Fun of traveling lies in exploration. Hiring a guide is good, but he usually highlights some specific areas and keeps me engaged in flood of information. To see and interpret things at my own pace and interest and to make a better involvement with an area, I mostly prefer independent trips. However messy, confusing or incomplete they are, they provide more insights than the guided ones.
But if you are planning for a self-guided visit in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, a cornucopia of ancient artifacts, it may seem like leafing through an encyclopedia. What you need is a little prior-study on ancient Egypt and some pre-acquired ideas on items displayed, that will help you decide what to observe comprehensively, what to skip or is worthy of a quick glance. I am here to tell you my story of self-guided visit in Egyptian Museum. Hope it will help you, if you are planning alike.
A Brief Look on Ancient Egypt
I am neither an Egyptologist nor an art-critic. The reason behind my prolonged desire to be in this antique land was to see and to admire the greatest craftsmanship of human civilization through the eye of a common art-lover. For better understanding, before my trip to Egypt, I prepared myself by making some short notes on ancient Egypt with the help of books and internet. That was like a lifeline during my visit to Egyptian museum as well as all other ancient historical sites throughout my trip.
The Royal Mummy Room
For better ‘living’ in afterlife, ancient Egyptians used to mummify dead-bodies with the hope of their ever-endurance. They did it with such utmost accuracy that even after millennia, the word ‘mummy’, just like ‘pyramid’ is a defining symbol of Egypt. Ancient mummies had been mostly removed from the tombs and kept in museums for better preservation. The highest number of display of human mummies is there in two of Royal Mummy Rooms of Egyptian Museum, Cairo. To be face to face with the great pharaohs passed away long ago was always our childhood dream; therefore we rushed to one of those mummy-galleries situated on upper floor, just after stepping inside the museum.
Photograph of the Ticket of Royal Mummy Hall
It was hard to believe that those raw-boned, dark brown, skinny figures were the most powerful leaders of the ancient era. This loss of elegance is due to the absolute dehydration of the body, along with the removal of internal organs, which was a prime step of mummification. Visitors often describe them as ugly dusty dead-bodies and do not consider the mummy galleries worth visiting, but they forget that these royal personalities had breathed their last during or even before the Mayan civilization, when Europe was in its primitive stage, Jesus Christ was not yet born, not even Lord Buddha for most of them and these mummies had been winning over all kind of possible decays throughout thousands of years. Even in today’s zenith of scientific inventions, that magic formula remains unexplored and nobody can replicate such an eternal mummy!
They are covered with white cloths and their head, necks, hands and feet are kept visible. Go as close as possible (without touching the glass box) and observe every detail. We were happy to explore so many interesting facts like:
- Hair and eyelashes are still found on some mummies. Curly hair of Nubian rulers proves their distinct racial identity, while the Egyptians had straight and smooth brownish hair.
- Nails are commonly present. There was a male mummy, (Oops! I forgot his name!), surprisingly, whose properly manicured nails & long eyelashes, as we noticed, were supporting his interests for soft skills like poetry, art and self-beautification as mentioned there!
- As the bodies were completely dried up, the striking prominence of veins was easily noticeable. Whenever I gazed at the veins of either sides of the forehead, it seemed, it would start pulsating anytime!
- We found that Hatshepsut, the one and only female pharaoh of new kingdom, had followed the particular cross-arm position that indicates one’s pharaonic status like all other male pharaohs of the new kingdom.
- The mummy of pharaoh Ramesses II kept us unmoved for some time. His sharp pointed nose, stubborn chin, erected Adam’s apple was depicting the same conceited attitude, which is evident from the making of his countless statues all over the country.
- Stone eyes were placed on some mummies of Ptolemic period. That indicates the Greek influence on Egyptian funerary practice.
The Royal Mummy Galleries created an amazing union of several kings and queens of different distant dynasties. The thrill of standing in front of them, whom I had read about in history, was something absolutely unparallel and unprecedented in my multifaceted travel-life. As photography was prohibited there, we took sufficient time and kept gazing and gazing to create their undying impressions in our brains.
