Egyptian Museum

Cairo, Egypt

From Cairo Museum

Before I left, my roommate Ryan characterized the Egyptian Museum as the warehouse in Indiana Jones where they shut the Holy Grail away to gather dust, and I have to say that it’s a reasonable analogy. Still, there were some truly stunning exhibits.

The most amazing bits for me were probably in the jewelry exhibits. There were the most exquisite pieces of woven seed beads, and finely etched miniature animals and other delights. There were some incredibly detailed gold miniatures of animals, not even an inch tall, that made me wonder what in the world they’d use them for. I started to wonder if ancient Egyptians carried medicine pouches like some Native Americans…. In fact, almost every piece of jewelry was not only beautiful, but served some symbolic purpose, invoking the protection of one god or another upon the wearer. I kept thinking, on my way through, “I wish Carter were here to see this!” In the jewelry as in other things, I was struck by how the beautiful and the functional were merged in most of what was on display. This is no doubt in part because what remains of ancient Egyptian life reflects the lives of the rich, but still I was struck by how nothing was incidental or disposable.

Of course, no tomb was richer than that of Tutankhamun, not because he was the richest pharoah, but because his tomb was better hidden than most. Plenty of amazing things have been recovered from his tomb, including the famous death mask, but it was the mundane things that really struck me. There were gloves, sandals, and even socks with big toes to be worn with thong sandals. I listened in as one German tour guide pointed out the incredibly fine stitching on a set of underthings for King Tut. There was a large collection of walking sticks which, interestingly, were carved at the handles with images of Nubians and Syrians and other such enemies of the state, so that the pharoah could properly humiliate them at every turn. They were displaying pieces of clothing that had been buried with the treasures, and bouquets of flowers, and all sorts of mundane things … and that was just what made it onto display!

But some of the most incredible and fun things that I saw in the collection were models. Pharoahs and other people of wealth were buried with all the things they could possibly need when they returned for the afterlife, including all the people who allowed them to live in the fashion to which they had become accustomed in their first life. They were buried with granaries, carpentry workshops, teams of fishermen, model ships and their crews, weavers’ halls, breweries, farmers ploughing and women grinding grain, even whole armies of Nubian archers. As a result, we have a very detailed picture of how ordinary people in Egypt lived, as well as the riches of the upper crust of the Kingdoms. One of my favorites was the pair of boats dragging a fishing net, weighted with stones on one side, and suspended by floaters on the other. (You’re not allowed to take photos inside the Egyptian Museum, which is good archival policy, but you can find anything on the World Wide Web!)

I went out of my way to find this family portrait, too, which displays a scribe for one royal or another who was a dwarf. I guess I’m oddly drawn to the stories of marginalized peoples, but I also couldn’t tell from the description in Lonely Planet what they meant by “his children are strategically placed where his legs should be.”

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