Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Egypt - The Egyptian Museum

Dedicated to Kazza - thanks for the surprise email!

As I write this, Egyptian primary school kids are singing the national anthem and their school song across the street. For the first time in a while, there have been no car horns blaring as well. It sounds like a nursery rhyme shouted in unison, but definitely not in harmony.

Yesterday was mostly spent exploring every possible exhibit in the Egyptian Museum. It's an extraordinary collection housed in a building that exemplifies archaic nineteenth-century museological approaches. Occasisional rooms have been dramatically upgraded, and some of the atrium rooms on the upper level really seem to benefit from their mode of display, but it left me with the impression that the entire museum was an exhibit in itself.

The first text label I read was a charming disappointment. In Arabic, French and English it simply read "A painted ceramic vessel", which indeed it was. But they became more informative and useful as I became accustomed to what I should expect from them. They varied from acid-yellowed columns that looked like they had been clipped from a 1950s newspaper, black and white printouts from conventional office printers, to handwritten contemporary notes in biro, and supremely elegant handwritten copperplate notes from one particular 1890s curator. These favourites of mine (for atmosphere) were scattered about the museum, often adhered to inobstrusive corners of large objects. They held an erudite air, and coveyed the impression that their author not only spoke several languages, but could also read hieroglyphics and was writing with a feathered quill.

The rooms that have been renovated included the Royal Mummies section, Tutankhamun's most precious gold artifacts, and the finds from the tomb of Akhenaten (the heretic monotheistic Pharoah). The Royal Mummies were extraordinary, as 11 sleeping Pharoahs were lined up in glass sarcophagi like something from a science fiction scenario. Some were so smooth in facial features they looked almost like they were breathing, and some even held a stature befitting an ancient King. I wonder if these faces, being depictions of deceased people with the intention of capturing that person's innermost characteristics, and made by human intervention, can be counted as portraits? You can make portraits from any substance, why not the actual head itself?

On that note, I really enjoyed the Fayooum portraits. These, amongst the most ancient forms of portraiture, were panels inserted into mummy bandages after the Ptolemaic period. They usually depict ordinary (but wealthy) individuals, and move away from the iconographic representations of Pharonic art, into a western frontal realism. They're captivating images, and I urge you to check them out online if you can spare the time.

Another highlight was the upper atrium room dedicated to miniature idols. Cupboard after cupboard of them, stuffed together like a shop window of painted easter eggs, in the best use of the nineteenth-century storage/display format. They were made from bone, turquoise faience, terracotta, and other ceramics, painted and unpainted wood, all kinds of stones and precious metals. They varied from the size of your outstretched hand to your little fingernail, and hardly any of them were labelled. Not that you'd possibly want them all to be anyway - they're just overwhelming en mass. If you were ever looking for just the right pagan god or goddess for that special someone, but simply couldn't find it on eBay, then here's your place.

There were also corridors of sarcophagi, statuary, papyrus, scarabs, furniture and plenty of other treasures from Tutankhamon's haul. Far too much to describe here. It took me around 6 1/2 hours to see everything, and I was getting fatigued around the last few painted timber sarcophagi to really appreciate their differences.

I spent the remaining hour before sunset just walking, fairly aimlessly, around the ground-level streets of Cairo. Cairo, as I've mentioned before, is built on several layers of bridge-like roads and apartment buildings. It's like a Mega City from Judge Dredd. These are areas full of very slow traffic, people strolling about chatting to friends, and laborers carrying huge loads of unusual products. Sheets are rolled out on the ground and used as stalls from everything from perscription glasses to caseless tape cassettes, parts of lamps, and colourful things made from tinsel. It's an exhilarating place to explore, loaded with energy and exotic scenes, but suprisingly peaceful and calm.

You can apply any superlative to Cairo, but two especially apt ones are "Decrepit" and "Amazing". Throughout the museum there are mechanical artifacts, which after being hidden in tombs for thousands of years, can still be wound up and activated, just as they had been by their makers. These awe-inspiring acts of functional longevity are actually just like walking through Cairo's streets. It's as if a white-gloved curator unveiled the working city, in all its chaos, and proudly announced, "Look! Even after 20 million people were added to the city, the original infrastructure still works!"


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