Note: This post will contain links to graphics in the public domain, as I was unable to take my own photographs this day.
All right, we left off with my recounting of the Giza trip, right? Sorry for the slow updates lately — I have been busy as hell both in Egypt and since I got back to Israel/Palestine. I was just up in the Nablus area for a few days and will have some stories to tell there when I reach it chronologically, hehe! I will work hard to get caught up when I get home. Anyroad, back to Egypt…
The day after Giza I set out early in the morning to do what I had wanted to do the previous day: visit the Egyptian museum. First, however, I needed to make a detour all the way back to Giza to retrieve my ATM card! The bastard machine in the Banque Misr branch across from the Sphinx had eaten it, much to my chagrin. This, therefore, was a titanic waste of time and cab far, but whatever — the day at the pyramids was still worth it.
I had the cab drop me off at the museum once back in Cairo. I had remembered to leave my camera back in the hostel, as the museum no longer allows photos inside and will hold your camera for the length of your visit if you bring one (and I am not particularly trusting). The outside of the museum is a huge garden space with various hunks of antiquity just lying around. This is as good an introduction as any to the way this museum works. There are relatively few signs or notes of any kind on the works inside, with even important pieces often going unlabelled. I pity anyone who wanders through here without a good grasp of ancient Egyptian history, as they will get only a half-assed appreciation of it from wandering. A bit of awe at the pieces, sure, but without the context how do you know what you’re looking at or why you should care?
A good case in point is the first major piece I encountered inside. Well, the first to really jump out at me and make me smile like an idiot schoolboy. *lol* plopped into one corner near the end of the first big gallery, partly in shadow, is a gigantic dark granite stele. For anyone who doesn’t know what a stele is, it’s just a monolithic slab, usually quite large, that is inscribed with something. Technically a gravestone could be called a stele, but it’s more appropriate to the sort of commemorative signs that Pharaohs liked to scatter about to glorify themselves.
This one was more historically meaningful to me than most things in the room, since it is the only one to mention the ancient Israelites. In fact, the Merneptah Stele may be the only reference to Israel that will ever be found in ancient Egyptian documents, and one of the few pieces of corroborating evidence that such a people existed. Tellingly, it does not use the sign that Egyptian writers used to denote a state or kingdom, but rather a people, suggesting that what was encountered was a kind of tribal confederation. This matches the archaeological evidence in the land of Israel which, contrary to what Bible-believing nudniks would have you thinking, shows no evidence of large-scale migration a-la the Exodus story, nor of a large and unified kingdom of David and Solomon. These things are highly embellished myths used to justify later political positions. But I’m off-topic; the point is that I was able to touch, that is, run my hands over the lettered surface, the only truly ancient document that mentions the Israelites. (The Torah is not, per se, an ancient -document- since it has been copied countless times by hand.)
The early rooms were filled with humongous statuary and fragments of same, and these I could pass through pretty quickly while making few mental notes. It was impressive, sure, but most of it was so big that its story was either easy to see or not even very interesting. *lol* There were several pyramidion, which are the polished caps that fit atop pyramids. Very few pyramids still possess these, and none of those at Giza do (those are lost). The ones in the museum are from much smaller, lesser known pyramids (there are a damned lot of these scattered around in Egypt).
The next thing to really take my breath away was a large display case of cuneiform tablets. If anyone doesn’t know what cuneiform is you fail my world history class! It is perhaps the first human writing system, and certainly the oldest we have found. Its origin lies with the temple hierarchies of ancient Sumeria in southern Iraq more than 5,000 years ago. It was produced by pressing a wedge-shaped stylus into wet clay and then baking the stuff. Cuneiform tablets are found all over the Middle East, betraying the extent of early trade networks and the long influence of the system itself, which was the source of inspiration for many later ones. Anyway, what strikes one on looking at cuneiform tablets is just how small they are, with nearly any of them fitting into the palm of your hand. I have told classes this but I have seen very few in person.
The last exhibit on the ground floor that I will mention (the cool stuff is mostly upstairs) is an alcove filled with things from the reign of Akhenaton. This is another figure y’all ought to be familiar with, and if you’re not I will now bore you… Akhenaton was born and coronated as Amenhotep IV in the 18th Dynasty, somewhere around the 14th c. BCE. He is famous for dissing the gods of Egypt, including Amun-Re, in favour of a new god called Aten. This is considered by scholars to be perhaps the first example of a monotheistic or henotheistic faith. Over the course of his reign he gradually restricted the worship of Egypt’s other gods, promoting the cult of Aten, the sun-disc, as their only replacement.
