Off the Deep End, Part 10

5 Oct

By Eric Shipley

The next leg of our Egyptian adventure took us to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. After a cab ride that I’m pretty sure took five years off my life, we came to the high fence surrounding the museum, which is an imposing red brick building that looked to me to have a sort of neoclassical design. And it was fortunate that it was interesting to look at, because we had to navigate multiple layers of security, buy tickets, and stand in line before we actually got inside. I can’t really complain, though. The museum’s collection is fantastic, well worth the wait. And if I were in charge of it, I would probably be even more protective.

A major drawback to the exhibits is that many don’t have labels or signage with explanations. And of the ones that do, the language is often only Arabic. But that doesn’t detract from the awestruck sensation of seeing, and sometimes touching, art, and sculpture, and artifacts as much as 5,000 years old. One thing that was both a disappointment and an annoyance was that shortly after getting inside I saw a sign for the Rosetta Stone with an arrow pointing up a flight of stairs. Having an interest in language, this was something I really wanted to see, so we (Rob and Laura were with Charlotte and me) agreed on a meeting time and spot and I took off. Half an hour later, I’d gotten to see many fascinating things, none of which were the Rosetta Stone. It was then, after I happened to meet up with Rob, that he informed me it is resting comfortably in the British Museum in London. And as I recently discovered on Wikipedia, it has been there since 1802, which leads me to believe the sign maker for the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is either an idiot or has a seriously twisted sense of humor.

After this small mishap, we got back together and agreed, given the size of the museum, that we needed to decide on a few things we really wanted to see. The choices were the royal mummies and King Tut’s treasures. (I actually had seen the treasures before in 1977 when they were on loan to the Field Museum in Chicago, but I was anxious to refresh my memory.)

We had to buy tickets (70 pounds, about $11 USD) to see the mummies, and it wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. There was almost no information about them other than their names. I did find it interesting to see the mummy of Ramesses II, though. I had read about him—he’s generally considered the greatest of all Egypt’s pharaohs—so getting to meet face-to-face was cool (albeit one-sided).

Finally, we got to the treasures of Tutankhamen, the pharaoh who ruled Egypt for only ten years (1333-1323 BC) but is the most famous in modern times because his tomb is the only one unearthed with all of its treasures intact. All I can say is that seeing these treasures in person is an incredible experience. The sheer beauty is overwhelming. I’ve often wondered how Howard Carter (the British Egyptologist who discovered Tut’s tomb) felt when he first saw them in 1922. The detail and craftsmanship is astoundingly intricate, which is even more impressive given that the artists and artisans were working with primitive bronze tools. Photos do not do justice. You have to actually see the perfect smoothness of the gold leaf that is the skin of Tut’s death mask to appreciate it. And photos don’t show details like the delicate, alternating pattern of papyrus and lotus flowers on the feet of Tut’s inner sarcophagus. (There are three, nested inside each other.) One thing that was particularly memorable for me, though, was looking up into the interior of the death mask. There is something indescribable about seeing the inner structure, the part that isn’t supposed to be seen that rested against the face of the young pharaoh (he was only 19 when he died). Perhaps looking at the mask from that perspective connected me in a personal way, but whatever the explanation, seeing Tut’s treasures in person was a remarkable experience.

I remember thinking at the time that the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities was the high point of the trip. But there was so much more to come…

Next: Luxor and Karnak

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