TWENTY-FIRST MOVEMENT: EGYPT
As the plane landed in Cairo, the German man sitting next to me asked if I had a pen to fill out the Immigration slip we were handed. I did not since I misplaced my pen a few countries ago and have yet to find it. But we got to talking and I found out he has been living in Egypt for some time now and is just returning from a vacation in South Africa. After departing the plane, we went through Immigration together, though I had to buy my Visa; it was a painless process and afterwards I realized the slip never asked how long I would be staying and the Visa didn’t state how long it was good for; the German man told me it should be for three months, not that it mattered to me since I was only staying in Egypt for five days. We then grabbed our bags, walked through Customs, I grabbed cash at an ATM, and then we both tried to get a taxi. It was now just after 02:00. The German man spoke Arabic and tried to get them to use their meters (as required by law), but none of the taxi drivers were willing – it felt like India all over again. The German man, being of a similar mindset as myself, then decided to walk out of the airport parking lot and walk down the street to get a cab (something he had never had to do in Egypt before, though something I was very accustomed to doing in Asia and Africa). So we walked down the highway for a while, past military installations, trying to get a taxi. Finally, one taxi driver stopped that was willing to use his meter and we both jumped in. The German man was dropped off first at a party he was attending and gave me fifty Egyptian pounds to cover his cost since he didn’t have any smaller bills; I thanked him and we said goodbye. The taxi then took me to the hotel I had made a reservation with in downtown Cairo, not far from Tahrir Square. We found the hotel and I tipped the taxi driver for using his meter and for being a relatively okay guy. I then entered in to the building where the hotel is located and was surprised to see the inside trashed and in a state of disrepair (it reminded me of Alex’s flat in ‘A Clockwork Orange’). The building (I’m told) is over a hundred years old; it has an old elevator shaft with cast iron surrounding it and the marble steps have grooves worn in to them from over a century of people climbing up and down them. I checked in to the hotel (which was clean and much nicer than the rest of the building) and the manager talked to me over a phone; he was most accommodating, apologized for receiving my email late and thus not being able to send a vehicle to pick me up, and even upgraded me to a nicer room with a shower installed inside. After talking to him on the phone, the night receptionist showed me to my room, which had high ceilings, fashionable doors and windows, and a nice molding around the ceiling (everything you would expect for a room designed and build a century ago). I then bought a bottle of water to quench my thirst, checked my emails, and after some time, finally went to sleep (after 04:00).
I woke up at 09:30, immediately had breakfast (fried egg, bread with jam and butter, and tea), got ready, moved my bags in to another room since the one I was in last night (with its balconies) was booked by someone else, and then walked out to Tahrir Square to see the Egyptian Museum (I left my camera behind knowing that it would not be permitted inside the museum). When I came upon Tahrir Square, I saw quite a few police, military, and armored vehicles stationed throughout the area; there was also concertina wire and police caution tape blocking sections of the road and the square itself; evidently, the new government doesn’t want any protests to occur there that may end up jeopardizing their seizure of power. I crossed the street, walked past a tank, through an opening in the wire, and right to the Egyptian Museum, where many other tourists were already. I paid for the entrance ticket and walked inside one of the most impressive museums I have ever visited; it was stunning just how many artifacts were inside this giant building, a monument to a great ancient civilization. I immediately started looking at everything I could; having arrived inside just after 11:00, I had less than six hours to see everything. Starting on the first floor, I viewed artifacts from the different periods in Ancient Egyptian history (Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, Armana period, New Kingdom, Greco-Roman Period); I then went up to the second floor and viewed thousands of artifacts found in tombs and archaeological sites. There were many, many sarcophagi, coffins, jewelry, stelae, statues (large and small), canopic jars and boxes, stone offering tables, papyrus scrolls, linens, miniature models, and artifacts from everyday life.
