
But on the floor below, when I’m not really sure where I’m going, I come across a room dedicated to the Amarna Period, that lasted for just 16 years between 1352 and 1336 BC.
This period was short but fascinating and was defined by Pharaoh Amenhotep IV and his wife. You may have heard of her – Queen Nefertiti!
I won’t go into all the details except to say they moved the capital, changed the state religion, and constructed some incredible monuments. In the end, the period ended with the ascension of Tutankhamun!
The reason I know all of this is because this room had a good amount of signage, explaining the period of history and the significance of the artefacts on display. Unfortunately this is rare when you visit the Egyptian Museum Cairo.
I found this room by accident in my wanderings. Really, you find everything here by accident unless you have a guide.
The signage is almost non-existent and the small notes by some items do seem to have a fair amount of detail but very little context.
This is not somewhere you come to learn about Egyptian history. It’s where you come to see some of the things you’ve already learned about.
That seems to me to be a wasted opportunity. But there’s obviously no point trying to fix it now. The Egyptian Museum has outgrown its age (it’s been here for about 110 years) and a newer and much larger museum is being built near the pyramids.
Hopefully this new site, called the Great Egyptian Museum, will rectify the situation. It’s said it will be the largest archaeological museum in the world and, for starters, it will give the exhibits more space to breathe.
About 50,000 pieces from the collection will be on display, including the entire tomb of Tutankhamun for the first time. And the plan is to use new technology to offer virtual reality experiences and other interpretation tools.
What I would love to see the most is more context, and I hope that’s part of the design.
It’s fine to have more information about each piece and each period, but what is really needed is a journey through the timeline of Ancient Egypt. Use these amazing artefacts to explain the overall history, before tourists then go off on their trips to see the relevant sites for themselves.
At the moment, the new museum is well behind schedule. The architect was chosen in 2003 and the first official date for completion was 2013. That’s been pushed back a few times and now it’s due to open in 2020.
I look forward to when that happens, but I’ll also be a little sad. For all my criticism of the lack of interpretation at this old Egyptian Museum Cairo, there’s still something quite fun about being surrounded by so much history, so many artefacts.
In some ways, it’s like opening up Tutankhamun’s tomb for yourself.
I travelled to Egypt with the support of G Adventures in my position as a G Wanderer. All the opinions expressed are my own – I truly believe G Adventures is one of the best tour companies that you can use for a trip to Egypt.