We know a lot about this almost-forgotten Pharaoh (his successors were not keen to preserve his memory!) because of a massive cache of cuneiform documents uncovered in Akhetaten, now called Amarna, the city he built to honour Aten. (Incidentally, the cuneiform tablet pictured above is from the Amarna cache.) Anyway, this alcove had his coffin, statues of him and his mother and queen, and other nifty things. Oh, last bits of cool trivia. Ever heard of Nefertiti? A bust of her is one of the more iconic images of ancient Egypt and that was his wife. And Tutankhamen was his son. Yes, that Tutankhamen — the one with all the gold. *lol*
Heading upstairs I first stopped off in the rest room. Given the huge foreign crowds this place gets I was pretty sure I would find ‘normal’ facilities… I was mistaken. Egyptians do not use toilet paper. Think about that for a second while I go on… *lol* Many Egyptian toilet facilities, particularly the older ‘squatting’ variety, have hoses or bucket-and-faucet combinations so that you can wash yourself with water. But Western-style toilets seem to lack even this functionality, so that you have a choice between using a squat toilet or not being able to wash your arse at all. Fortunately I am a clever traveller and choose a third option — I always have a roll of TP in my backpack!
Exhibits upstairs are broken into tonnes of smaller rooms, all partly open to the main space so that you can easily flow in and out of them from a number of directions. I will mention here some of the things that stood out to me in a list-format so that we can move along more quickly!
— Poison-tipped arrows of wood and bone. Cool!
— Lots of small artefacts from Menes’ tomb and the First Dynasty! (Menes is the first Pharaoh, the guy who unified Upper and Lower Egypt.)
— Intricately carved alabaster fragments from Zozer’s pyramid.
— A Huge collection bowls, plates, etc from Saqqara.
— An extraordinary number of painted wooden mummy cases.
— Models of Egyptian infantry and Nubian archers.
— Massive collections of papyri in hieroglyphics, hieratic script, demotic script, and Greek. Some of this stuff was just awesome to look at, including the world’s oldest medical manuscripts, and some hymns to Jesus!
— Carved pieces of ivory from lower down in Africa.
— Bronze and iron daggers and swords and tools, wow!
— A huge 3000-yr-old wooden ladder?!
— Three nested coffins and a sarcophagus for Yuya, some noblewoman that I couldn’t remember.
— A mummified woman from the 2nd c CE with Roman-style portrait painted on the wrappings, showing a nifty kind of cultural syncretism.
— Gilded mummy case of a girl, also painted and from the 2nd c CE.
— In fact, an entire rooms full of various mummies and mummy cases!
Several separate rooms exist upstairs along the walls. One of these was filled with jewellery and I must say, it was indescribable. The collection includes two of of Rameses II’s bracelets and some massive gold collars. There was also an animal-mummy room and a room of treasures from the royal tombs of Tanis. These may well be the only things I didn’t get to! I was moving quickly since I read and grasp what I’m seeing quickly enough that I was more interested in seeing as much as I could than in sitting to reflect on individual exhibits.
Another room that I found amazing required a separate admission fee, which makes sense given what it must take to preserve these things indefinitely. This was the royal mummy chamber. The corpses of some of the most famous rulers in Egyptian history have survived, despite their tombs being looted in antiquity. The collection included Rameses II, Seti I, Amenhotep I, Tuthmosis IV, Tuthmosis II, Amenhotep II (trivia: he was 1.83 metres tall), Merenptah, Tuthmosis III, and Hatshepsut!!! Anyone recognise the first and last in this list? The first is one of the greatest builders, responsible for the massive temple at Karnak and that huge monument at Abu Simbel that was carved out of a hillside.
The last exhibit in the museum, and one of the last things I saw, was the collection of Tutankhamun artefacts. As above I will format this as a list to save time, and I will refrain for posting links to photos since, well, if you haven’t seen images of Tutankhamun’s treasures you have been living in a deep well underground since the 1930s. *lol*
— The three huge nested boxes for his sarcophagus.
— Three gilt ceremonial beds.
— Lots of toy little boats — an afterlife navy or a child’s things?
— The alabaster and gold canopic jars (holding his innards after mummification).
— Two mummified foetuses, so I guess his kids were miscarried or stillborn? Too much inbreeding…
— An amazingly intricately painted throne in gilded wood.
— Various crooks, bows, and flails.
— Several chariots, so he could kick ass in the afterlife.
— Tonnes of fancy necklaces and collars to impress the dead ladies.
— Both gilt and jewelled coffins to hold his mummy (this guy had six layers of stuff surrounding his body inside the tomb.
— And, of course, that iconic gold funerary mask that everyone and his uncle has seen. Interestingly, there’s writing on the back of it, both inside and out, which I had never seen photographed.
All right, I am tired. *phew* So I’m gonna wrap this up with a few last observations. Strangely, the museum gift shop at the exit was completely empty — just shelves. Dunno if it was new or what. There was one truly huge Asian tour group that moved in rapid single file and I have no idea how the people in the back heard a damn thing, or if they cared! Finally, there were a large number of European or American tourists walking around in very immodest clothing. Come on, people — it’s a Muslim country, show a little more respect than cleavage! Not that I mind seeing what you want to share, but it’s not really nice to trample on other peoples’ cultural values so forcefully.
That night I went out to a Sufi concert with a couple of people and then for beers at the Greek consulate, but I am tired and will have to write that up another time. I will post this and the story from Tahrir, and if there’s time before I fly out I will back up and tell you about that night.