“As you set out for Ithaca
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery…
And may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.”
~C.P. Cavafy, Ithaca
“I know a short-cut,” our driver was saying as we were headed to Dubai’s International Airport. It was 5:30 a.m., and the roads looked like it might as well have been rush hour. “It’s good you’ve allowed extra time,” he continued. “The Dubai airport never sleeps.”
We were catching an 8 a.m. flight to Cairo to complete my lifelong dream of seeing Giza and the Great Pyramid. I had booked tour guide Marwa Youssef, who would be sending someone to meet us at the airport and secure our visas. From there, we would be driven to the Egyptian Museum for the first stop on our tour.
I think it was about three-quarters of way through the flight when the southern entrance of the Suez Canal appeared outside my window – a surreal feeling to think we had crossed the canal by ship just two weeks earlier. Soon the Nile came into view, followed by the unmistakable shape of a pyramid. At this point, I was certain our plane must have wandered somewhere near Cloud Nine!
Getting our Egyptian visas at the airport was a much easier process than I had expected. We had come prepared with the exact fee – $25 in cash – and there was no line at the visa window. Marwa’s assistant met us at the gate, and after stops at customs and baggage collection, handed us off to her driver.
The Egyptian Museum
We drove about half an hour to Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum, where Marwa was waiting for us. Before we went inside, we decided on purchasing a photography pass and the additional tickets for the Royal Mummy Room. Marwa assured us that although some of the museum’s pieces had already been moved to the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza – scheduled to open in a few months – we would still have plenty to see.
The Egyptian Museum is home to a whopping 120,000 items, including those on display and in storage rooms. Designed by French architect Marcel Dourgnon in 1901, the museum features two floors of statuary and artifacts from various Egyptian dynasties as well as a special exhibit of King Tut’s treasures and two rooms of mummies. My first impression was that it made sense to have such extraordinary relics housed in a beautiful new building near the pyramids. But as we walked around, I kind of liked the old feeling of the place. It seemed like a proper setting for such ancient artifacts – an “irresistible quaintness in a world of technology,” as Herb so aptly described it.
Marwa began our tour on the first floor, stopping at various pieces to explain their significance and spin a story or two. Like our guide in Luxor, she is a licensed Egyptologist who can call up historical details in an instant. I’d like to say that my mind filed away every piece of information she offered, but the truth was, I was so enthralled with what I was seeing that I didn’t even open my notebook! Instead, what I came away with was a deeper understanding of this fascinating civilization and how what we were seeing here fit together with what we had experienced in Luxor.
Here’s a brief look at a few of the first floor statues and artifacts, some dating as far as the 2600s B.C.:
King Tut’s Treasures
I couldn’t wait to get to the second floor. After seeing the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit when it toured the U.S. in 1977 and then “meeting” King Tut a couple of weeks earlier in Luxor, I was ready to put the final pieces of the King Tut puzzle together. And I was excited for Herb to get a first-hand look at the stunning artifacts as well.
Walking through that door was like opening a book you once loved, but haven’t read in a really long time. The details might be a little fuzzy, but there’s a wonderful familiarity and a moment of immediate recognition. And you delve right in, as if you were reading it – or seeing it – for the first time.
Our next stop was the Royal Mummies Room, which was not included in my photography permit. Rows of ancient mummies and sarcophagi lined the compact space, with information identifying each pharaoh and when he ruled. One of the mummies was Seti I, whose elaborate tomb we had explored in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings.
Throughout the tour, Marwa spoke with a deep passion about the Egyptian Museum. She talked about how she and other Cairo guides had rushed to Tahrir Square when they heard riots were starting, hoping to protect the museum. This was a part of who they were, and it was clear that these Egyptologists risked their own safety to defend what was irreplaceable to their heritage and their hearts.
Back on the Nile
It was mid-afternoon by the time we finished our tour. Marwa took us to lunch on a boat anchored along the Nile before dropping us off at our hotel. We confirmed our plans for the following morning in Giza, an early and filled-to-the-top adventure on the other side of the famous river.
That night we watched the activity on the Nile from our hotel room balcony. It was a serene scene, interrupted only by the sounds of car horns. Driving with one hand on the horn seems to be a way of life in Cairo. “People aren’t angry,” Marwa had explained. “They just want other drivers to know that they are there.” And judging from the lack of well-defined traffic lanes, that made perfect sense.
But for the moment, I was content to watch the boats sail by, distant car horns and all.