19th Century · 20th Century · 21st Century · Cairo

Taking a walk through history at Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities

Artefacts from Ancient Egypt are scattered in museums across the world, with many of them being excavated and removed from Egypt by European- and American-led expeditions during the 19th Century and finding their way into the hands of private collectors or foreign museums.  However, some of the best-known treasures of ancient Egypt – the contents of the tomb of the boy-king Tutankhamun, discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1922 – have remained in Cairo, leaving Egypt only very occasionally for wildly popular world tours. A new exhibition featuring artefacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb is due to open in London in November 2019, after a record-breaking run in Paris.  Dubbed a ‘farewell tour’, these artefacts will be moving to a new, permanent home at the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza when they return to Egypt. The museum that has housed Tutankhamun’s treasures since their discovery in 1922 is a Cairo landmark, a visit to which was described by a recent article as ‘like walking through history itself, even before taking into account that it also houses one of the world’s most significant collections of ancient artifacts.’ (source)

The French invasion of Egypt, led by Napoleon, which began in 1798, prompted a surge of European and American interest in Ancient Egypt which, over time, grew into the modern discipline of Egyptology (the study of Egypt’s history, art and culture from ancient times to about the 4th Century AD).  Artists, explorers and treasure hunters travelled to Egypt to document, draw, and sometimes plunder the ancient ruins. One of the most famous artefacts removed from Egypt during Napoleon’s invasion was the Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1799.

Close-up image of part of the Rosetta Stone, on display at the British Museum in London. Inscriptions in Greek and Demotic script, as well as hieroglyphics, on the Rosetta Stone enabled Egyptologists to successfully decipher hieroglyphics for the first time

In the decades after the Napoleonic invasion, thousands of artefacts were excavated in Egypt, many of them haphazardly, with wooden and fabric artefacts often being damaged or discarded in favour of items glittering with gold and precious stones; a source of frustration to historians, archaeologists and curators today.  Many of these excavations were little more than looting or grave robbery. So many objects in museums are labelled ‘unknown provenance’ because no record was made of where they were found, or in what context, or indeed where the museum acquired them from. Archaeological practices have vastly improved since then, but even today the looting of archaeological sites and artefacts lacking provenance remains a problem and a concern for researchers and curators.

The clamour to excavate and remove ancient artefacts by foreign expeditions was part of a larger tussle between European colonial powers vying for influence in Egypt in the decades between Napoleon’s invasion and the Second World War.  Egypt’s location was strategically important, especially after the construction of the Suez Canal, linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, in the 1860s. The Suez Canal had been built by a French company, and from 1882 Egypt was occupied by British forces.  The French colonial influence can clearly be seen in many of the streets close to Tahrir Square – the architectural style of the buildings and the wide streets are similar to those of Hausmann’s Paris.

Although many thousands of artefacts were shipped out of Egypt to be displayed or collected abroad, efforts soon began to establish a museum to showcase ancient Egyptian artefacts in Cairo itself.  The story of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities begins in 1835, when the Egyptian government established a museum in the Azbakeya district of Cairo, close to many of the city’s historic buildings. This first location proved too small to display all of the museum’s collection, and after a number of years the collection was moved to the Cairo Citadel, a vast fortress constructed in the 12th Century by Saladin – but in 1855 the entire collection was gifted to the Austrian Archduke Maximillian by the Egyptian government.  These artefacts are now a part of the collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

In 1858 the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities was re-established in the district of Boulaq, in a building that had previously been used as a warehouse.  A Frenchman, Auguste Mariette, was a key figure in the foundation of this institution. Mariette had originally been employed by the Louvre in Paris to source Egyptian antiquities for its collections, but in 1858 he accepted an invitation from the Egyptian ruler, the Khedive Said, to become the first conservator of Egyptian monuments.  Once in this position, Mariette was able to gain funding for the new museum at Boulaq, although he was often at odds with the Khedive over whether newly-discovered artefacts would be displayed in the museum or make up part of the Khedive’s private collection.

Giza Palace, home of the museum between 1890 and [check], photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
In 1878, the Boulaq museum was damaged by flooding from the River Nile – destroying many of Auguste Mariette’s notes and writings – and once again, the museum’s collection found itself looking for a new home.  The museum’s collection moved to the other side of the Nile to a new home at Giza Palace, previously a royal residence. The Graphic newspaper commented that the palace’s ‘modern French decorations [were] of a somewhat disharmonious character’ (The Graphic, 21st June 1890).  Here, the museum’s French director Gaston Maspero – who had succeeded the ailing Mariette in 1881 – had more space to display the ever-growing collection of antiquities, but as more and more discoveries were made, the collection soon began to outgrow Giza Palace.

