The Egyptian Museum, which holds the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the world, is centrally located right off of Cairo’s now-famous Tahrir Square, one block over from the Nile River downtown. The museum authorities keep changing whether you can or cannot bring cameras into the building every few years. If you do bring one during one of the periods when it’s a no-no and they spot it in the x-ray machine upon entering, you’ll have to check it with the guards at the front entrance. However, it would be much safer to check first and then, if necessary, leave your cameras at your hotel for the stroll over to the museum, or swing by your hotel to drop them off if you’re coming from somewhere else.
Before I say anything else about the Egyptian Museum, I must reassure you that a newer, nicer, more modern museum (the Grand Egyptian Museum) is in the process of being built outside of Cairo out by the Pyramids complex in Giza. But for now, what will eventually become the old Egyptian Museum remains THE Egyptian Museum. When you visit it, however, which you truly must on a first trip to Egypt, you’ll understand why I start off by stressing the fact that a new and modern museum is currently under construction.
The Egyptian Museum is amazing, but many tourists are struck by how old and run down it is, how un-cared for most of the artifacts in it are, and how poorly labeled the public exhibits are. Unless you already know enough to spot and appreciate ancient Egyptian relics without much labeling, you would really benefit from the services of a licensed tour guide for a visit to the Egyptian Museum. While I wouldn’t recommend spending your whole time in the museum with a guide at your side, it’s always nice to at least have one take you around for at least an hour or two to orient you to some Egyptian history and how the many treasures laid out within the building relate to and tell the story of that history.
Just like at the Pyramids, cheap licensed tour guides may approach you after you come in the main gate and into the museum’s front courtyard and offer their services. Real guides usually aren’t pushy at all and take well to a polite “no thank you” (most speak English, although there are certainly guides for many other major European and Asian languages as well).
If you do decide to explore the museum on your own, you’ll primarily find a huge array of carved, hieroglyphic-adorned stone artifacts throughout the first floor, including sarcophagi, Pharaonic statuary, and more. The museum’s second floor is where you’ll find it’s greatest and most famous exhibits, including the extensive treasures excavated from the nearly intact tomb of King Tut.
Historically, this boy king was rather insignificant. He ascended the throne young, ruled young, died young, and didn’t have any major conquests or achievements to his name. However, because he died so young and unexpectedly, his tomb in the Valley of the Kings down in Luxor had to be rushed, and it was soon covered, built over, and forgotten about. That is, until it was discovered nearly intact in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter.
Tut’s tomb became one of the greatest finds in archaeological history because when his tomb was finally unsealed in the early 20th century, it literally gave the world an unspoiled glimpse into ancient Pharaonic Egypt. Nearly all other Pharaohs’ tombs had been robbed and cleared out either in antiquity or centuries ago, but Tut’s tomb and all its preserved treasures opened up the world of ancient Egypt to us like none else ever had. Most of the artifacts excavated from King Tut’s tomb in Luxor are on display now in the Egyptian Museum, including his world famous solid gold burial mask and his elaborately bejeweled concentric sarcophagi. His actually mummy, however, remains in his final resting place – his tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
The mummies of many of Egypt’s other well known Pharaohs are on display in the museum, however. They’re currently separated out from the main set of exhibits into a special collection housed in what is known as the Mummy Room. The museum requires (and charges for) an extra ticket to see this exhibit, but it’s actually really neat if you’re into mummies and Egyptian history, since you can look these once-worshiped great Pharaohs right in the eye up close and see just how well preserved their features are through the ancient art of mummification.
When you leave the Egyptian Museum, be prepare to allow a guard at the door to glance inside of any bags you may have brought in with you. Evidently even they agree that many of the exhibits are poorly protected in there. As you exit, you’ll notice two strange things on your way out. A nice new gift shop building that’s completely empty and the remains of a previously burned out building behind it (this may be gone by the time you get there).
The then-new gift shop of the museum was looted during the chaos immediately following the Egyptian Revolution of January 2011 and has yet to be restocked and reopened. The burned out adjacent building is the former headquarters of the National Democratic Party – the political wing of the deposed Mubarak regime. It too was looted and burned out during the revolution, and it remained untouched for years as a national symbol of the revolution and a reminder to post-revolutionary government officials of what can happen if they try to return to the days of political over-reach and abuse of power.
When you exit the museum’s gates, you may be approached by some dudes on the sidewalk selling papyrus souvenirs. While I generally discourage buying souvenirs from those who approach you on the street, I’ve often found that these guys outside of the museum’s exit gates are usually very nice and not pushy at all and their prices are often very good here.