Downtown Cairo’s star attraction is the Egyptian Museum, or to give it its full title, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Founded in 1858 by Auguste Mariette, who excavated the Serapeum at Saqqara and several major temples in Upper Egypt (and who was later buried in the museum grounds), it has long since outgrown its present building and can now scarcely warehouse all its pharaonic artefacts, with 136,000 exhibits, and forty thousand more items still crated in the basement. A new Grand Egyptian Museum, which will house some or all the exhibits in the present one, is already under construction by the pyramids of Giza, and is due to open in around 2013. Meanwhile, for all the chaos, poor lighting and captioning of the old museum, the richness of the collection makes this one of the world’s few truly great museums.
A single visit of three to four hours suffices to cover the Tutankhamun exhibition and a few other highlights. Everyone has their favourites, but a reasonable shortlist might include, on the ground floor, the Amarna galleries (rooms 3 and 8), and the cream of statuary from the Old, Middle and New kingdoms (rooms 42, 32, 22 and 12), and, on the upper floor, the Fayoum Portraits (Room 14), and of course the Royal Mummies (Rooms 52 and 56) – though these cost extra. Information on the exhibits themselves is extremely sparse. Due to different systems of numbering being added at different times, some exhibits in the museum now have three different numbers, but very often no other labelling at all. When identifying exhibits by number in the account which follows, we have given the number which is the most prominent.
The water lilies growing in the pond in front of the main entrance are the now-rare blue lotus, a mildly psychoactive plant used by the ancient Egyptians – frescoes and reliefs from ancient Egypt show these lotuses being dipped into wine to enhance their effects.