I had told a friend recently that I didn’t have a bucket list–I had Egypt. I was lucky as a child and met an Egyptologist who worked at the school my mother was attending. I had the chicken pox and couldn’t go to school but couldn’t stay home alone, so I went along to my mom’s classes. Her professor must have caught that I perked up greatly during this Master’s level class and took me into her inner sanctum where I was shown artifacts and research. After that, I just knew I was going to be the next Indiana Jones and was going to discover amazing things in Egypt. I’ve never passed up an opportunity to see any sort of Egyptian exhibit and while my career as an archaeological explorer didn’t quite pan out, visiting the Egyptian Museum in Cairo fulfilled the biggest childhood dream I had.
I grew up in the States and was repeatedly informed that Egypt was off limits for travel–it was simply too dangerous. As a kid who didn’t travel internationally, it felt as out of reach as traveling to the moon. Once I started traveling regularly as an adult, Egypt just never seemed convenient. When I knew that I had limited time in Scotland before moving back to New Zealand, I felt a panic that I was missing my opportunity to finally go. I didn’t want to make the move and booking the trip I had dreamed of the longest helped me cope–at least for a while. I had a very short window of time to visit Cairo–just enough time to get the smallest taste of Egypt possible–but I knew that that was what I wanted more than anything.
I took an Uber to get to the museum. The parking situation is clearly geared towards tour buses and the car wasn’t able to pull in, so it left me around the corner and a bit of a way down the road. I had to navigate along the side of the road to the entrance but, if you know how traffic works in Cairo, you’ll know I wasn’t the only person on foot and I was able to make it fairly easily.
The Egyptian Museum is properly known as The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities and is located in Tahrir Square.
There is a small kiosk in the front courtyard of the museum where tickets can be bought. There are different prices for local residents and tourists (a practice I fully support). There is a ticket for regular admission, an additional ticket option to see the mummy rooms, and a third ticket to purchase if you want to take any photographs. I bought all three, no questions asked. No pictures are allowed in the mummy rooms or at King Tut’s exhibit. Don’t nickel and dime–just buy all the tickets. You won’t need to worry about what’s allowed.
If you are looking for a super modern Western style museum, this is not the museum for you. The museum in its current form has been around since 1902. There’s no air conditioning (I suggest bringing a bottle of water–it’s not technically allowed, but I didn’t see anyone get in trouble for having one) and as with all restrooms in Egypt, bring your own tissues/loo paper. I find that I am quite defensive about this museum. All of the books I’ve read over my lifetime describe the same massive space with lots of smaller rooms piled high with artifact after artifact. Any one of these pieces would be another museum’s pride and joy where here it can feel like they are somewhat unceremoniously tucked into a corner or placed on a shelf. The museum itself feels like history to me–and that’s before you start exploring the contents. To be able to, at times quite literally, get lost in the museum where these artifacts truly belonged was the best museum experience I’ve ever had.
Before you enter the museum you will no doubt be asked numerous times if you would like a guide. Your hotel will probably have a museum tour option as well. **You don’t need one.** I went on my own and had zero issues with anything. There were enough display cards in English that I could read for myself and found that it was often enough to just gape in awe at the pieces. I spent a solid afternoon at the museum and could have very easily spent much longer, but I got hungry (there aren’t any food options at the museum).
The Egyptian Museum is in even more disarray than usual currently due to some exhibits being moved over to the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza. There is a good bit of confusion over which exhibits will be moving and when the new museum is actually opening, but I am looking forward to returning and visiting both.
Most of the exhibits have little to no protection around them. It’s quite easy to reach out and touch a piece of history–please don’t. Take your pictures, pose next to them if you want, but please do your part in preserving these artifacts by not touching.
It’s surreal to turn a corner and find an alcove filled with crates and artifacts. You can just imagine the “top men” from Indiana Jones hiding in the shadows. There’s a sense of feeling like you shouldn’t be there, but the space is completely open (areas you can’t go inside are clearly marked).
The museum was decently crowded when I first arrived, but it turned out that it was mostly tour groups who had arrived mid-morning and then left after their allotted two hours. Once the tour groups were gone, I didn’t have any issues with crowds.
Not all exhibits had information and a lot of them had signage that looked to be from the early days of the museum. There are so many exhibits that I personally didn’t find that to be an issue at all–in fact it added to the layers of history the museum has to offer.
The museum is pretty open, so you can see both floors and many rooms and displays at once. Even with the sheer amount of artifacts on display, I never felt closed in.
I didn’t see any signage to point me in the direction of the King Tut exhibit and it ended up being one of the final exhibits I saw. I now laugh at myself because every time I saw a mask from a distance I would think I had found it, but would then get closer and realize that it very much wasn’t what I was looking for. The King Tut exhibit is in its own alcove and has its own guards. There is a strict no photography rule in there (don’t even try–aside from the rules being clearly stated, the guards see everything and I watched as one stood over a woman until she erased the photographs from her camera).
Whatever your interest in Egyptian archaeology is, The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities will have a display. The sheer number of artifacts on display was constantly overwhelming in the most amazing way I’ve ever experienced.
I probably have three favourite memories of my day at The Egyptian Museum–getting nose to nose with Ramses in one of the mummy rooms, seeing King Tut’s funeral mask up close, and watching curators work at categorizing and photographing artifacts. I stood there for over thirty minutes easily just watching them meticulously handle pieces of Ancient Egypt. In another life that would have been me.
Aside from the separate mummy rooms (where you can see kings and royal family members), there are quite literally stacks and stacks of mummies. Cabinets containing mummies 4-5 shelves high line multiple walls. It felt strange to see so many after being in so many museums that claimed their one or two mummies as their prime exhibit.
The museum is so large that I discovered an entire hallway I hadn’t seen before as I was leaving–and it had the biggest statue in the building.
To say I recommend visiting The Egyptian Museum while you’re in Cairo is an understatement. If you’ve ever had even the slightest dream of being Indiana Jones (and frankly, who hasn’t??) or have any interest at all in archaeology and Egyptology, it is a very obvious must do. I would go back in a heartbeat. Seeing in person the location of so many scenes in my favourite books, the artifacts I’ve only seen in National Geographic articles, and the hint of the career I had dreamed of as a child was more than worth the trip.
My experience in Egypt was a dream come true, but I do have two disappointments–that my visit was so short and that it took me so long to actually go. At no point during my time there did I feel unsafe. Yes, you’ll get pushy sellers and self-proclaimed tour guides in the touristy areas, but that happens everywhere (seriously, I lived in New York City and it was far worse there). I found a people who love their country and are educated about it. I found the ability to visit unique culture and history in the place it actually belongs to be humbling. Visiting the Egyptian Museum, especially knowing the new one will be opened soon, was absolutely a lifetime travel highlight.
Learn more about Egypt with this brief history of papyrus.