After having taken the long way to the Egyptian Museum, we made our way along the back of the Nile Hilton past the stares of heavily armed, bored looking soldiers. Kathryn soon came to realise that she was being actively stared at wherever she went. A blonde, white woman was quite a novelty it seemed. Men would stop and stare, occasionally pointing her out to family and friends. We also noticed a lack of other obviously Western tourists around. Tourism appears not to have fully recovered from the massacre at Luxor in 1997, or the recent, nebulous fear of Al Qaida.
I decided not to buy the video pass for E£100, planning to leave my video camera in my bag. We bought our tickets from a little building in front of the museum and wandered throught the ticket barrier and up the steps of the massive building. Inside we passed through an x-ray machine, as did our bags. The bags were then physically inspected. This is where they discovered my camera and wouldn’t believe that I really was going to leave it in the bag and not use it. So I was forced to go back outside to the little baggage check hut and swap my bag for an little wooden tag with a number on it. I hoped I would see it again.
The Egyptian Museum contains some 100,000 exhibits. If you were to spend a minute on each it would take you about nine months to see them all. That’s without stopping for toilet breaks. The present building was built in 1902 to house the artifacts collected by Auguste Mariette, the French archaeologist who founded the Egyptian Antiquities Service. It is so stuffed full of antiquities that it is joked the storerooms will have to be excavated when the long-promised new museum is built.
The bit that everyone comes to see is the Tutankhamun galleries. The discovery of this relatively minor boy Pharaoh’s tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter was one of the greatest moments in archeology. Because of its hidden location it had not been ransacked like other, grander tombs such as Ramses VI. About 1700 items are displayed in the series of rooms/corridors. Although there are many treasures here, the one room everyone wants to see is Room 3. This is where the death mask is displayed, in what is obviously the newest and most expensive display cabinet in the museum. The death mask is made of solid gold and it weighs 11kg. The eyes are obsidian and quartz and and the outlines of the eyes and eyebrows are lapis lazuli. I spent some time gazing at this stunning work that was made solely to be buried and never seen again. The obsidian eyes of the young Pharaoh stared calmly back at me. Almost as stunning as the death mask are the two massive golden sarcophagi. These are the inner two sarcophogi, the outer one, along with the mummy itself remain in the tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
We paid a little extra to go into the Royal Mummy Room. This small, dark room was like a tomb itself. It houses the bodies of eleven of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs and queens from the 17th to 21st dynasties (1650 to 945 BC). They include Tuthmosis IV and that crazy boy Ramses III. They looked quite freakish, but then they were three thousand years old; I guess they can’t expect to keep their youthful skin.
I was pleased to discover my camera was still in my bag when I picked it up. We then headed up the horribly busy Sharia Ramses (sharia is Arabic for street) to the train station where we could book our tickets for the sleeper train to Luxor. In the musty little ticket office at the station we met a British couple who were also buying tickets to Luxor but for that evening. It was strangely comforting to speak to some fellow travellers, as it did feel as if we were quite alone amongst the millions of native Cairenes.
We attempted to explore some more of the city, but were beaten by fatigue and somehow managed to get ourselves into one of the thousands of little black and white Fiats that swarm like ants through the streets. After some discussion of the fare, including a stop to get some change from a guy in the street, our driver weaved us throught the crazy Cairo traffic to the sound of some loud Arabic dance music on the tape player.
The Cairo traffic is amazing. I have not seen anything like it. A Cairene driver would think the Arc de Triomphe an orderly little roundabout. For a start, there appears to be no rules. The lane markings are wholly optional, as are traffic lights. This could be because many of the traffic lights are not working and the intersections are controlled by police. Headlights are also optional, at least for providing illumintation. They actually seemed to be a dynamic part of the vehicle’s controls with a flash on the lights meaning variously: I’m overtaking; Don’t cut in; Please cut in; Get off the road; I’m coming through; I’ve accidentally left my lights on. But the most important part of an Egyptian car, something that the failure of would make driving impossible is the horn. This is sort of an audible version of the headlight system and is used with gay abandon by anyone who wishes to be taken seriously as a motorist.
There is also nothing like pedestrian crossings in Cairo and some roads are almost impossible to cross. We spent a harrowing 10 minutes in the middle of Tahrir Bridge road, cars speeding inches from us in both directions, vainly looking for a break in the constant stream of traffic to attempt a dash to the other side. In the end we gave up and ran back the way we had come to find a much longer cicuitous route around to the other side. The locals have no fear however. They boldly step in front of oncoming Fiats which inevitably slow and swerve around them. I never gained the courage to try this myself despite seeing it happen wherever I went. I was frequently amazed that people weren’t run down in front of me, the cars were passing that close to them.
That night we had dinner outside in the hotel’s restaurant by the Nile. At night lots of little party boats with coloured lights and loud music cruise up and down the river. They aren’t much more than dinghies with a sort of canopy over them. They seemed to be a popular thing with the locals.
I guess because the night is so refreshingly cool in Cairo, the city stays active well into the evening. I could see lots of kids playing volleyball and other sports from my hotel window at ten o’clock that night. Also the Tahrir Bridge seemed a popular place for couples to hang out. I think it was because there was always a nice breeze blowing across it and it was one of the few places in Cairo that isn’t surrounded by buildings. Sure there is a never-ending stream of cars rushing past, but if you ignore them it is one of the most open places in the city.