NOTE: This article is all about the Egyptian Museum located in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. For information about the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), you can find a summary in Fun Facts about the new Grand Egyptian Museum here on Egypt Travel Blog. For more extensive information on the GEM, check out www.GrandEgyptianMuseum.org.
There are lots of museums in Egypt and in Cairo and lots of museums around the world with Egyptian artifacts, but no other museum in the world contains such an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts as this one in Cairo, Egypt. And perhaps more remarkably, nowhere else in the world can you get as close and intimate with Egyptian history as you can in this particular museum.
The Egyptian Museum is the hub of research, storage, and display of zillions of artifacts from Egypt’s ancient kingdoms, some discovered long ago and others discovered quite recently. Remember as I keep saying, nearly all of Egypt is still an active archaeological site today, and it’s the only place in the world that’s like this on this scale.
People who live in Egypt have literally been known to cut holes in the floors of their homes and dig tunnels underneath them in order to find artifacts to sell. Now this is highly illegal, but it’s still done – the point being that there is still so much we don’t know yet and so much that’s still being dug up and discovered every day in Egypt.
So all of Egypt is really a living museum and active archaeological site, but the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is the repository and display room for most of Egypt’s history, and the sheer amount of history that you can see and in some cases touch is simply mind-blowing.
You’ve got a few surviving relics from the early dynastic period. You’ve got artifacts and treasures from the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, the New Kingdom, the First Intermediate Period, the Second Intermediate Period, the Third Intermediate Period – not necessarily in that order – then the Greek Period, the Roman Period, the Ottoman Period… and all of that covers thousands of years before countries like the United States were even thought of.
So let’s back up now and talk a little bit about how the museum came to be. Imagine yourself back in the 1700s and early 1800s in Egypt. The Ottomans still technically rule the area, but governance is actually pretty decentralized and the local Pasha is really top dog of Egypt by then.
Invaders and foreign visitors have been coming into Egypt for literally thousands of years and carting off its antiquities, and Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Persian, Arab, and Ottoman invaders and rulers have also been recycling materials from ancient monuments and treasures throughout that whole period too, in other words breaking down other rulers’ monuments, temples, palaces, and tombs to use the precious materials for their own purposes.
So back to the 18th century. Imagine you’re a wealthy European aristocrat and you’re doing an adventurous tour around the Mediterranean, and you see all this neat ancient stuff in Egypt just lying around all over everywhere still. Local Egyptians would gladly sell you ancient artifacts they dug up, or if you stumbled across any yourself you could just stuff them in your suitcase and take it back to Europe with you. No one was there to stop you and both Egyptians and foreigners availed themselves liberally of this opportune situation.
Well, in 1798 Napoleon and the French march into town and kind of just hang out for about three years. But their extended visit turned out to be quite fruitful for Egypt, or at least for Egyptology.
First, a French soldier named Pierre-François Bouchard just randomly stumbles upon a piece of rock that was recycled and used as building material within an old Ottoman fort near a town called Rosetta. But he notices that this particular piece of stone in the fort came from somewhere else and has writing on it that he recognizes.
There are those same undecipherable ancient pictorial scribblings on it that you see all over Egypt, what we today call hieroglyphics, but there’s also some other language on there too. And then there’s a third language he recognizes as one still in use and known – Greek.
Lucky for Egypt and for all of humanity, this French officer immediately recognized the significance of the piece of building debris he had stumbled across at this old fort. He or anyone else could just as easily have broken it apart or used it as part of a wall or something else and cemented over the writing. But lucky for us, Pierre-François Bouchard was like “Sacre Bleu!” and he saved it.
This stone, found near the town of Rosetta, as it was known then, is today what we know, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, as the Rosetta Stone. No folks, it’s not just a piece of software for you to learn enough French and Spanish to by on a week-long vacation to Europe. It’s one of the most incredible and amazing archaeological finds in all of human history.
