What a place! This whole museum should be in a museum. Dusty and cavernous, it’s overwhelming, inspiring, breath-taking, all at once. Step through the door and the statues crowd in on you. Galleries stretch off into the distance, empty and silent; look up and domed arches shield the first floor rooms quietly waiting their turn. You could be locked in for months and still not see it all. The treasures far outweigh the available space; the museum is literally bursting at the seams. Stories about the basement store abound – it’s said that some sculptures have sunk into the floor and need to be excavated. Until 1996, security simply involved locking the door at night. Outdated, out-moded, unique, a true spectacle.
The stars of the show are without doubt the fifteen hundred treasures excavated from the tomb of Tutankhamun. From the age of ten, when the blockbuster exhibition came to the British Museum in London, that iconic image of the solid-gold funerary mask has held a fascination for me. To see that beaten and burnished mask, which had once been placed over the head and shoulders of the mummy of the pharaoh, was an incredible sensation. I looked into the face of a boy who lived three thousand five hundred years ago, a boy who who didn’t live to even half of my age, and wondered what he was like. From other exhibits I knew he walked with a stick (there were one hundred and thirty-three buried with him, the handles moulded to the shape of his African and Asian enemies, so he was constantly squeezing them) and that he liked playing senet (a kind of backgammon). I saw a belt, and gloves with lotus buds and flowers at the wrist; even socks – forty seven pairs of which were buried with him. From such objects the Tutankhamun Textile Project has worked out that the pharaoh’s vital statistics were chest 79cm, waist 74cm, and hips 109cm. There were also beaded and golden collars as thin as tin-foil; cups, saucers and dishes that he held; and beds, stools and bottles of perfume that he lay on, sat on and used. It was all jumbled together, no staging, no managed climax, much as it must have been when Carter originally discovered it – his words, “Everywhere the glint of gold… Wonderful things” still ring true. Photos of some of these objects in the tomb show a small space, packed solid with priceless antiquities – a veritable treasure-trove scrap-yard. In the ten years it took Carter to excavate the tomb, he must have been unearthing breathtaking riches every day.
But there is so much more to the Egyptian Museum than Tutankhamun. An exquisite seven-centimeter high statue of King Cheops, the smallest statue in the museum and the only surviving likeness of the great pyramid builder anywhere. The wooden statue of Ka-Aper was one of my favourite pieces; with his fat belly and life-like eyes, his face looks so real that the workmen who found him in 1860 called him Sheikh al-Balad (headman) because they thought he looked just like the headman of their own village. Amongst the wonderful is also the plain weird. Ancient loincloths, and the disintegrating and dusty mummified cats, dogs, crocodiles, birds, rams and jackals in room 53.
‘Mummies up’, said the man on the ground-floor information desk – he was referring not to beloved pets, but the Royal Mummies. Displaying dead royalty has proved to be controversial; President Sadat removed the Royal Mummies from display in 1979 but when they were reinstated in 1994, tourism figures and income increased. Now there is a second mummy room. My first sight of the mummies was confrontational. They lay exposed and fragile, with their faces clearly visible. Once proud rulers reduced to mere tourist spectacles. Segenenre II (1650-1550 BC) lay with his teeth bared in a grimace, a great gash in his head. His right hand – fingers curled tenderly – rested just under his cheek; his left twisted at a strange angle – as if, for all eternity he was condemmed to fend off his foe. A lock of wavy black hair escaped the linen wrapped loosely around his head; and I wanted to push it back, brush his cheek and offer some comfort. He was only forty when he died, but most of these illustrious beings died young and look small and kind of lost. The mummies are very, very human. On the mummy of Tuthmosis I eyelashes, and well-manicured finger and toe nails are plain to see. Features almost reveal personalities.
We were now face to face with the very people whose monuments we’d been visiting for the last two months and who lived so long ago. Queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BC) for instance, the most famous of the female pharaohs. A formidable woman who assumed power on the death of her brother/husband – Tuthmosis II – interestingly his mummy lies in a glass case at her feet. She embarked on an ambitious building scheme including obelisks at Karnak and her own funerary temple at Deir-al-Bahri. Yet the label at her feet states only that this is the mummy of an obese female with bad teeth. What an indignity! By far the most disturbing mummy was that of Ramses II. Neck arched, head back, adams- apple protruding, collar bones exposed, and thin – painfully thin – upper arms. The linen wrappings on his hands exposed knuckles that looked raw. What I saw was a tired, sick, old man, his wispy hair white. Analysis of the mummy has revealed that Ramses II suffered from many health problems – dental abscesses, and severe arthritis in his hips. Yet this was the man who ruled Egypt for sixty-seven years and built the great temples at Abu Simbel and the Ramesseum. He wanted immortality and has acheived it – of sorts. When samples of his hair and resinous materials from his mummy were analysed in Paris in 1977 they were later found for sale on the internet. Egypt does not treat it’s Royalty well.
Plans to build a Great Egyptian Museum near the pyramids were announced in 2002. With an estimated price tag of US$550 million, the GEM is intended to be a state-of-the-art showcase, to relieve over-crowding of, and provide proper climate control for, the preservation of exhibits. All sorely needed, but I hope the museum retains it’s charm. It’s an adventure to be there – it’s so huge and some corners have such a forgotten and forlorn air, it seems possible that at any moment – just like Howard Carter – you could come across buried treasure yourself.
The Egyptian Museum – Midan Tahrir, Downtown, Cairo. Adult EGP 60.
A separate ticket is needed for The Royal Mummy Room. Adult EGP 100.