Sunday, September 13, 2015


With a population of over ten million and ten million more people just outside the city, Cairo is the largest city in the Middle East and the second largest city in Africa behind Lagos, Nigeria. It is also one of the most densely populated capital cities in the world. I was surprised to learn that Cairo was founded in the 10th century AD. I would have thought it was as ancient as the pyramids. The really old city of the region is Memphis, just 21 miles away, which was founded in at least the 31st century BC.

Like other large African cities we've visited (Nairobi, Kenya, and Accra, Ghana), and probably like most really big cities in the United States (Los Angeles, for example), Cairo is a shocking mix of extreme poverty . . .

. . . and over-the-top wealth. Our hotel, the Hotel Intercontinental Cairo, was definitely on the high end of the wealth spectrum:
Picture from here
It was hard not to feel guilty about staying here after seeing some of the living conditions in the city through the windows of our air-conditioned tour bus.

Why have an ordinary fountain in the lobby when you can have a Sphinx Fountain?
The hotel is connected to a very upscale shopping mall that comprises eight levels in three connected buildings. Very upscale. It's one of those places that elicits a gasp upon entry:
There was a pretty extensive food court in the lower level that included American favorites right next to Egyptian favorites:
Back in the hotel, the breakfast buffet was pretty spectacular--though much more European than Egyptian:
The window displays in the hotel's bakery included a French macaron cake and a lilac-colored onion-dome cake:
. . . and a more "traditional" three-tiered polka dot cake:
Our first destination in Cairo was the legendary Cairo Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. After inhabiting several different buildings, the museum finally settled in its current location next to Tahrir Square in 1902. The museum has 120,000 pieces, which include the largest collection of Pharaonic artifacts in the world, which seems like an obvious statement, but Egypt has a habit of a) giving away its treasures (For example, they gave the Luxor obelisk to France in 1833, and they gave ALL of their museum collection at the time to Archduke Maximillian of Austria in 1855), and b) having its treasures appropriated by those who believe in the adage "Finders keepers, losers weepers (For example, the collection in the British Museum, which numbers 100,000 items, and the collection of 50,000 pieces in the Louvre).
We stood in a fairly long line that zig-zagged back and forth a few times. It was the only line we spent any time in during our entire trip, but we were there when they opened the gate:
You would think tourists would have been scared away by what happened just five days prior at the Tunisian National Museum in Bardo when three terrorists killed 22 people (mostly European tourists) and injured 50 more.

That was not going to happen at the Cairo Museum, which was heavily guarded by military and police units:
In fact, our buses had a police escort everywhere we went, and sometimes we even had an armed guard riding on the bus. Our guides were constantly asking us, "Don't you feel safe? See how well you are protected? Tell your American friends that it is safe to travel in Egypt."  Uh-huh.

"Safe" in Egypt appears to mean a strong military presence. Maybe they don't realize that in the U.S. safe means no need for military presence.
Still, I guess if terrorists were planning a hit on the Cairo Museum, they'd have a hard time getting to the tourists:
Looking from the inside back towards the street:
A selfie and a picture taken by a friend:
Kindred spirits hanging out together:

I love the lady on the left who is wearing a Madonna/Britney Spears bra:
Not just any old ordinary door handle will do for the Cairo Museum of Egyptian Antiquities:
Time to go inside!
Unfortunately, like so many other museums, we were not allowed to take pictures inside the museum. There wasn't really anything interesting in there anyway, just stuff like this (pictures from the internet--someone was breaking the rules):
The center hall. Photo from here.
Same hall, different angle, from here.
In his book Walking the Bible, Bruce Feiler gives his impression of the interior:

"More like a warehouse than an archive, the Egyptian Museum feels like a giant pharaonic pawn shop, where four-thousand-year-old sarcophagi are stacked on top of three-thousand-year-old cartouches on top of five-thousand-year-old mummies. And everything needs dusting. . . . Allowing one minute for each object, it would take nearly nine months to view its 136,000 artifacts. Forty thousand more objects lie crated in the basement, where many have sunk into the ground, requiring excavations. Egypt: where even the museums are archaeological sites."

Feiler is so right. There were dusty, antiquated display cases everywhere, full of all kinds of curiosities. I would not want to be alone in here in the dark. No way.
Ramses II is there. Not just his coffin or his mask, but HE HIMSELF. We know because we paid $15 extra to visit the "Mummy Room," which had about a dozen mostly unwrapped mummies, largely from the Valley of the Kings. Their faces and bodies were clearly different from each other, and some of them even had substantial amounts of hair--after 2,000 years. Seeing Ramses II and his pals reminded me a little of viewing the body of Vladimir Lenin in his tomb in Red Square:
Ramses II, photo from here
Ramses has changed a lot from when he was a young boy, being watched over by Horus:
Photo from here
There were wonderful carvings and sculptures from various eras:
Beautiful Nefertiti's bust,
1345 BC. Photo from here.
A couple and their two children,
c. 2000 BC. Photo from here
There were sarcophagi galore:
Photo from here
And of course there were hundreds of artifacts from King Tutankhamun's tomb, discovered by Howard Carter in 1923:
King Tut's golden throne. Photo from here
Back of the golden throne. Photo from here
King Tutankhamun's coffin. Photo from here.
Tut's solid gold mask (24 pounds of gold). 
Photo from here

A jeweled falcon holding two ankhs, the symbol of life. Photo from here.
There were other spectacular coffins and masks, including these for Thuya, the wife of Amenhotep III. She was buried with her husband in the Valley of the Kings. Their tomb was discovered in 1905. (photos from here):
As I walked through the museum, I had an *Aha!* moment. Looking at the colors and patterns of the ornamentation on the objects, particularly on the masks and tombs, I better understood the inspiration for my son's 2014 painting entitled Imperial Griddle. He had told me the idea for this painting came from an Egyptian amulet he had seen in a photo. This is one of my favorites of his paintings to date, and I love it even more now, having seen its ancestors in the Egyptian Museum:

I guess the one advantage of not being allowed to take pictures inside is that I only posted my favorites from what is available online. Were I able to post my own photos, no doubt this post would be twice as long.

As we exited the Cairo Museum, we had a good look at the shell of the National Democratic Party headquarters, the party of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. It was attacked and set afire during the Arab Spring riots in 2011--a primary reason tourism is so low in Egypt right now.

Auguste Mariette, the founder of the Cairo Museum, overlooks the scene from his monument, along with the busts of other famous Egyptologists:

Like so many of the world's great museums, we needed at least twice as much time here as had been allotted to us.

However, we were off to see the Pyramids, so it was hard to complain.


  1. Love your contrast of poor Egypt with the amazing hotel, one of the better hotels, if not the best, we've ever stayed at. Love the contrast of tanks and guns and the inside of the museum. Cairo is an amazing place.

  2. I had completely forgotten that extensive shopping mall attached to the hotel, probably because that was the night Stan was so sick and we only did a very quick peek looking for a pharmacy the next day.

    I always wanted to hide out in a museum after hours a la "From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler", but perhaps THIS is the wrong place to start, with all of those ancient mummies. Love Andrew's art all over again after seeing how beautifully it connects to Egypt.

    1. No after dark forays in that museum. Too many scary looking mummies.

    2. My dream too, Chris. I don't think there are any soft beds in the Egyptian Museum--just rock-hard sarcophagi. I agree that this isn't the place.

  3. So, if I go to the British Museum, I'll see a lot, too? Actually, we got to the British Museum with 35 before closing and Dave wanted to see the antiquities first, so off we went. Interesting--and staggering--the numbers of Egyptian relics outside of this country.