So why is the Rosetta so ground-breakingly important and what’s it got to do with the Egyptian Museum. Well, to answer the first question, it literally unlocked nearly ALL of ancient Egypt for us. All of those funny pictorial scribblings all over temple walls and tombs and monuments all over Egypt that people had been looking at for thousands of years and not knowing what any of it meant… well, those could finally be translated and read.
It took scholars in England and France and a few other places about 25 years to actually decipher the hieroglyphic script from the multilingual Rosetta stone carvings. It wasn’t an easy task by any means, but eventually Jean-François Champollion cracked the code and the new field of Egyptology was born.
No one had known for thousands of years – since the fall of the pharaohs – what was written on all these walls and stones and papyrus manuscripts. Even though the pyramids and other monuments were right there as big as, well, a pyramid, the history of the civilization had been pretty much lost until this incredible moment in history.
It’s almost like a Dan Brown fiction novel – a French linguist cracked the mysterious ancient code and suddenly all of Egyptian history came back to life. We could now read everything and begin studying it. We could finally tell who all the mummies were and who all the tombs belonged to.
And the stories just started flooding out of these walls – stories of kings and battles and the ancient gods and their afterlife beliefs and mummification and so much more. We literally got the history of an entire civilization – one of the greatest civilizations IN history – that had virtually been lost in plain sight for almost two thousand years.
And now, with this news spreading around the world and the newly formed field of Egyptology in full bloom, people were more interested in Egypt and Egyptian antiquities than ever before. So it was around this time, the late 1820s and early 1830s, that Jean-François Champollion, started raising flags about the need to begin cataloging and more importantly preserving Egypt’s treasures.
Remember, people were still sashaying down to Egypt and carting its artifacts off left and right, and these new Egyptologists started saying, “Wait a minute. This stuff is more important now than ever. We need to build a museum to start collecting and housing it all.”
Well unfortunately for Champollion, he kicked the bucket in 1832. But another French Egyptologist actually followed through and organized the first Egyptian antiquities museum in 1863, which isn’t around anymore. It was pretty small in size, scale, capacity, and capability, so the local government there finally stepped up and put out a request for proposals for a new museum.
Out of 73 proposals submitted, one was chosen from… wait for it… a French guy. Shocker! The French were really all about Egypt back then, weren’t they? The architect’s name was Marcel Dourgnon, and what’s really significant about the building he designed was that it is said to have been the first building in the world built from the ground up specifically as a museum, instead of simply taking a pre-existing building or structure and repurposing it as a museum.
The newly constructed museum, the one we still know today as the Egyptian Museum, was opened to the public on November 15th, 1902. It immediately became home to about 50,000 artifacts, but over the next hundred years, that number has swelled to over 120,000.
All of these artifacts aren’t on display in the museum, but when you visit I think you’ll still be quite impressed and pleased with how many actually are. The rest are held in storage by the museum and are in varying states of preservation.
So now that we’ve covered the background of the famous museum building and the establishment of the museum as an institution to preserve Egypt’s antiquities, let’s do a virtual walk-through of a visit there so that you get a detailed idea of what to expect.
The Egyptian Museum is located on the edge of Tahrir Square, Cairo’s most central and most famous public plaza and ginormous traffic circle. You can walk to the Egyptian Museum from many of downtown Cairo’s hotels, including the Semiramis InterContinental, the new Nile Ritz Carlton, the Novotel, the Nile Kempinski, the Nile Plaza Four Seasons, the Gezira Sofitel, and the Fairmont.
If you’re staying at another property, or if you don’t want to deal with the Cairo street crossing ritual, you can hop in a taxi or an uber and get there quickly from any of those places for about a dollar or two as well. A hotel taxi will cost you a bit more through – around the same price as a cab in a large American or European city. They jack up the prices because the hotels are using a contracted private car service, so it’s not actually a real taxi, just FYI.
When you get to the museum’s front gates, just look for the main entrance near the center and pass through the light security screening there first. Once you’re inside the gates, you can go over to the ticket window and buy your entrance ticket. It usually hovers around 10 American dollars pretty consistently, but just know that this does not include entrance to the mummy room. That’s an extra ticket that you can buy inside and it’s really worth it to tack that on when you’re in there.
