I learned the phrase, “an embarrassment of riches” in a college poetry class, but I never fully understood it until we walked into the Egyptian museum. Many museums around the world have Egyptian pieces or play host to Egyptian exhibits, whether temporary or permanent. To have one stone sarcophagus, one golden mummy mask, one ancient chair can be a huge deal. So imagine walking into a gigantic building that is simply crammed with sarcophagi, 2000+ year old furniture, and not one, not two—but three whole rooms of mummies. It’s a lot of a good thing, so it’s best to come prepared.
Exploring the Egyptian Museum
Planning Your Trip
My first tip to people visiting the Museum, is to make sure you plan a lot of time to explore. We spent a solid two and a half hours inside but could have easily stayed another two.
We strategically planned our day to arrive at the Egyptian Museum around 15h. The big tours tend to enter the museum in the morning, which means if you come later in the day, you’re more likely to have some breathing room, especially in the special exhibits like King Tut or the Royal Mummies. We had one of the Royal Mummy rooms entirely to ourselves.
By the ticket booth, you’ll get a ton of would-be guides offering their services—exercise caution, as fake guides are one of the many tourist scams you’ll see in Cairo. That said, either plan to do a guided tour or bring a guidebook with you (we recommend the Lonely Planet one, which was updated in 2017). Nearly all the exhibits lack placards, and the guidebook will give you a sense of what’s important to see and the historical context around the different exhibits.
Asides from the Royal Mummy rooms, there is no air conditioning in the museum, so coming later in the day will also keep you cooler. As the museum is in the middle of Cairo, I’d recommend dressing more conservatively for this outing—longer pants and covered shoulders for women.
What to See
The Egyptian Museum houses over 120,000 artifacts, but not all are out on exhibit. Currently, the upper floor of one wing is undergoing renovation, but there’s still plenty to check out. Artifacts and carvings fill the rooms. The downstairs is home to the older (and larger) pieces, while upstairs has the littler details.
The highlight of the museum for us were the mummy rooms. There are technically three rooms: two of Royal Mummies, which require a separate ticket (as of October/November 2018, XXX price), and a room of mummified animals, which is a general exhibit.
The animal mummies were absolutely fascinating. There were four types of animal mummies: pets buried with their owners, animal food offerings included as victuals, sacred animal offerings, and votive offerings, which were given to the gods. If the pet ones distress you, don’t worry—pets died their own natural deaths and then were included in their owners’ tombs, not sacrificed when their owners died. In the Animal Mummy room, there are mummies of gazelles, small monkeys, cats, and birds (all of which were kept as pets), as well as a cow mummy (which was a sacred animal offering), and perhaps most impressively, a massive crocodile mummy. Like their human counterparts, all Animal Mummies had canopic jars holding the sacred innards (stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver). Some Animal Mummies were even given their own carved sarcophagi.
Onto the Royal Mummies! 27 of the great pharaohs and queens of Egypt are displayed here. I was expected them to still be wrapped in their bindings, but to my surprise, the mummies are largely exposed, wrapped in thin linen shrouds. Mummification kept hair and features intact, which gives you a much more personal idea of what these rulers might have looked like. Again, there’s not a lot of backstory here, so a guidebook or guide would be an asset. The one notable exception is a large placard on the search for Hatshepsut’s mummy, as well as some additional posters outside the main rooms that talk about tomb robbing.
Side note: Tomb raiding sounds super adventurous and exciting in the movies, but in the context of looking at the shriveled remains of a human seeking a nice burial, it starts to feel, well, for lack of a better phrase, like a dick move. A lot of times the remains were left heaped on the floor, or ravaged by thieves trying to get to the amulets and jewelry wrapped together. That’s…just not cool.
Additional side note: You can buy the ticket inside if you’ve forgotten to purchase it outdoors—which we had.
I had mixed feelings about seeing the Royal Mummies. On the one hand, it is fascinating to see how mummification affects the body and to see so closely how these ancient people looked and styled themselves. On the other hand, I think we sometimes forget that a mummy was once a person. It felt a little intrusive to be starting into the glass sarcophagi at the desiccated, coppery remains—a little undignified both for them and for me. I think I personally would have preferred to see them still in their bindings, inside the innermost sarcophagus, where they still have a bit of the trappings of the glory they were buried in.
When to Go
We visited the Egyptian Museum on the first day of our 7-day trip, but by the end of the trip, we were caught in an Ancient World version of the chicken and the egg: Should we have seen the tombs first, or the things (and people) that filled them?
Visiting the tombs made me really interested in the rulers they were built for, and I would have liked to visit the mummies with that added context. On the other hand, exploring the tombs was nothing short of exhilarating, and definitely ended our trip on a high note. I kind of wonder if visiting the museum after being “out in the field” might have been a letdown.
No matter when you plan to you visit it, the Egyptian Museum should definitely be on your Egypt trip itinerary.