The fertile Nile Delta is the cradle of human civilization thousands of years ago – the mysterious, yet highly intelligent history of ancient Egypt fascinates me so deeply that I would kick myself for waiting so long to travel there.
In fact, Cairo is not that “intimate” with pharaohs. The first Kingdom’s capital was in Memphis, Pyramids were built in Giza; at that time, Cairo didn’t exist. When the foreigners invaded Egypt in the 6th century, Cairo was established as a political and economic center. Today, Egypt is one of the Arabic-speaking countries in the Arab world. “Misr” is the Arab name of Egypt; Museums, landmarks, and monuments are resided by the banks of the River Nile, Cairo is also the hub that connects Egypt to the outside world: The Egyptian gods and pharaohs, Egyptian language, prodigious discoveries, the ever-standing pyramids and sphinx, and legends and myths remained as a legacy to the people and there is no better place to kick off the pharaoh’s journey than Cairo.
That’s exactly where my expedition in Egypt took off. I spent a few days in Cairo before heading south to upper Egypt, and finally, Aswan and Abu Simbel.
In the first post, I would like to share my experience in the Egyptian Museum. I find this a great place to learn all about Egypt. I will definitely share more about the history, culture, and many heritage sites in Egypt.
Grand Egyptian Museum
We stayed at the Cairo Pyramids Hotel. It is a low-rise resort that’s only minutes away from the Great Pyramid of Giza, and our suite has a huge balcony with a view of the pyramids! The hotel is also situated right on the opposite side of the construction site of the Grand Egyptian Museum (also called GEM or Giza Museum). The development began in 2012 and is expected to complete in the year 2020. The museum is described as the largest archaeological museum in the world, and many unrevealed items, such as the Tutankhamun Collection will be showcased. Apparently, it gives me another reason to visit Egypt again in the future.
The “classic” Egyptian Museum
Ancient Egypt is one of the three earliest civilizations of the Old World, dating back from 3150 BC to 30BC. It is simply amazing that a museum can house thousands of years of history in one place. Before the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum, we all visit the Egyptian Museum. The historic museum was opened in 1902, with an impressive collection of over 120,000 items within an area of 15,000 sq. feet, focusing on important pieces of ancient Egyptian history like pharaonic antiques.
There are so many highlights in the Egyptian Museum and don’t be surprised if you end up spending the entire day there. In fact, if you spend only a minute on each and every exhibit, it will still take about 9 months to complete them.
There are, undoubtedly, thousands of statues of sculptures displayed in the museum. Visitors are suggested to start the journey on the first floor about the Old Kingdom, and then migrate towards the New Kingdom section and the mummies on the second floor. Many figurines are mainly made of wood, valuable metals, or diorite, one of the most important kinds of rocks in Egypt. Maybe the paint has faded, but there are still see some details left on them and these are important evidence of Egypt’s glorious past and lost culture.
1 Rosetta Stone
The stone displayed in the museum, as I was told, is a replica; It was because the British took it when the British and French were fighting over Egypt, and it is now in the British Museum. The stone, however, is the key to ancient Egypt’s mysterious past.
The grey and pink granodiorite stela were unearthed in Alexandria by the French in 1799, carved with priestly decree concerning Ptolemy V in three blocks of text – Hieroglyphic, Demotic, and Greek. These “translated scripts” provided an important clue that helped experts to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics (a writing system that used pictures as signs – we will see a lot of them in many sites in Egypt in the future).
An Overview of ancient Egypt
To have an overview of ancient Egypt, the country is roughly divided into three periods: The Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom.
Lower Egypt, Upper Egypt, Early Dynastic Period, Late Old Kingdom (CA 3300 – 2100 BC)
There was a time when Egypt is split into two: Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt. Lower Egypt was located in the fertile Nile Delta, where food and resources are abundant; Upper Egypt (Hierakonpolis), on the other hand, had a powerful army due to the lack of resources. It was Pharaoh Scorpion I and Narmer who united the country.
While evidence of this period is lacking, Menes established the 1st Kingdom and built the capital Memphis (20 km south of Giza in Cairo). It was until the late Old Kingdom period that a giant rock statue was made. Djoser and priest Imhotep built the Saqqara Step Pyramids in the 3rd Kingdom, and Snefru built the Bent Pyramid in Dahshur.
Later, Khufu, Khafra, and Menkaura created three giant Pyramids in Giza – which are the only wonders left in the world until today.
First, Second Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom (CA 2100 – 1650 BC)
In the late Old Kingdom, the authority of the central government began to break down and provincial governments gained independence. The Memphite rulers remained the nominal kings of a united Egypt through Dynasties VII and IX, but the social order was collapsing. The 1st intermediate Period was an era of turmoil, with local rulers jockeying for power. Without the patronage of a royal center, art became provincial, and the idealized forms of the Old Kingdom were modified by innovative new styles.