The Egyptian Museum has also started selling what they call a “photography ticket,” which is basically just an extra small charge for you to take pictures inside of the museum, which always used to be free or included in the ticket. To me, it’s a bit ridiculous to charge extra for this instead of just including it in the price of the ticket and increasing the base ticket price to whatever total amount they want to collect from tourists. It’s all relatively cheap anyway, so it’s just an extra hassle and extra work for staff with the exact same result anyway. But that’s Egypt.
Ok, once you have your ticket you can proceed on to the main building entrance in the center of the front of the building. There you’ll go through another light security screening and then you’ll be in.
If you’re by yourself or only with other foreign tourists, beware that both the entrance to the museum gates and the entrance to the museum building, both outside and inside, are often where freelance guides hang out offering their services to visitors who don’t appear to have an Egyptian with them. Some can be annoyingly persistent, but just politely but firmly let them know you’re good if you just want to wander around the museum on your own. And if anyone tries to tell you that you have to have a guide, feel free to roll your eyes and smack your lips at them because they’re lying to you.
With that said, the Egyptian Museum is one place where it can really behoove you to have a guide with you for at least an hour or two. That’s because all of the objects in there are really poorly labeled. In fact, most of them have no labels or notations at all, or if they do it’s just a basic literal description with no mention of what the significance or relevance is.
Once you’re in, there’s really no right or wrong way to begin exploring. The public floor plan is a large rectangular walk-around on two levels with a central interior courtyard area in the middle. You can start out walking toward the left, right, or go straight into the central courtyard area.
While everything in the museum is incredibly important from an historical and archaeological point of view, even if you wouldn’t know it because most of it is not labeled, let’s talk about a few of the major pieces and collections in there that you shouldn’t miss. And hopefully by reading about them here, even if you are exploring the museum on your own, you’ll know about the significance of these things when you come across them or you can look or ask for them if you miss them.
First and foremost are the treasures of King Tut’s tomb. British archaeologist Howard Carter and his patron Lord Carnarvon discovered a new and nearly undisturbed tomb in 1922 that turned out to be that of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamen, who ruled for about 10 years and died when he was only about 19 years old.
Because he died so young and his tomb had to be rushed, it was partly built underneath another tomb, which was a big no-no back then. As a result, archaeologists had largely overlooked the site of his tomb for decades and grave robbers overlooked it for thousands of years before that. When Cater and Carnarvon rediscovered it in 1922, all of Tut’s treasures and possessions from over 3300 years ago were still intact inside of the sealed tomb. And thanks to the then-emerging efforts of those French archaeologists and the fledgling local Egyptian government to start instituting preservation laws and institutions, a lot of those treasures are now on public display for you to come marvel at.
The biggest and best pieces are in the Egyptian Museum, while one sarcophagus (they had many layers kind of like Russian dolls, except the Egyptians did that first evidently) is still inside of King Tut’s tomb along with King Tut’s actual mummified body down in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.
Back in Cairo, the majority of King Tut’s treasures are located on the second floor of the Egyptian Museum near the back. Keep in mind that as the museum begins preparing exhibits and artifacts for the move over to the new Grand Egyptian Museum out in Giza, some exhibits are being rearranged and consolidated into smaller spaces within the current museum building.
As you come upon the King Tut exhibit, you’ll start seeing some interesting lifestyle artifacts like some of the board games that King Tut owned that were put in his tomb for his continued entertainment in the afterlife. You’ll also see things like the small statues that were made for him that were supposed to represent servants that would come to life in the afterlife and attend to his wants and needs just like he had in his earthly life. And you’ll pass some of his foot stools the beds made for his relaxation in the afterlife, as well as his throne made of wood but inlaid with gold.
Toward the center of the back wing of the upper floor, you’ll start seeing some larger and more important treasures, like the alabaster jars that contained King Tut’s organs, which are taken out during mummification and buried alongside the mummy. And you’ll see these huge golden boxes, almost as big as small rooms, again made so that one could fit inside of the other inside of the tightly packed tomb. More personal items are also on display in glass cases along the walls, like his sandals and even an ancient condom.