The highlights and interesting stuff for me were:
– the “Israel Stela” naming Israel as an enemy of Egypt, the oldest known recording of Israel in the ancient world (during the reign of Merenptah, 1213-1203 BC)
– the “Narmer Palette” which was created in Dynasty 0 and commemorates the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt
– two Cairo Dashur boats, wooden boats over 3800 years old, the only other two that exist are in the United States
– the exhibit on the Armana period with art created during the reign of Akenaten, this includes his top coffin lid and famous stelae
– the huge exhibit on the Tomb of Tutankhamen (taking up a good portion of the second floor) with all of its treasures (burial mask, two inner coffins, jewels, a famous gilded wooden chair, etc.) NOTE: funny enough, this morning, I read a news article from the BBC that was on a mishap that recently occurred to Tutankhamen’s burial mask; somehow the long blue and gold braided beard fell off and the someone in the museum ordered it glued back on; now an inquiry has been launched to find out how this happened and why they would use glue on such a priceless and historic artifact instead of painstakingly trying to repair it correctly like they are paid to do; anyway, I made sure to look for the glue when I was there today and yes it is obvious
– the Royal Tombs of Tanis exhibit with artifacts recovered from five intact burial sites
– many pieces of Ostraca, which are fragments of inscribed limestone used by workers or students to write and draw on using a reed pen and ink (it was a glimpse in to a world outside of the royal and noble classes)
– small statues of gods, many of which are animals, and one of a blue hippo that I had seen before in art history books
– mummy cases from the Roman period (second-century AD) that have portraits painted on them where the burial mask would’ve been before; one was the “Golden Girl”, a mummy case of a girl
– the exhibit on funerary objects of Yuya and Thuya (from 1375 BC)
– detailed miniature models of daily life, such as work in a kitchen, granaries, bread making, a carpenter shop, a weaving shed; I think most of these came from the Middle Kingdom and it was interesting to see how they lived back then through these dioramas
– detailed model boats, many with figures acting as rowers, and some still with sails attached
– “Soul Houses”, which are models placed in tombs, probably as replicas of the tomb owner’s house
– ancient wigs
– a large stone embalming slab
– the two rooms filled with mummies for tourists to view (costing 100 Egyptian pounds – separate from the ticket price); the mummies inside were:
Tuthmosis I (this one is doubtful since his arms were not crossed like a king)
Amenhotep I (completely wrapped with a burial mask)
Seqenenre Taa II
Queen Ahmose Meritamun
Akhenaten (a skeleton, the only non-mummy)
Queen Isetemkheb D (completely wrapped)
The mother of Tutankhamun
High Priest of Amun Pinudjem II
Now, this museum was very awesome and as I stated above, one of the best (if not the best) museum I had ever been to (better than the Smithsonian, the National Art Museum in Vienna, the National Museum of Korea, etc.); it benefits from having a massive collection and being focused on one history, as opposed to most museums which cover multiple histories. However, there is much room for improvement; many artifacts did not have explanations and many of those that did would usually just state what it was and when it was made, never really giving much of a “why” or “what the hell was the purpose of this”; also, there were wooden crates lying around, some artifacts were inaccessible, and some areas were in a disarray. These drawbacks would be detrimentally fatal to almost any other museum, but the collection in the Egyptian Museum was so impressive, it didn’t really matter. Now, if this museum’s curator ever got his act together and corrected all the negative aspects I just typed, it would be even greater and a paradise to any aficionado of history (I imagine it is currently already every Egyptologists wet dream).
Well, after 16:30, they started closing the museum down and I exited the building at 16:45, spending five and a half hours inside. I saw almost everything, having just missed some more cases with small artifacts (jars, statues, necklaces, etc. – from what I could see) that probably would’ve taken me twenty more minutes. If I would ever pay to go back inside (which I may do), then I would be sure to start at 08:30 and spend every minute in there while it’s open (the times do vary and months from now it may open at a different time); ideally, one should consider spending two days to really study all this museum has to offer.
After exiting the museum’s premises, I walked back toward my hotel and wandered around all the cafes with plastic chairs and tables, as well as televisions set up for patrons to watch the local football (i.e. soccer) game. I was trying to find a sit down restaurant and stopped in one cafe to ask about food, but they only served tea, coffee, and other drinks; luckily one of the waiters was very helpful and pointed me to where the restaurants in downtown Cairo were located. So I left the cafe and outdoor shawarma scene and walked to where I found a nice sit-down restaurant, where I enjoyed bread and butter, stuffed vine leaves, chicken with rice and a gravy, and an Egyptian beer (just like the slaves would’ve drank back in the Ancient); I’ve also begun reading T.E. Lawrence’s ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ (most appropriate) and read some more of his colorful and captivating writing while eating dinner. After dinner, I walked to my hotel and typed out some journal entries. I then responded to some emails and while doing so I heard what sounded like gunfire; I figured it was something else and just my imagination, but the next day I read the news and discovered that a political activist protestor was killed by police during a march near Tahrir Square (only 800 meters from where I’m staying). At the end of the day, I went to sleep to the sounds of sirens.