The 6th Dynasty was based at Thebes, and for several generations shared power with rulers from the north. In 2030 BC, the Theban rule of Mentuhotep II united the country and inaugurated the Middle Kingdom. The 6th Dynasty gave way to the new line of 7thDynasty, which ruled for most of this era. Moving the administrative capital back north, these kings tried to recreate and even surpass the glories of the past, and even buried themselves beneath pyramids. In the court circle, there was a resurgence of more canonical art forms, albeit with some changes introduced during the 1st Intermediate Period. Major irrigation projects were inaugurated in the Faiyum area to increase the amount of agricultural land available, and a series of fortresses were built in Nubia to control the northern trade routes and to access the goldfields there.
New Kingdom (CA 1650 – 1070 BC)
Toward the end of the Middle Kingdom, Western Asiatic people began to settle in the Dela. As the power of the 13th Dynasty waned, more of these foreigners, called the Hyksos (the rulers of foreign lands) by the Egyptians, took over Lower Egypt, and inaugurated the 2nd Intermediate Period. Gradually a strong native dynasty re-emerged in the south, at Thebes, and ultimately challenged Hyksos’s authority in the north uniting the country and ushering in the New Kingdom.
The New Kingdom pharaohs secured Egypt’s borders by reconquering Nubia, which had gained its independence at the end of the Middle Kingdom, and expanding Egypt’s control northward, turning much of Syria-Palestine into vassal states. This immense empire served both to protect the borders of Egypt and to secure its trade routes. Riches poured into the country, much flowing into the treasuries of the state god Amun-Re. The pharaohs embarked on extensive building programs for the glory of God and king, constructing temples and erecting statues throughout the Nile Valley, and even into upper Nubia.
Life in the New Kingdom was cosmopolitan, with cross-fertilization of ideas and artistic styles between Egypt and its neighbors. In the late 19th and early 20th Dynasties, Egypt slowly lost control over its empire, due to the short reigns of a series of ineffectual rulers, external pressure caused by the emergence of several warlike groups that challenged Egyptian authority, and a series of low Niles that drastically reduced Egypt’s food supply and caused internal discontent.
Of all the pharaohs who are known to the world, I believe Tutankhamun and Cleopatra are the top two. A pharaoh is an ancient Egyptian ruler. Ancient Egypt had 170 pharaohs in all. One could write a book about each and every pharaoh as they have so many fascinating stories. Since I was in Egypt, I learned (and saw) a lot more about the names and history of these Pharaoh – look for them in the museum and heritage sites as well:
- Scorpion I (c. early-mid 32nd century BC)
- Djoser (~2670 BC)
- Khufu (reigned 2589 ‒ 2566 BC)
- Hatshepsut (reigned 1498 ‒ 1483 BC) – the first female pharaoh
- Thutmose III (reigned 1479 ‒ 1425 BC)
- Ramesses II / Ramesses III (reigned 1279-1203 BC)
- Tutankhamun (reigned 1334 ‒ 1325 BC)
- Cleopatra VII (reigned 51 ‒ 30 BC) – the last pharaoh of Egypt
2 The Masks: The Gold Mask of Tutankhamun
There are many masks in the gallery, including the Grave Mask of king Amenemope, and the Mummy mask of Psusennes I. Among all, the Tutankhamun collection is the most featured in the museum, and everyone comes here to see the Gold Mask of Tutankhamun. Composed of 11 kilograms of solid gold, it is a perfect example showcasing the feature of a pharaoh.
Nemes and Pschent
Many statues and figurines of pharaohs that you see, usually wear a nemes crown. The nemes crown is a striped headcloth that covers the entire back of the head and neck. Some Egyptologists think that it was because it makes the pharaoh looks like sphinx added a lion’s mane.
Another important symbol of the pharaoh is the double crown Pschent. Referred by the ancient Egyptians as sekhemty, “the two powerful ones”, the crown is a combination of the White Hedjet Crown of Upper Egypt and the Red Deshret Crown of Lower Egypt. By combining the two, the Pschent is symbolizing the pharaoh’s power over all of unified Egypt. On the crown were two animal emblems: an Egyptian Cobra called the uraeus, meaning that the pharaoh is ready to strike with venom at any time. The uraeus is the symbol of the ancient Egyptian goddess Wadjet; and an Egyptian vulture, representing the Upper Egyptian tutelary goddess Nekhbet.
The gallery of the mask is always crowded and photo-taking is forbidden. Don’t even try to raise your phone or camera as the security guards were watching everyone like a hawk.
3 Limestone Statue of Djoser (Zoser)
There are many impressive statues so I might on introduce 1 few. The statue of Djoser is the oldest known life-size royal statue found in Egypt. It withstood 4,600 years of history and it was unearthed inside the temple of north of his Step Pyramid. Djoser is the first king of the 3rd century – He wears an enveloping garment associated with the royal festival of renewal, the heb sed, and a long wig surmounted by the royal headcloth, the nemes crown. His eyes were once inlaid with semi-precious stones, and a painted mustache is still partially preserved on his upper lip. The names of the king are visible on the front of the base of this statue.