At the very back center of the museum on this same upper floor, there’s a special room that houses King Tut’s finest treasures, including some of his most precious jewelry, burial ornaments, and several of the consecutive layers of sarcophagi. The larger outer sarcophagi are made of wood but covered in gold and inlaid with precious jewels. They’re enormous, enormously heavy, and crafted and decorated beautifully.
But the big daddy of them all was the slightly smaller inner sarcophagus, which was made of pure solid gold. Inside of that one was laid the mummified body of the famous boy king himself, over 3300 years ago when he unexpectedly died after a fall from his chariot, or so they said in official accounts.
Pharaohs went through a lengthy mummification process during which the High Priest would perform various medical and religious functions to preserve the physical body, which worked astonishingly well as you’ll see when you visit the museum’s mummy room. Then he wrapped the body in linens and usually inlaid some amulets and other jewelry in between the layers.
After that, a solid gold funeral mask inlaid with precious stones and jewels was placed over the head and shoulders of the dead pharaoh before the lid was placed on the solid gold inner sarcophagus and that one was put inside of another, which was put inside of another, and so on and so until usually these were placed inside of a thick stone outer casing and sealed for eternity.
I mention this process to explain the significance of the most famous and most beautiful piece of King Tut’s treasure collection, which nearly anyone who’s seen anything about Egypt has surely seen – his funeral mask. That one object defines Egypt in the minds of nearly everyone on the planet and is on display at the center of this upstairs back room in the Egyptian Museum.
Except on very rare occasions when it’s taken out for cleaning or touring, King Tut’s solid gold funeral mask is always on display. It’s very rare for Egypt to let high-value artifacts leave the country to tour, and extremely rare for this one artifact to be included among what does go on tour, so you shouldn’t have to worry about that. I think I’ve only been there one time when it was out for cleaning too, so generally you shouldn’t worry about that either. It’s almost always there, and it’s always an incredible sight to behold.
The crowds in the museum and within this key treasure room ebb and flow, so if you’re there and too many people are crowded around King Tut’s burial mask, give it 30 minutes or so and come back to this room later. I’ve been there when dozens are hovering, and I’ve had it all to myself on several occasions too.
The second most visited major collection in the Egyptian Museum is the mummy collection, or the mummy room. There is an extra ticket that you have to buy inside of the museum building to enter this room, but it really is worth it to splurge on the cheap cost of this additional special exhibit. This room is a little more modern too, mainly because they have to create special conditions inside the room to help preserve these royal bodies now that they’re not fully mummified and buried in their sealed arid desert tombs anymore.
In here you can see the actual bodies of some of Egypt’s greatest and most famous pharaohs, some of whom you’ll have heard of and some not, but all of whom were really important in Egyptian history. So sacred were they, in fact, that the only reason their mummies are still around is because as things were going to hell in ancient Egypt and grave robbers were plundering tombs and all over the country, two smart-thinking, dedicated, and loyal priests named Pinudjem I and II took as many pharaohs’ bodies as they could from their resting places in their tombs and hid them in a secret location for safekeeping.
In 1881, this secret mummy hiding place was discovered, thankfully again during the beginning of the period when archaeologists and the local Egyptian authorities were working hard to preserve finds like this and study them. Some of the mummies could be identified relatively quickly because, as we learned earlier, they were finally starting to be able to read hieroglyphics and could read the names on some of the objects wrapped up in the linens. But still other mummies couldn’t be positively identified until recently through the use of DNA testing, carbon dating, and other modern processes.
Because of this twist of ancient and modern history, you can now go see the actual mummies of pharaohs like Ramses the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. The second Ramses is the one we call Ramses the Great, and he’s the one depicted on some of Egypt’s greatest and most famous monuments like Abu Simbel. You’ve also got Ahmose I, who, like Tut, also came to the throne really young. He was about ten years old too, and he was the pharaoh who later went to battle with the Hyksos and expelled them from northern Egypt to liberate that area and reunite the kingdom.
