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, temporary or permanent. Having one stone sarcophagus, one golden mummy mask, one ancient chair can be a huge deal. So imagine walking into a gigantic building that is 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 do research when planning your visit to the Egyptian Museum.
Exploring the Egyptian Museum
Planning Your Trip
My first tip to people visiting the Museum, is to 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. Arriving later in the day means you’re more likely to have some breathing room. This makes a big difference, especially in the special exhibits like King Tut or the Royal Mummies. We had one of the Royal Mummy rooms entirely to ourselves.
A ton of would-be guides offer their services by the ticket booths. Exercise caution, as fake guides are one of the many tourist scams you 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 gives a good sense of what’s important to see as well as the historical context around the different exhibits.
Besides inside the Royal Mummy rooms, the Egyptian Museum has no air conditioning in the museum. Planning to come 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. That means 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 houses 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
The animal mummies were absolutely fascinating. There are four types of animal mummies. Pets buried with their owners, animal food offerings included as victuals, sacred animal offerings, and votive offerings given to the gods. If the pet mummies distress you, don’t worry—pets died their own natural deaths and then included in their owners’ tombs, not sacrificed when their owners died. The Animal Mummy room displays mummies of gazelles, small monkeys, cats, and birds (all of which were considered pets). There is also 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 even had their own carved sarcophagi.
The Royal Mummies
Onto the Royal Mummies! The Egyptian Museum houses 27 of the great pharaohs and queens of Egypt. I expected to see them wrapped in their bindings. To my surprise, the mummies are largely exposed, displayed in thin linen shrouds. Mummification, which kept hair and features intact, gives you an incredibly personal idea of what these rulers might have looked like.
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 how these ancient people looked and styled themselves. But on the other, I think we sometimes forget that a mummy was once a person. It felt intrusive to stare 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.
Again, there’s not a lot of backstory here, so having a guidebook or guide is a definite 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, for lack of a better phrase, like a dick move. Many times thieves left the remains heaped on the floor, or ravaged them trying to get to the amulets and jewelry wrapped inside. That’s…just not cool.
You can buy tickets for the Mummy Rooms inside if you forgot to purchase them outside.
When to Go
We visited the Egyptian Museum on the first day of our 7-day trip. But the end of the trip caught us 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.