Today’s schedule features the Cairo Museum, a visit to several mosques and shopping in the Khan el Kahalilli market. As we maneuver the incredibly crowded streets of Cairo in our huge bus, suddenly there it it—the striking pink Cairo Museum, the premier museum of the world for Egyptian antiquities—which only makes sense since it is in Egypt.
The crush of the crowd pouring into the garden area is dizzying. I catch snatches of German, Japanese, Italian, British English and American as we pass through the security screening and follow Fadel into the first room where we cluster around Namer’s Palette, the commemoration of Menes’ unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. One of our group keeps muttering, “It’s Namer’s Palette. It’s Namer’s Palette. Oh my god, it’s Namer’s Palette.” I have to admit it’s almost surreal to see something I’ve known from art history classes, Egyptology reading and the history of the ages. Pristine, unmarred by the centuries, it is an astonishingly beautiful piece of functional art.
But there is no way to linger as the crowds press behind us and we sweep into the Great Hall which looks a bit like a cross behind an exhibit hall and a storage area. Everywhere the eye feasts on a buffet of history and art until the mind can barely absorb more but it would take a lifetime or perhaps two to look at every object, so gapping and gawking, we attempt to keep up with Fadel’s voice on our radios as we make our way to the second floor where Tut’s artifacts are kept.
I have seen some of these when they toured the United States in the 70s but a finely orchestrated exhibit of select pieces isn’t the same as seeing the objects together. I’ve seen many pictures of Tut’s tomb…the first book I read as a girl was an account of Howard Carter’s discovery, but the size and the extent of the objects is almost impossible to grasp. No wonder the only thing he could say when he was asked if he could see anything was, “Yes, wonderful things.”
We move from case to case, looking at Tut’s famous mask, his sarcophagus, his jewelry, his clothing. In one of the displays holding the third of his nested chapels is a piece of linen that looks as if it were a modern polka dot scarf. The dots appear to be sequins sewn onto the material, but I can’t see the underside. It is so contemporary in appearance, I thought for a moment it was a protective drape, although why a drape would be polka dotted did cross my mind.
After racing through some highlights, like a sarcophagus that was cracked in construction, the famous statue of the dwarf, his wife and children, daily artifacts and a blur of other objects, we are given 45 minutes to return to areas we most want to look at. (Just an apologetic aside here. Somewhere along the line, my Guidebook to Egypt has gotten lost so my memory not being what it could be, I’ll have to fill in the names of things like the dwarf when I find another Guidebook, or get home, whichever comes first. )
I immediately head back to the Amarna Gallery and after circling through the cases holding Kiya’s canopic jar, a rough-cut head of Nefertiti and exquisite wall paintings of marsh lands, I slide down, back to the wall to commune with the statue of Akhenaton. Looking into the slightly almond shaped eyes, noticing the rather delicate hands, large hips and full lips, I feel like I am truly seeing the Heretic King. I can’t stop staring into his eyes. What made him decide to abandon the old ways and worship a single god? What made him move his capital from Thebes to the desert and build an entirely new city? What was it about his passion that made the beautiful Nefertiti become his companion in the new religion? I ask the questions much more educated scholars than I have asked for centuries, but Akhenaton merely smiles that slight smile as if he knows we still search his mind for answers.
I decide to return to Tut’s exhibits while I still have a few minutes and, as I turn a corner near a staircase somewhere in this labyrinth of a museum, I come across a smallish case holding the funeral bouquet that Tut’s wife placed on his coffin. I couldn’t be more awestruck if I came across a relic of the True Cross. This is it. This is THE artifact that began my fascination with the Boy King, the Heretic King and the 18th Dynasty of Egypt. I can remember reading about this bouquet when I was five years old and trying to imagine what it looked like. In my mind all these years, it’s been a wreath, but this is much more like a modern funeral spray, the stems bound at one end. The petals are all dried to the same brownish color, but for a moment I see them in their vivid freshness—yellow, orange, red, blue—the same colors of the flowers that we see today at the side of the road. I can see the young Queen placing them on her husband’s coffin, her eyes red-rimmed, but her composure intact, as befits a queen. Perhaps the closest we have seen in modern times were Princess Diana’s boys, racked with grief at the death of their mother, but composed and old beyond their years. Such a very human object in the midst of all the splendor. A bunch of flowers, carefully gathered and laid on the lid of Tut’s coffin, a final gesture of affection that we all can understand, King and commoner, no matter how much millennia separate us.
I check my cell phone time and I have about 15 minutes left. Museums with their miles of corridors and marble floors are tiring places at best and I’m truly on sensory overload. Not to mention I ache from my shoulders down. I must find a place to sit, away from the crush of tourists where I can regain a modicum of mental, physical and spiritual equilibrium, so I slide between two massive columns, perch on one of the marble steps and gaze down the main gallery of the museum, past the mosaic floor that came from Akenaton’s palace to the great statue of Amenhotis III and his wife Ti. The museum is not especially well lit and this gallery is particularly dim, which is somehow quite fitting. It lends a mysterious, almost eerie air to the exhibits, an atmosphere of the ancient which no modern museum, no matter how well built, can ever completely convey.