4 Wooden Statue of Ka-Aper
This statue is one of the masterpieces of the private statuary of the Old Kingdom. It is known as Sheikh el-Balad, this Arabic title given to him by Mariette’s workers because it resembled the familiar figure of their own modern village chief. The statue depicts Ka-Aper, the chief lector priest, in charge of reciting prayers for the deceased in temples and funerary chapels. The arms were separately modeled and attached to the body, a technique frequently used in wooden statuary. He once held a scepter in his right hand, and a tall stick in his left hand (now is modern) all these indicate his rank, the eyes are inlaid with rock crystal and quartz.
5 Statue of Khufu
The ancient pharaoh of the first dynasty, Khufu, is the one who built the Great Pyramid of Giza. He ruled the kingdom for 63 years (2589 – 2566 BC). The Ivory figurine of Khufu was founded by Flinders Petrie in 1903 during an excavation in Abydos, Egypt. The figurine is an important piece of archaeology evidence with great historic value, yet it’s a tiny item that is only 7.5cm in height – keep that in mind and don’t miss it!
6 Ka Statues of Tutankhamun
The statue is 192cm in height – and it is an illustration of the concept of “Ka and Ba” in ancient Egypt.
Ka and Ba
The “Ka” was the part of the soul believed to be the life-force of a person that survived after death. The Ka was a spiritual twin born with every man and lived on after he died. The Ka was confined to an existence in the tomb until it could rejoin the Ba and travel to the afterlife. The tomb was, therefore, the temporary dwelling-house of the soul.
“Ba” was the part of the soul believed to be able to fly and was able to leave the tomb and revisit the dead person’s haunts in the mortal world and journey in the Underworld. The Ba kept returning to the tomb until, following the judgment of the earthly life, the Ka and Ba could be reunited in the afterlife.
7 Statues of Rahotep and Nofret
Two limestone statues with paint were originally installed in tombs. Rahotep was wrapped in a cloth with a heart-shaped amulet, and his wife Nofret sat next to him, wearing a wig, a flower crown, and a colorful necklace, with a hint of her real hair. Their skin color stayed true to reality and their eyes were embedded with quartz and crystal.
8 Triad of Menhaure
The triad is one of the masterpieces of the Old Kingdom. The Pharaoh was in the middle and straddled to the front proudly. The position and height of the pharaoh reflect his status to the deities on both sides of him.
9 Statue of Amenhotep IV
This is a memorable piece of Amenhotep IV. The young pharaoh built a number of shrines before moving the capital to Tell al-Amarna. The statue was found in the temple of Amun at Karnak. There were 4 statues in the museum, the other two were shown in the Luxor Museum, and the last one is now in Le Louvre. The statue of Amenhotep IV was is breath of fresh air to the ancient Egyptian’s aesthetics – an androgynous look of the narrow face, small eyes, slender body, and narrow shoulder – does it sound like the aesthetics of today’s high fashion models?
10 Limestone Head of Hatshepsut
The statue originated in the River Nile’s west bank in the Temple of Hatshepsut. She was the first female pharaoh in ancient Egypt and she was determined to assert power and authority in the country with a male outlook. She even mimicked the pose of previous pharaohs like Osiris in making statues. The aggressive Hatshepsut was wearing a pschent in this statue (but lost) and a fake beard; while the statue used a red brick color to showcase her masculinity, the refined craftmanship retained her feminine side with her soft eyes and facial expressions.
As we walked through the museum halls, we learned from the guide about observing the design of the statues and understood what these details represent. In fact, the pose is a piece of important information telling you whether it was made when the pharaoh was alive or dead. A walking pose means alive, and arms crossing on the chest means dead. Same for the beard. In real life most Egyptian men were clean-shaven; but pharaohs, even the female ones, wore “fake beards”. The beard is believed to be a connection with gods; a statue with a straight fake beard means it was made when the pharaoh was alive. For the pharaoh who had passed away, the fake beards were curly.
11 Statue of Khafre
You may have heard of Khafre mainly when people were talking about the Pyramids of Giza. Khafre Pyramid is the largest of all. The statue has a history of 4,500 years and is made of diorite. The statue is in rather good condition with two male lions on the side of his throne, with other symbols such as papyrus and lotuses.
12 Pharaoh’s mummies
The Royal Mummies gallery is a highlight of the museum. Visitors will need to pay an extra entrance fee to the gallery and photography is not allowed. While you think the mummies could be seen in other exhibitions all over the world, those were not pharaoh’s mummies. Because pharaoh’s mummies do not get to go overseas.
The exhibit was great. I may share the techniques of making mummies later, but I was deeply impressed as the bodies were so well-preserved and I could see the pharaoh’s hair, nails, and teeth! The hair might turn yellow from the chemicals, or the skin might turn white from salt. Some of them are carefully manicured; some of them died young, and some of them reached the age of 60.
For more pharaohs, check out the Figurine of Khufu, Bust of Akhenaten, Statue of Menkaure, Send the Dwarf and his Family, Seated Scribe, Pillar of Senwosret I, Unfinished Head of Nefertiti, and the list goes on.