Monday, June 28, 2010

The Egyptian Museum - And a 3000 Year Old Scandal

In Part 2 of Cairo: Crowds and All, Lorraine provides a game plan for tackling the Egyptian Museum and reveals a 3000 year old scandal.

A highlight of our visit was a trip to the Egyptian Museum.  

Gird your courage to the sticking point and brave the scrum at the ticket window to gain entry.  You won’t regret the effort, and you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment when you finally walk away with your tickets in hand. 

A word of advice, hide your camera in your pocket or underwear (and yes, the image does defy the imagination).  A young woman inside inspects your bag and sends you back out to check your camera if she finds one.  However, once inside, people were snapping pictures happily with no apparent repercussions.

The museum itself is a large, somewhat gritty warehouse,  albeit a warehouse filled with priceless artifacts – a rare opportunity to walk 5000 years into the past.  We walked down aisles past hundreds of sarchophagi, jewelry displays, and death masks; we admired a written tablet that we suspected was the  Rosetta Stone  till I recalled that the Rosetta Stone had been shipped to England and resided in a museum there. And therein lies the challenge of the Museum. Signs in English are rare, and we often found ourselves speculating about the meaning of the exhibits.  While there are numerous ‘guides’ offering services before you enter the Museum, I can’t vouch for how knowledgeable they really are and would recommend that true history buffs check with Viator to find a guide, or the hotel concierge (if he’s more helpful than the one at the Sheraton).

Moving upstairs, we reach the King Tutankhamun exhibit. [Note to English speakers with limited knowledge of Egyptian history: The name is pronounced Tut (rhymes with hut) + ankhamun (rhymes with uncommon). Apparently, calling him Two Tank Haymen is the kind of error that embarrasses your partner and amuses other more erudite tourists.]   King Tut (this is the safe pronunciation option) burial chambers reminded us  of those Russian figures, where  you opened one to find a smaller identical figure inside, and so on till you reached the final, tiny figure. King Tut was the littlest doll in the center.  He was buried inside three gold covered box tombs,  sized so that they fit inside each other. And inside the three layers of gilded tombs,  was a solid gold king shaped sarcophagus (not on display)  and inside of all of this was the mummified body of King Tut,  the boy king,  wearing the well publicized and exquisite golden death mask that is on display at the museum.

The 3000 Year Old Just Revealed Scandal

We learned that King Tut was a rather unremarkable pharaoh, understandable since he ruled from the age of 9 till his death at 19.  His fame is all due to the grandeur of his tomb. In addition to youth, we’ve just learned that there was another good reason for little Tut’s less than distinguished rule. While we were there the Egyptians announced the results of DNA tests conducted on tissues from the Tut mummy (how wild is that – 3000 year old DNA?).  It seems he suffered from a number of nasty genetic diseases. This is not surprising since the DNA results revealed his parents were brother and sister. Compounding the problem, the boy was then married to his sister. A sad, but perhaps predictable discovery in his tomb were two of his progeny - mummified stillborn fetuses – products of that unfortunate union.  All that gold, and all that power, and no one seemed to have figured out the hazards of inbreeding. 

A final suggestion for those who like to read books about places they visit:  Egypt’s ancient and crumbling monuments are the tangible remnants of an ancient civilization; and modern Cairo, splendid, infuriating, and complex beyond all western understanding, is the proud  recipient of a 5000 year old legacy.  I often find that a good book can shine a light into the mysterious and exotic world of foreign travel.  My favorite fiction  books about Cairo are The Cairo Trilogy, by Naguib Mahfouz.  In the period between WWI and II, we follow three generations of a family .  For those who would like to browse even further I recommend, a website that allows you to type in the name of your city or country of choice, and then displays a wide range of books about the area. 

Photo of King Tut and Queen (sister) from the Egyptian Museum

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