The Cairo Museum

The Cairo Museum

The Cairo Museum is a mess. That's all there is to it. John Anthony West has this to say:

"This museum is not a happy building. Ill-lit, gloomy, stodgy, and hopelessly overcrowded, it probably packs more masterpieces per square yard than any other building on earth, making it at once both exhilarating and exasperating.1

How true. It is frustrating that so many priceless works are presented so poorly - many of them deserve entire rooms to themselves - and the overall lack of organization and information leaves one without any sense of context.

But at the same time, it is this same lack of organization that allows you to get right up close to the artifacts and reach out and touch them. (Although don't let the guards catch you doing that!).

One of the many guides-for-hire outside the museum assured us that he could show us everything worth seeing in the museum in half an hour. Ha! On our FIRST trip we got there at 11:00 in the morning and they (thankfully!) tossed us out at closing. We managed to see about half.

The building itself was opened in 1902 and was built on a plan submitted by a French architect, Marcel Dourgnon, to an international competition. The total number of objects on display is over 100,000 and the basements are filled with more awaiting display space. I guess we should be glad that at least inception of the Cairo Museum finally put a stop to artifacts being legally stolen and shipped off to Europe. Apparently, there are a number of modern museums in the works that will improve the situation.1

Our pictures from the museum are unfortunately limited and few. Of course flash photography is banned, and it was a wasn't till well into the trip that I figured out that it was possible to turn off the flash on my camera. And, of course, because you can't use a flash, the shutter speed compensates and if you aren't really still you end up with a whole lot of blurry pictures.

Upon entering the museum, you are immediately set upon by a number of literally towering statues. Moving straight into the main chamber of the first floor, probably the largest statue in the museum looks down at you from the far end:

Amenhotep III & Queen Tiye

It is a depiction of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. Unfortunately, I don't know anything more about the statue such as where it's from cause, hey! It wasn't adequately labeled either. Oh well.

The Menkaure Triad

There are a number of similar statues to this in the museum - all of them depict Menkaure (the builder of the third pyramid) with two other figures, in this case the goddess Hathor (left) and his queen. The statue is about 2' high and carved in (I'm fairly sure) basalt. The detail of musculature and facial feautres in these, and indeed most Egyptian statuary, is amazing. The sculptors responsible for these works of art were clearly unparalleled masters of their craft. These triads in particular captivated me. (For those that might actually try to find them, they are in room 47.)

Box Statue

These are fairly representative of the types of statues that make up the majority of the collection at the museum. On the left is Chefren, builder of the second largest pyramid - it's more or less life-sized. The center statue is very interesting. Neither Pam nor I had seen such statues until we went to Egypt - basically it is cube carved into seated form with the knees drawn up. These are probably the least realistic of the statuary and unfortunately their symbolism and function were not documented. The statue on the right is of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet.

Most of the statues are of two forms - striding with arms at the side or seated with hands on the lap. The style of hands and feet are notable - regardless of the skill or detail used in the rest of the figure, the hands (and often lower arms) and feet are invariably blocky with little detail. Clearly this is not for lack of skill, and so to my mind indicates a symbolic meaning. Unfortunately, as with most of the symbolism of ancient Egypt, the meaning is not clear and we probably will never know.


This is a statue of the pharaoh Akhenaten - probably one of the most controversial figures in Egyptian history, and the originator of the most innovative style of art in Egypt. The style "Amarna" art (after Akhenaten's capital city) is characterized by almost grotesquely elongated forms and over exaggerated features. Despite this, there is still an overwhelming sense of harmony and proportion and the style is uniquely beautiful. The whole history and controversy of Akhenaten is far too detailed to get into, but suffice to say he was not held in high regard by the Egyptians - he was labelled a heretic for advocating the worship of a single god, Aten, and promptly after his death his capital was dismantled and his name vilified all over Egypt.

Tutankhamon's Anubis

The Cairo Museum is home to the infamous treasures of Tutankhamon's tomb discovered by Howard Carter. This is the wooden statue of Anubis that was found in the tomb.

Anubis Relief

The final picture that I'd like to present from the museum is this detail of Anubis taken from a red-granite sarcophagus. Anubis - the jackal-headed god of the underworld holds a special place in both Pam's and my psyche and we thought that this was a particularly well rendered depiction.

1. West, John Anthony (1995), The Traveler's Key to Ancient Egypt, Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, pp. 206.

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