It’s time to meet up with the group for the next part of the day’s activities and I have an agenda. I don’t always mean to take the road less traveled, but this time I feel compelled. I am going to remain here at the museum while the rest of them see Islamic Cairo, have lunch and go shopping. I have come this far and two hours with these treasures is not long enough. Perhaps there will be another time for mosques and another day for shopping. If not, I am making the choice that is right for me.
Having informed the guard that I was going to return and praying he understood, I leave the sanctuary of artifacts and emerge into the almost blinding sunlight. We are to meet at the garden pond which is planted with blue lotus and papyrus, probably the only place we will actually see these plants that were so important in ancient times. The lotus looks just like the paintings or perhaps one should say that the artists of old exactly capture the image of the lotus. A bit like a water lily, its vivid blue flowers, which apparently have some kind of opiate like property, rise on the end of long floating stalks to dot the surface with splashes of color. The papyrus is a reed with a very feathery top that looks a little bit like the crown of a miniature palm tree. It quivers in the slight breeze, make the whole grove look like it is dancing.
I tell Fadel that I am not going with them and return to the museum. I have a twinge of regret that I’m missing out—I think we all want to do everything and hate to think someone has had a better time than we have had—but life consists of choices. We have to choose and not look back because each of us, even if we are together on the same trip, has a different journey. And mine is at the museum.
The first thing I want to see is the mummy room, which costs an extra $20. When I think I’m looking at the faces of the some of the greatest personages of history, $20 seems a bargain. When I think I’m paying $20 to look at dead bodies, it seems a little macabre. No benches are in this room and it’s not permitted to lean on the cases, even to hold your place in line, so I sit on the floor. I’ve sat on many a floor in many a museum over my lifetime so now I can add the Cairo museum to the collection. I’ve got my back against the wall, staring at the profile of Tutmosis III and butts of tourist. The tourist butts come and go, but Tutmosis is still. He is very small, as are most mummies, partially because the body is completely desiccated and partly because the ancient Egyptians were smaller than we are today. His skin is polished black leather and his face looks almost like it has been shrink-wrapped with his flesh. I consider how mummies were created to preserve the dead for eternity and sitting here on the floor of the Cairo museum, I say part of the ancient prayer of the Dead, asking that his Ka and the Ka of all those in this room live forever and reminding him that he is, even now, remembered by the living. If being remembered and prayed for is immortality, then those in this room have achieved it.
Moving along the rest of the cases, I’m suddenly dumbstruck. My god, I've just looked into the faces of Hatshepsut, Ramses the Great and Seti I. I’ve seen portraits of these Pharaohs, seen wall-carvings and drawings, but now I have seen them, their mortal remains, the visages of men and women who left their indelible mark on history. It is almost incomprehensible.
Hatshepsut was my age and fat. Good heavens, I have something in common with her! Apparently she also had bad teeth, but fortunately I don’t share that attribute. Seti I was a very handsome man, even in death, his strong smooth forehead and almost kindly or at least placid appearance is striking. He looks like a man you could enjoy a beer with. Ramses was old…and he looks it. His once-white hair, now stained a yellow-red by the mummification process—was wispy and thinning. He looks like he was a crabby old man. Since we get the face we deserve, he probably was. Of course, like Hatshepsut, he had very bad teeth and I can personally attest that when you are in a lot of pain, you look and act rather crabby, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
The crush of the tour tourists has dissipated and I return to Tut’s gallery where only a handful of people remain. I stand before his throne, his baby head that Carter wanted to take out of the country, his gloves, his underwear, his sandals, his pillows with no one else around. I can look for as long as my over-stimulated brain can take it is. I do wonder how he wore the underwear, however. In two pieces, it looks a bit like an oversized diaper with a sash. I think the museum should put up a picture of how it was worn. His shoes look exactly…and I mean exactly…like today’s flip flops. Same identical design. If you worn them on the streets today no one would give you a second glance.
I simply meander through the chambers, finally finding a bench behind his folding throne with its black and white paw design in, portable folding stools on my left and another smaller stool with lion paws on my right. As I write in my journal, a young girl with a bright pink head scarf smiles shyly at me. Suddenly a woman in her late 20’s wearing a gorgeous brunt orange veil, says “Excuse me.” I look up, thinking perhaps I’ve taken someone’s place, but the woman says that her niece wants to talk to me, but is too shy. So with her auntie translating, we have a long conversation. She tells me I have beautiful eyes and wants to know if I have a handsome son. Apparently young girls all over the world are the same!
I’m glad I didn’t opt for the walking/shopping tour. I’m tired and the fibro makes my legs ache horribly. I sort of wander from bench to bench which is fine because everywhere I perch I see something incredible, something I could stare at for hours. Part of me wishes I had taken this trip a few years earlier, when I wasn’t in quite so much pain from the fibro, but then I realize that everything happens in its own good time. I worry that I am holding up people on the tour and I probably am overcompensating by walking faster than I need to, but I don’t want to be that “fat old lady on the trip who always worn green and made everyone wait.” Now that that little rant/confession is out of my system…the next thing I stumbled on were the sarcophaguses of Tut’s fetuses, tiny little coffins that spoke of parents’ grief. I felt a wave of compassion for Tut’s wife, losing her babies and her husband at such a young age. Then at the next corner I encounter three wigs from the 22nd dynasty. They look like giant tightly curled Afros with long braided plaits down the back. They also looked very hot and very itchy.
