Cairo. Depending on which taxi driver you talk to, it’s a city with between 4 and 14 million inhabitants. According to wiki, it’s actually 6.76 million but either way, it feels big. And congested. Based on the reviews of two lovely ladies (and fellow ex-pats), I wasn’t so excited for the city itself, but for the museum and Giza.
While our experience might have been a bit better than theirs, after two nights we were ready to get the hell out. The terrible traffic just below our balcony might have been fun to watch, but navigating through it was a nightmare.
As our arrival into Cairo Airport happened to coincide with the return of many Egyptian Muslims from Mecca, the airport was just a *bit* busy. The long lines through immigration were filled with travelers of every type and country and included everything from traditional Islamic clothing to cocktail dresses. If we hadn’t been in a government building, there would certainly be photos.
With such chaos in the airport, it took us a while to get through and thus the next morning we weren’t up and about all that early. Eventually though, we arranged for a guide to take us through the Cairo Museum (conveniently across the street), as well as the pyramids at Giza.
Unfortunately, the museum does not allow photographs, and we actually saw people getting in trouble for taking cell phone photos. You can read more museum details on Molly’s blog, but in essence, imagine taking a warehouse full of artifacts and stuffing those into cabinets. Don’t worry about arranging the cabinets in any particular order, or even labeling anything. Just grouping together similar-looking artifacts is enough. And if you MUST provide a map, please put it in an obscure place, like a wall to the left of the main doorway where no one goes.
All organizational grumblings aside, the museum was impressive. Tutankhamun’s exhibit is incredibly thorough, as his tomb contained everything required for the afterlife, all still intact. If my memory is correct, we saw three chariots, several beds, piles of carved servants (which would come alive to serve him once he read from the special scrolls) and at least two thrones. And the most ridiculous part was how it was all piled inside the tomb–truly piled, like a forgotten basement storage unit.
His famous gold headpiece was of course, beautiful, as were his two outer coffins (the third, innermost coffin still holding his mummy inside his tomb in Luxor). This is all in addition to the four enormous nested, gilded shrines that held the sarcophagus and coffins. Considering he was only a minor king, it was hard to imagine the amount of treasure that has disappeared from the tombs of the better known pharaohs.
Adding to the ambiance of the exhibit were the workmen up on ladders around the famous headpiece, installing a fire/sprinkler system. After watching a screwdriver hit the ground from 15 feet up, less than 5 feet away from the headpiece, we opted to move along before we reserved ourselves a tour of an Egyptian hospital.
The museum contains a number of other well-known pieces, as well as artifacts from the Pre-Dynastic/Neolithic period. We spent over three hours in the museum with our guide seeing only the major pieces and exhibits, which was probably less than 25% of what the museum had to offer. Our last day in Cairo we returned for another three hour visit and still didn’t manage to see everything.
In our second visit, we opted to check out the mummies exhibit, although I was quite uncertain about the whole thing. At $15 USD, it’s not a cheap ticket (entrance to the museum only costs $10!), but we had heard it was worth seeing.
To be honest, I found it a bit uncomfortable. The level of preservation was insane, with eyebrows and fingernails still completely recognizable. However, these were also people that, contrary to their religion and beliefs, had been removed from their tombs and put on display. Thanks to the high ticket cost (which, for Egyptians or those that read Arabic was only $1.50), the display was quite well managed, with air-conditioning and thorough descriptions, giving me hope that the rest of the museum might someday catch up. However, I think I would have preferred to see high quality photographs of the mummies, with the knowledge that they had been returned to their tombs. Seeing a dead body, even one five thousand years old, was just a little too…weird.
The incredible number of artifacts on display makes the museum well worth seeing, and even makes up for having to spend a day in Cairo. We were quite happy with our decision to get a (knowledgeable) guide as the museum provides only minimal signage and no pamphlets or maps. Until the museum is updated, I would say this is the one part of Egypt where a guide is 100% essential.