You’ve got Thutmose III in the mummy room too. He was famous for being Hapshetsut’s stepson whom she managed to brush aside and rule herself after the death of her husband and his father. And you’ve even got the body of the great Queen Hapshetsut herself there in the mummy room.
But these are just some of the mummies of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt that you can see in the mummy room of the Egyptian Museum. And what’s really incredible is that you can get up close and personal with them too. There’s only a thin layer of glass separating you from the mummified faces of these great ancient rulers.
Their bodies are mostly covered because modern Egyptians believe in modesty of dress and they think it’s highly improper and disrespectful to show someone’s body uncovered, even if they’ve been dead for 4000 years. But even in just their faces, you can see how well preserved their skin is, although of course it’s a bit dried out.
You can also see their hair, their fingernails, and sometimes even their eyelashes still, and you’ll likely notice too the slightly deformed and elongated shape of some of their heads. Remember there was a lot of inbreeding in royal houses back in those days, just like in more modern times in Europe. It’s really all just amazing and incredible, so make sure you take the time to really absorb what it is you have the privilege of looking at up close when you’re in there.
Moving on, there’s an animal mummy room in the Egyptian Museum too. It’s on the opposite side of the building from the Pharaonic mummy room and kind of tucked away into a corner. So if you’re interested in seeing 4000-year-old cats, baboons, and alligators that the Egyptians revered enough to mummify, make sure you look for that collection or ask someone to show you where it’s located.
In one of the inner rooms around the perimeter hallways is a wooden statue known as Sheikh el Balad. It’s actually a statue of a guy named Ka’aper who lived over 5000 years ago and who worked as a scribe and a lector priest, which was the priest who verbally recited and sang spells and hymns during official ceremonies and rituals. He wasn’t very high ranking, but this wooden statue of him survived and was found by a French archaeologist in the 1800s.
The remarkable thing about this particular artifact is how life-like it is in the face because of how round and well proportioned it is and also because of the inlaid eyes that are made of copper and rock crystal with milky quarts for the whites of the eyes. Today it’s called the “Skeikh el Balad” statue, which means “village chief” in Arabic, because when it was excavated all the local workers at the camp were shocked at how much it looked like their actual village chief then. So they nicknamed the artifact the Village Chief, or Sheikh el Balad in Arabic.
Another set of pieces in the museum that I think are really neat are the Greek sarcophagi. The British Museum in London has a few of these too I noticed, but you can get more up close and personal with the ones in Cairo. Remember that after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, Egypt became part of the Macedonian Greek empire, and after Alexander’s untimely death about 9 years alter, his Macedonian Greek generals split up his empire and a general named Ptolemy got Egypt.
Ptolemy founded the Ptolemaic dynasty of pharaohs, which were not really pharaohs because the real Egyptian pharaohs had been conquered and deposed by then, but it was still close enough to when Egypt was a real empire, and Ptolemy’s family respected Egypt’s history and local traditions so much that they adopted many Egyptian customs and blended them with their imported Greek ones.
So from this period, you have really really unique art, architecture, and artifacts. For example, in the museum you can find ancient Egyptian-style sarcophagi with heads painted on the outside of them that are clearly Greek because they have white skin, short curly hair, and tunics over their shoulders.
Ok, so those are a couple of my favorite things in the Egyptian Museum combined with some of the most popular things, which are also favorites of mine too, of course.
Now one thing I haven’t covered yet is opening hours. Generally – and when I say generally don’t hold me to it 100% of the time because it’s Egypt and things change for unique reasons or no reason at all – but generally the Egyptian Museum is open every day of the week from 9am until 6-7pm, except during Ramadan, when it usually closes about 5pm to allow the staff to be home in time for the breaking of the fast each day.
The opening hours for everything in Egypt shifts during Ramadan, so if you’re going during Ramadan you’ll need to check the hours for everything and don’t expect restaurants to be open during the day or have normal menus if they are, except in the large hotels. Ramadan shifts earlier and earlier every year, so you’ll have to google that too if you think your trip there might fall over part of Ramadan, which lasts a whole month.
