Friday, December 14, 2018

Last Call: Cairo’s Egyptian Museum

When I first traveled to Egypt in the 1990’s, I was surprised to find that I was drawn to the storied Egyptian Museum--though for reasons different than those of many visitors. The museum was unlike any other I’d seen: ancient baskets, tools, sculptures, tools, ceramics, and all sorts of other relics were stacked—sometimes haphazardly—on crowded wooden shelves, cabinets, display cases, and even the floor.

It was as if the archaeologists of a century earlier had carefully emptied the piles of riches from tombs and excavation sites and hurriedly transferred them to the Beaux-Arts storage facility. The place is a captivating combination of Indiana Jones’ private collection and a dusty, treasure-packed museum from a different century.

While museums across the world modernized during the second half of the twentieth century, creating dramatic displays featuring high tech visual and lighting touches and placing collections behind glass and within hermetically-sealed, secure display cases, the Egyptian Museum changed little. The museum is a Beaux-Arts relic housing a vast collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities—the largest in the world.
The museum isn’t just full to the rafters with treasures; it’s also full of atmosphere. Casement windows stand open to the dust, heat, and the sound of calls to prayer of chaotic Cairo. Stairways and passageways show the passage of time and wear from the feet of millions of tourists. Shafts of golden sunlight, alive with glowing bits of dust and sand, dance in the air currents.

The museum isn’t too cleaned up or too sterile—and that’s exactly what I like about it. 

I saw the King Tutankhamun exhibit when it traveled to Chicago in the late 1970s. Massive crowds clustered around a sampling of the tomb’s artifacts which stood behind thick glass or housed in cases. I didn’t realize at the time that I was seeing only a small sample of the tomb’s treasures. At the Egyptian Museum, however, the entire, massive collection is spread among many rooms. And while the temptation can’t be seriously entertained, it’s possible to touch many of the items here and to bring your eyeball within inches of the artifacts. You can inhale the dust of pharaohs and people who lived two, three, even nearly four thousand years ago. And you can get your eyeball within inches of tools, pottery, baskets, and other items they used.

But all of this will be changing very soon. Within the next year or so, a giant new museum will open near the pyramids in Giza. This new museum, years in the making, will house all of the Egyptian antiquities, including many that have been in storage due to space limitations at the crowded Cairo museum.

While the modern museum will be a masterpiece of design and provide enough space to display more antiquities, it will no longer provide a snapshot of an earlier era or offer opportunities to come face to face with ancient statues and artifacts. 

So make a trip to experience the Egyptian Museum as it’s existed since it’s opening in the early 1900’s. But hurry--it's days are numbered.

Planning a visit? Your Egypt Tours provides expert guides and custom tours of the entire country. 


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