As I keep wandering, more and more artifacts sweep in and out my vision. Tools, cosmetic cases, vases, lamps, bows, weapons, statues…it’s beginning to be a mental blurr. One of the things I’ve noticed is the windows in this place. They are extremely high on the walls and most of them are open. Clearly rain damage isn’t an issue, but I wonder if they are ever closed and how they would ever reach them to close them. I’ve been approached a few times by men wanting to give me a tour—“Best guide in museum” and I’ve had opportunity to practice my “La!” but I’ve learned that I am unapproachable when writing in my journal. Aha!
The next room brings me Tut’s royal chariots. They are gorgeous, the Lamborghinis of their day, I’m sure, inlaid with ebony and gold, but they also are rather frail looking and I think they must have been dangerous to drive at high speed with their spindly wheels and delicate bodies. Maybe, like other tomb goods, these were never meant to be used in this world, but merely in the next. However, the chariots, like all the other objects are astonishingly beautiful. Mundane objects, perhaps, but infused with an incredibly artistry and craftsmanship. What is our culture going to leave behind? Flip phones and plastic bottles?
One small dim room contains jewelry from various dynasties. The pieces are very modern in appearance, perhaps because there are only so many ways to make earrings and necklaces, string beads and assemble pendants. Many of the pieces appear too heavy to wear. The earrings in particular would require ear piercings at least the dimension of a pencil, perhaps larger and they look as if they would weigh the lobe almost to tearing. I would like a pair of earrings from Egypt, but not a replica of these.
I circle back to Tut’s nesting chapels, looking for the front and back signs Fadel pointed out. Apparently on the front of each is a lion’s head and on the rear the lion’s tail, a rather ingenious way of keeping front and back clear when they packed the chapels one in the next. I start to sit on a bench to write, when a woman security guard moves it and I back away, but she gestures that I should sit. So I do and she begins to talk to me, asking questions and telling me that her job is to keep people from talking pictures. I ask her about her headscarf and she takes the one peeking out of my bag and arranges it on my head so that I look like a proper Egyptian woman. Then she uses my cell phone to take my picture and I chuckle at the incongruity of a no picture guard taking my picture. I am almost unrecognizable hidden like a Muslim woman. (When I can get the picture off the phone, I’ll put it up here.) She summons another guard and insists that I take a picture with her. I’ve been paying and paying to take pictures of people here and now someone wants my picture. She is sad to learn I am not married and don’t have a financee, but says, “Someday!” with enthusiasm. She talks and talks to me, telling me how to get a taxi and not to pay one pound over 20 pounds to get from the museum to the Sofitel El Gaziah, our hotel. She then walks me to the way out, saying over and over she wished that I would stay longer in Cairo and she would show me her city. That would be nice, but alas, I’m on a tour that resembles the Bataan death march and I must not linger.
Getting the taxi was truly one of the most frightening adventures of my life. The guards at the gate summoned someone for me and after a bit of negotiating he agreed to take me for 20 pounds, always wheedling for at least 25. We approach a street with 8 lanes of traffic and he says, “Take my hand.” I do and we dive head-long in the squealing, swirling, honking maelstrom. A bus comes within inches of my knees and the taxi driver slaps it on the front to make it stop. We weave in and out of cars in a way that would give every American mother heart failure if their children did it and finally come to the medium. I wonder if he is going to ask for the additional 5 pounds. If he says 25 pounds or I leave you here, I’d gladly give him 50 because there is no way in hell that I could ever get across the next four lanes. I’d either be hit or have a heart attack or both. But he doesn’t hesitate and we plunge back into the fray, dodging and darting buses, carts, cabs, cars in a blinding dash. His cab is surrounded by other cabs and I wonder how he will get it out, but squeezing through holes with a good quarter inch on either side, we are swept into the stream of traffic. I’m not sure I’ve made it clear where I wanted to go, but after crossing several streets where I was utterly convinced we were going to die, we arrive at the back gate of the hotel. I pay him his 20 pounds and stumble out of the cab, mentally and physically whipped.
I go out on the balcony of my room, pretending that I don’t have any acrophobia or vertigo. The din of the city below is almost deafening…honking horns, police sirens, the rumble of motors and yet, somehow, serene at the same time. Above the surges of sound, comes the call to prayer, a high haunting cry that soars above the clamor, reminding me that no matter by what name we call the Divine, we are here, on this earth, as his (or her) children and all we experience, including our very lives, is a result of that Divine Creative force and love. The lights of the city begin to twinkle and I can see the faint wake of a small motorboat making its way up the Nile. Tomorrow we will be following him.
Just as an update: I don't know if there will be internet access the next few days, but as soon as I can I'll be logging on.