Image from the Graphic, 21st June 1890, showing the interior of the Giza Palace Museum © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD

After many years of moving between buildings not ideally suited for displaying or preserving the museum’s growing collections, a purpose-built museum was proposed and in 1899 work began on the present Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Tahrir Square (known at the time as Ismailia Square), in the heart of downtown Cairo. The new museum was designed by Marcel Dourgnon, a Frenchman, and the administration of the museum continued to be dominated by French Egyptologists for many years – the first Egyptian director of the museum, Mostafa Amer, was appointed in 1953, half a century after the museum opened.

The foundation stone of the museum was laid by the Khedive Abbas II in 1897 with Egyptian and European officials and nobility present, and the grand opening of the museum in November 1902 – once again officiated by the Khedive – was attended by over a hundred officials from Egypt and Europe, including Lord Cromer and Lord Kitchener.

The Egyptian Museum and Tahrir Square, 1941 (public domain image on Wikimedia Commons)

I first visited Cairo in March 2018 for a week-long business trip that mostly involved long days working at a hospital in Cairo’s suburbs, but as well as getting to visit the Great Pyramids at Giza, I was also able to find time to visit the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.

The museum opens late on Thursday evenings, so after I had finished work for the day I made the short walk from my Garden City hotel across Tahrir Square to the museum.  Tahrir Square itself, famously occupied by thousands of people during the 2011 revolution, is busy with traffic at all hours.  It was a smoggy evening, unseasonably hot for March, and the air was heavy with dust and fumes.  It was about 6pm, the time when the sun suddenly sank in the sky and all around me the call to evening prayer resonated from Cairo’s many mosques.

Tahrir Square at dusk

The museum was heavily guarded by concrete roadblocks, tall fences and armed men.  Visitors were required to pass through bag checks and a metal detector before approaching the ticket booth, security measures that will be familiar to visitors to London’s British Museum.  The often-turbulent political situation in Egypt since the Arab Spring has led to these highly visible security measures being put in place.  During the revolution of 2011, looters broke into the museum, ransacking the ticket office and gift shop, damaging display cases and their contents and stealing a number of artefacts.  Some of the looted items were later recovered, but two mummies were damaged beyond repair.  The building adjacent to the museum, the headquarters of the National Democratic Party which was toppled from power by the revolution, was gutted by fire but fortunately the flames did not spread to the museum.

Fences and police checkpoints guard the museum

Visitors can pay a small additional fee to enter the mummy room, where the mortal remains of some of ancient Egypt’s Pharaohs make for an eerie display, their gaunt bodies stripped of the lavish wrappings and trinkets that accompanied their bodies into their tombs.  This room was not always accessible to the public; a newspaper report from 1928 describing a visit to Cairo by two members of the British royal family mentioned that the mummy room had recently been ‘locked away from public view’. (The Scotsman, 14th September 1928)

The iron doors were opened, and the Princes’ names were added to those few who were privileged to gaze upon the most famous of Egypt’s dead monarchs.

Photography is not permitted in the mummy room; this mummy, still in its wrappings, is displayed in the main part of the museum

The main body of the museum’s collection is arranged over two floors. The museum’s layout and presentation has changed little since it opened in 1902, with many modern visitors commenting that the displaying and curation of artefacts is quite old-fashioned compared to other museums. Typewritten descriptions of artefacts on yellowed cards are in presented in French and English as well as Arabic, though many items remain unlabelled.

 

Photograph showing the interior of the museum; a long gallery with statues and glass cases

At the heart of the museum is a double-height hall which houses some of the museum’s largest statues, including the colossal twin statues of Amenhotep III and his queen Tiye.

The Central Hall in the museum, pictured in The Sphere, 31st March 1923 (Image © Illustrated London News Group)

The treasures buried in the tomb of Tutankhamun are undoubtedly the most famous of the exhibits at the museum.  Tutankhamun’s tomb, almost completely intact, was discovered by a team of archaeologists led by Howard Carter in 1922.  Over a period of several months, thousands and thousands of items, ranging from preserved offerings of food for the Pharaoh’s journey to the afterlife to the iconic golden funeral mask of the young Pharaoh, were excavated, preserved and catalogued before being brought to the Cairo museum.

Shoes found in Tutankhamun’s tomb

That this remarkable discovery remained in Egypt was a point of pride for the Egyptian government of time – the treasures were deemed to be the property of the Egyptian government, and for the most part, the majority of Tutankhamun’s treasures have remained in Egypt.  The incredibly popular world tours of the 1960s and 1970s were efforts to raise money for the conservation of Egyptian archaeological sites and artefacts, while the fact that the Tutankhamun collection usually stays in Cairo acts as a major attraction for foreign visitors to Egypt.