- There is separate ticket for visiting Royal Mummy Rooms. This ticket is available at the same ticket counter on the entrance, from where the entry ticket to the museum is sold.
- There are two Royal Mummy Rooms placed east and west corners of the upper floor. You have to buy one ticket for both the rooms.
- Unlike other galleries of the museum, photography is prohibited inside the mummy room.
Tutankhamun was the one and only pharaoh whose mention along with his picture was there in the history book of our school-days and it made me assume that this boy king definitely did something remarkable during his reign, but later I came to know that his actual stardom lies in his tomb, that revealed treasure beyond imagination. Unlike the tombs of other pharaohs, the tomb of Tutankhamun remained overlooked and un-looted. The discovery of this tomb in miraculously intact form by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 brought light to the unseen grandeur of royal burial and it sparked renewed public interest on ancient Egypt.
The biggest gallery of Egyptian museum had been designated to display those numerous burial treasures of king Tut. At the entrance of the 1st hall we saw an animated picture of the aerial view of that tomb. We felt that the tomb was too small to be loaded with so many items (more than five thousands) that indicates the boy-king was buried in a bad way; probably his successor was in a hurry to finish his funerary rituals as early as possible.
I stepped into that hall and my first glance was strikingly eye-popping due to the presence of countless golden statuettes and other objects. None of the items kept in this hall are actually made of gold, rather wooden and gilded thereafter. Out of hundreds of them I am here highlighting the must-see ones (as I felt) :
- Two statuettes of the king in guise of a royal bodyguard (deliberate darkening of the complexion as black Egyptians were appointed in this post).
- A flawlessly made life-like statuette of the boy-king capturing the moment just before throwing a harpoon.
- Gods and Goddesses who would accompany and protect the king in afterlife.
- A wooden bust of the king partly painted with gold leaf.
- King Tut wearing crowns of Upper Egypt (1st one), Lower Egypt (2nd one), Upper & Lower Egypt combined (3rd one).
- The king would have to visit the judge to answer one single question everyday in his afterlife. 365 statuettes were made so that the king, instead of going himself, would send one of them each day.
- Funerary beds with heads of animal Gods & Goddesses.
- The Royal Throne
The one and only royal throne of ancient Egypt was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Here we found the young king with his wife cum half-sister Ankhsenamun enjoying personal togetherness. Illustration of family moments were found in Amarna style, patronized by his father Akhenaten, whose idea of monotheism was thrown away and traditional religion was re-established during King Tut’s reign. But here, we could see the presence of Aten, the sun disc behind the royal couple. Akhenaten started worshiping Aten as the one and only one supreme-power. He named his children like Tutankh-aten, Ankhsen-aten and so on. Later this royal couple changed the last parts of their names from ‘-aten’ to ‘-amun’ to admit the authority of Amun-Ra, the king of the traditional Gods. But in this throne, their modified names were engraved along with their father-gifted ones. Co-existence of these extreme contradictory ideas is really confusing! Did the young couple admire their father by heart, but were forced to suppress their feeling and comport according to the public demand?
- A joy-cart for the teen-aged king.
- Pair of gilded slippers.
- Beautifully painted wooden box for keeping toiletries.
- A wooden car-touche box with the mention of his name on it’s lid.
- Several models of wooden solar boats on which the deceased king would go around the universe.
- A highly decorated festival-chair revealing marvelous craftsmanship.
- Perfume jars- each made out of a single alabaster stone-piece. Howard Carter got still existing smell from one of them.
- A funny model of the dwarf God Bes.
- A fascinating model of a ship.
- Golden shrines
Four gigantic golden boxes were displayed side by side according to the order of their size. Howard Carter found them nested one within another and the sarcophagus of King Tut was kept inside the innermost one. These wooden shrines, completely covered with gold sheets are adorned with reliefs inscribing several mythological references, specially from The Book of Deads.