Ticket prices are usually the equivalent of about 10 bucks American or 10 euros, although of course you pay in Egyptian pounds there are the ticket window or desk. As mentioned previously, both the new “photography ticket” and the mummy room ticket are an extra charge, and both are worth getting.
If you’re a student and you have a student ID from an Egyptian university, such as the American University in Cairo where a lot of foreigners study abroad in Egypt as I did, you can use that to get a discount on our entrance tickets of about half off. If you’re not a student at an Egyptian university, make sure you get and bring your ISIC card, or International Student Identity Card.
They’re not supposed to accept student cards that are not ISIC cards. Sometimes they may, but they’re not supposed to, so don’t get mad if you try and it doesn’t fly. Just get an ISIC card if you’re a student and you’re traveling to be safe if you want the associated discounts.
And one last thing about leaving the Egyptian Museum, and this is very important. When you exit, which you’ll do from the side of the building on the lower level toward the back usually, you follow the walkway to a gift shop and then you walk back around to the front garden area and exit through another gate along the front. And here is where swindlers wait for you like predators stalking their prey at the precise location where they know said prey emerge.
Actually not that bad here – not nearly as bad as at the Pyramids or a few other big sites. But know that this is a chokepoint for scammers, so just beware of anyone who approaches you here as you exit the high gates. In particular, there are a lot of “papyrus shops” nearby this area downtown, so salesmen love to lure tourists coming out of the museum over to their or their brother’s or uncle’s papyrus shop nearby and sucker you into paying big bucks for “authentic” papyrus.
Don’t fall for that here, ok. If you really want papyrus art, go to the Khan el Khalili, which is the big souk or market. Don’t buy it from someone who lures you over to a shop right outside of the museum. You can still get ripped off in the Khan too, but you’ll definitely get ripped off if you follow some random dude outside of the museum.
During my very first week living in Egypt back in 2003, two friends and I were just walking around near the museum and one of these swindlers named Sherif lured us into his shop in a back alley nearby, and the sales pitch that man laid on us was like a pressure cooker on high. We literally spent twenty bucks each on one stupid piece of crap papyrus that wasn’t even worth a dollar just to try to shut him up, and he was still mad that that was all we spent in his shop.
So I’m telling you from personal experience – this is a scammer chokepoint for ripping off unsuspecting tourists here right outside of the museum.
Now with all that said, if you do see some cute really old men walking around outside the museum gates with an arm full of papyrus and they’re offering them to you for a dollar or two each, it’s ok to buy from these nice elderly guys. Don’t expect it to be high quality, but it’s souvenir quality and if it’s only a dollar or two US then I’d say go for it.
In fact, when I used to come home to the US for holidays, I’d sometimes walk over to the museum gates to look for these cute old men selling papyrus in the street there and buy 5 or 10 from them as gifts for cousins and friends back home. These guys aren’t the pressure-cooker scammers like the more sophisticated ones that try to lure you away into a shop so they can give you the whole song and dance. If they pester you a little while you walk by and you don’t want anything, they’ll leave you alone after one or two “no thank you’s.”
Also on the topic of scam avoidance during a museum visit, if you don’t have a pre-arranged guide with you and you do pick one up on-site (meaning when you go into the museum gates and a guide offers to show you around the museum there), these guys will often have an arrangement with a nearby shop to take tourists for overpriced papyrus too. They sometimes even tell you that it’s the official museum gift shop that they’re taking you to, but if it’s outside of the museum gates then it’s not.
They’re well-meaning, but they’re just trying to give you an up-sale after their tour and make a little extra money off of commissions. So just be aware of that practice and decide whether you want that add-on with full information.
Ok, and that about wraps up the experience of visiting the Egyptian Museum and all the basics you should know going into your visit there. Remember, you can always reach me at John at EgyptTravelBlog dot com if you have additional questions. I love travel and I love Egypt, and I’m happy to share everything I know about it with you so that you go there and have an awesome, safe, wonderful time.