The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, should be a priority on the list of things to see when visiting Cairo. It would take at least a week to see all of the museum’s contents, but a brief visit can at least give a glimpse into the world’s greatest repository of more than 120,000 ancient Egyptian artefacts. It has actually been calculated that if you spend one minute at each exhibit it will take nine months to see the whole collection!
The collection of Egyptian antiquities began in the 1830s in an attempt to stem the tide of Egypt’s treasures being stolen or otherwise removed from the country. The present collection was begun by Auguste Mariette who had originally been sent to Egypt by the College de France to collect Coptic Papyri. Mariette supervised many important excavations during his thirty years in Egypt, becoming a dominant force in the development of Egyptological progress and as a guardian of the monuments. He was appointed the first Director of Ancient Monuments in Egypt and head of a new national museum at Bulaq in 1863 – the first national antiquities museum in the Middle East. The collection was then briefly transferred to an annex of Ismail Pasha’s palace at Giza when the Bulaq museum was flooded and later stored in a building in the Citadel. The present museum was officially inaugurated on November 15, 1902, in a building designed by French architect Marcel Dourgnon.
Gaston Maspero, a former student of Mariette, became the next Director of the Antiquities Service. He carried on Mariette’s work at the museum, editing 50 volumes of museum material for the ‘Catalogue’ and continued to grant excavation permits which allowed a proportion of antiquities to go to collectors and museums in Europe and America. Maspero was the first director of the new Antiquities Museum, from its inauguration until his death in 1916.
The contents of the museum date from the Prehistoric Period of Egypt through to the end of the Roman era. The exhibits are arranged in chronological order on two floors, with 42 rooms on the first floor and 47 rooms on the second plus annexes at the entrance. The ground floor consists of a large atrium which displays the largest of the exhibits, including a colossal statue of Rameses II and a massive statue pair of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiye as its focus. The best view of the rotunda is looking down from the upper gallery.
1 Gilded mask of Yuya, Thebes, Dynasty XVIII 2 The dwarf Seneb and his family, Old Kingdom 3 Schist statue of Khasekhem, Hierakonpolis, Dynasty II
The most popular by far of the museum’s treasures are housed in the Tutankamun gallery on the upper floor. These remarkable artefacts from the boy-king’s tomb, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, are now housed in a specially lit, temperature-controlled gallery which has restricted entry. There are 3000 pieces, including the famous gold funerary mask and coffin, the shrines and tomb furniture which are much more impressive than they look in photographs, almost outshining anything else in the museum.
The museum also houses a superb collection of royal and private statuary, reliefs and paintings from all eras as well as many smaller artefacts for daily or funerary use (often the most interesting). There are the complete contents from the Dynasty I tomb of Hemaka, the painstakingly reconstructed bedroom furniture of Queen Hetepheres (Khufu’s mother) from her Giza tomb, beautiful jewellery from the Middle Kingdom as well as contents from many of the Theban New Kingdom tombs and the later Tanite tombs of the Delta. Other famous pieces not to be missed include the Narmer Palette (Dynasty I) the huge diorite statue of Khafre (Dynasty IV), and the exhibits of the Amarna collection which include a colossal statue of the ‘heretic’ king.
1 Statue of a young Akhenaten with an offering table. Dynasty XVIII 2 Part of an altar, possibly from Amarna. Dynasty XVIII 3 Colossal statue of Akhenaten. Dynasty XVIII
Last but not least there is the royal mummy room which is second only to the Tutankhamun gallery in popularity. This room was closed for several years but is now open to the public again after restoration but displays only a proportion of the 27 mummies in the collection. There is an extra charge to the mummy room.
Any visitor to the museum will probably want to visit it at least twice. I would recommend that you visit at the beginning of a stay in Cairo and again at the end, when you will be able to supplement the knowledge you have gained from visits to the monuments. Guide books and guides are available at the museum and there is also a good bookshop at the entrance, and a cafeteria on the right of the museum.
The museum also houses a library which specialises in ancient Egyptian civilisation and is considered one of the most important libraries of Egyptology in the world. However, borrowing or reading is only allowed for research students or post-graduates with special permission from the Egyptian High Council of Monuments. Entrance
The Antiquities Museum is situated in Mariette Pasha Street on the north side of Tahrir Square (next to the Nile Hilton Hotel). Tel 574 4267. Opening times are from 9.00am to 7.00pm every day. Mornings are very busy, as this is when many tour groups visit the museum and if you don’t like crowds it may be better to leave your visit until the afternoon or evening. Photography is no longer allowed inside the Museum and cameras must be left at the ticket office. All bags are x-rayed twice on entry to the Museum. Entrance to the museum costs EGP 60 and EGP 100 for the Mummy Room.