Wall of a Shrine
Another huge golden shrine, not resembling to the previous ones was there in display. Statuettes of four ancient Goddesses, spreading their arms are protecting this shrine, as it was built to home the set of four canopic jars. During mummification the viscera were removed from the deceased’s body and kept stored in these jars. We saw that the canopic jars of Tutankhamen, beautifully made out of alabaster stone were of human headed, unlike of others’ having animal heads.
- Mummy-form Coffins for Fetuses
We were surprised by the small size of two mummy-form gilded wooden coffins which were exhibited along with other treasures. Later we came to know that fetuses of Tutenkhamun’s twins were mummified and kept inside.
The Funerary Mask and Others
- Finally we entered inside the most celebrated room of the museum, famous for the garish display of King Tut’s most precious treasures. The center of the attractions, placed at the center of the room was surrounded by the visitors, dazzled by the fascinating beauty of that eminent funerary mask of King Tutankhamun, a quintessential masterpiece of ancient Egypt. Howard Carter found this solid gold mask of weighing 10.23 kgs set directly on the mummy’s face. We stood close. The dim light of the room was enhancing its magical charm. It seemed that the gleam of pure gold, the glorious ornamentation with multicolored precious stones, the royal headdress with striking blue stripes made of glass paste and those sparkling eyes made out of quartz and obsidian were surpassed by the calm and smooth gaze of the boy-king, expressing his innocence as well indifference.
The Death Mask of King Tut
- Howard Carter documented over a hundred amulets and jewelry found wrapped up with the mummy of King Tut. They are now on display in this room. Most of them were full of mythological symbolism.We were mesmerized by the unimaginable intricacy and perfection behind the making of those gold and silver ornaments having carnelian, lapis lazuli, malachite, turquoise, green feldspar, red jasper and faience inlay. One of the most interesting items is a pectoral decoration with a yellow-green scarab beetle made out of silica glass, which is believed to have formed due to a meteor crashed in the Sahara Desert.
- The mummy along with the gold mask and other jewellery was found kept inside a group of three mummy-form coffins, nested one inside another like Russian dolls. The innermost coffin was made out of solid gold, while the rest two wooden coffins were painted with gold-leaf, though all of them were beautifully inlaid by precious stones.
The Golden Mummy-form Coffins
If the boy-king Tutankhamun, who died at the age of 19, received such funerary grandeur, then I can’t imagine the probable burial treasures of the omnipotent kings like Amenhotep III, Seti I, Ramesses II and so on. All of them were robbed. What’s then? Where had all those priceless artifacts gone? Are they destroyed for ever or kept hidden somewhere, waiting for another Howard Carter to get revealed!
Treasures of Yuya and Tuya
After coming out from Tutenkhamun’s gallery, the burial treasures of his great grandparents Yuya and Tuya, looked pale and less in number, as they were not in the position of receiving royal funerary status. Though Yuya was in charge of king’s chariotry and Tuya was the chief lady of the harem; more to this, they were the parents of Queen Tiye, the wife of Amenhotep III. For this close connection with the royal family, they were honored to have a tomb in the Valley of Kings. The tomb was not un-robbed like King Tut’s one, but despite of the theft of jewelry and expensive oils and perfumes, the other burial items were surprisingly left untouched.
The Funerary Masks o Yuya and Tuya
The death masks of Yuya and Tuya, unlike King Tut’s gold one were made out of wood and gilded thereafter. Their gilded mummy-form coffins inlaid by semi-precious stones though few in number, a beautiful jewel casket of Tuya, a chariot of Yuya, furniture with high decors were exhibited there. As they seemed repetitive after an elaborated visit of Tutankhamun’s gallery, here we did not take much time. Two ivory statuettes and numerous potteries made out of colorful stones were something I found interesting.
Artifacts found in the tombs of Yuya and Tuya proves that king Tut was not a solitary affair and practice of such grandeur was part of every royal burial then.
But Egypt holds much more than grandeur of burial objects and further we went museum hopping we found many diverse, intricate and interesting objects that are often overlooked in traditional guided tour.
To be continued ……
Wander with Reshmi & Saikat