Tutankhamun’s throne
Golden figures found in Tutankhamun’s tomb

Photography is forbidden in the room where the golden mask of Tutankhamun resides; a guard is on duty at all times to enforce this rule.  This is not a recent imposition – a visitor’s account of the museum printed in 1927 describes a ban on both photography and sketching and drawing within the treasure room (Dundee Courier, 12th January 1927).  The museum was not very busy when I visited, and I was incredibly fortunate to be the only visitor in the treasure room for quite a while, meaning I could linger with an artefact that I’ve been so familiar with since I was a child.  The treasure room, its golden treasures glittering within glass cabinets, has not changed a great deal since the image below, from the Illustrated London News, was published in 1927.

The treasure room containing the funerary mask of Tutankhamun, as pictured in the Illustrated London News, 19th February 1927 © Illustrated London News Group

The famous funerary mask of Tutankhamun is too fragile to travel and remains at the Museum of Egpytian Antiquities while the Tutankhamun exhibition tours the world; its next move will be the new museum in Giza.  There, it will serve as one of the Grand Egyptian Museum’s centrepieces, in a new gallery designed to showcase more of the Tutankhamun artefacts than has ever been possible at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.

Many artefacts from the museum’s collection have already made the journey to Giza, with many of the large statues in particular presenting some logistical challenges.  The 83-tonne statue of the Pharaoh Ramses the Great brought Giza to a standstill when it was transported to the new museum on a huge truck emblazoned with the Egyptian flag.

Crates in the gallery, ready to receive artefacts being moved to the new museum

The building of the Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza is just a small part of a wider pattern of decentralisation planned by Egyptian authorities.  The unstable political situation in Egypt in recent years has caused a decline in foreign visitors – highly damaging for a country with an economy so dependent on tourism.  A new international airport, Giza Sphinx, has been built a short distance from the pyramids, with the idea that tourists wishing to visit the pyramids and the Grand Egyptian Museum can arrive via this airport and avoid downtown Cairo altogether.  Cairo’s metropolitan area is enormous, with a rapidly-growing population (over 20 million people live in the Greater Cairo area, more than twice the population of Greater London), and includes numerous ‘new cities’ built from scratch for Cairo’s rich to escape to from the old city’s crowded and polluted streets.  The traffic-choked motorways which run through Cairo are lined with advertisements for new luxury flats with spacious green surroundings in these new satellite cities. Critics of these new developments argue that they are simply decanting Cairo’s wealthy inhabitants and businesses from the old city and leaving the less well-off behind in areas with decaying infrastructure and poor transport links.

Image showing the Pyramids of Giza, with a horse-drawn carriage and camels in the foreground
The new Grand Egyptian Museum is located close to the Pyramids of Giza, about ten miles to the west of Tahrir Square

There are no plans to close the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities when the Grand Egyptian Museum finally opens its doors (at the time of writing, the new museum is currently set to open in 2020, but the opening date has been pushed back many times).  Instead, plans are afoot to keep the old museum open and use it to exhibit recent archaeological discoveries and artefacts that are currently held in storage due to a lack of exhibition space. Quite how this fits in with the wider plan for tourists to visit Giza via the new Sphinx airport is uncertain, but it looks as though the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities will continue to play a part in the showcasing of Egypt’s incredible heritage for many years to come.


References and further reading

Christina Riggs – “Colonial Visions: Egyptian Antiquities and Contested Histories in the Cairo Museum,” Museum Worlds: Advances in Research 1 (2013)

James Stevens Curl – The Egyptian Revival: Ancient Egypt as the Inspiration for Design Motifs in the West, Routledge, 2005

Will this be the end of the legendary Cairo Egyptian Museum?“, The Daily Beast, 13th July 2019

A Brief History of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), 1858-present

Salma Islam – “A new Egyptian museum will bring treasures of the pyramids back to practically where they were buried,” GlobalPost, 7th March 2018

Patrick Kingsley – “Tutankhamun’s famous home is undergoing a facelift (no glue involved)“, The Guardian, 27th January 2015

Chris McGreal – “Tutankhamun statues among priceless items stolen from Cairo museum,” The Guardian, 13th February 2011

Kristin Romey – “3,000-year-old Colossal Pharaoh Statue Moved to New Home,” National Geographic, 25th January 2018

Ruth Michaelson – “‘Cairo has started to become ugly’: why Egypt is building a new capital city,” Guardian Cities, 8th May 2018

Unless linked to above, all newspaper articles were accessed via the British Newspaper Archive.

3 thoughts on “Taking a walk through history at Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities

  1. The collection at the museum is just outstanding, although (having visited a couple of times) I agree with visitors who say the arrangement is all a little old-fashioned! I think one of my favourite artefacts is Tutankhamun’s throne – so elegant. Thanks for the photos; I also enjoyed your description of what the area was like when you visited.

    Like

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