One of the advantages of visiting Egypt before all the tourists return is, well, all the tourists haven’t yet arrived!
The National Archeological Museum in Cairo was opened at the beginning of the 20th Century and although it may have been state-of-the-art then, it hardly is today. It is dark, crowded, no air conditioning, and lousy lighting with horrible displays. Stuff is either stuffed in corners, just sitting there, or stuck in old-fashioned glass cases. There is no effort to tell a story. There is no effort to preserve ancient treasures by controlling humidity and light, things we just assume in other great museums. Through the years the museum has suffered from benign neglect while projects like a huge marble palace of a passenger cruise terminal in Alexandria (which has nothing and forces cruise passengers on a long unnecessary walk through this white elephant of a building) took precedence. Another probably white-elephant project is the New Alexandria Library, a boondoggle effort to save treasures Egypt didn’t have, instead of taking care of the treasures Egypt does have. Supposedly there is an ongoing project to build a new museum in Cairo, but if, and when that will be completed depends a lot on how things shake out when Egypt gets a new government.
The star of the National Archeological Museum in Cairo is the treasure trove from King Tut’s tomb, awesome beyond belief despite the inadequacies of display and care. In the past visiting the National Archeological Museum was a crowded, hot, sweaty experience with hundreds (literally!) of tour buses disgorging groups into the already crowded museum. The museum has thousands of pieces recovered from the Tomb of Tutankhamen with only the main pieces on display, but far more than the isolated pieces that made the world tour. The room with the mask and the coffins that actually held the mummy of Tutankhamen are in a small dark room. In the past it was always packed with people, shoulder to shoulder, fifteen people in when fifteen came out. One kind of moved like a sardine in a swarm, hopefully catching glances of the treasures before the crush of other tourists pushed you onward.
This time . . . 12 people . . . 12! . . . in that darkened room. And the opportunity to stand alone, face to face, looking into the incredible gold and precious stone mask of Tutankhamen, and the chance to wonder just what life was like for this beautiful young man who came to the throne when he was 9 years old and died when he was 19.
Life after death was a key element of ancient Egyptian religion. The first pyramid tombs were built not just as monuments to power, but as places where the king could be entombed in style for his passage to the afterlife. The pharaoh was thought to be the direct link to the supreme ancient Egyptian god and so all of the accoutrement of his princely life in this world was entombed with him for his use in the afterlife. Centuries later the tradition of the pyramid tombs ended, and royalty began to be entombed in a remote valley in what is today called the Valley of The Kings. Here burial chambers were dug down into the ground, often lavishly decorated, and filled with all of the rulers’ accumulated treasure for use in the afterlife.
Unfortunately most of these treasures disappeared over the centuries. People being people even back then, a lot of the treasures disappeared before the tombs were even sealed thanks to a powerful and corrupt grave diggers union. So when these amazing underground structures were discovered by archeologists . . . the tombs were virtually empty. Amazingly designed and decorated, and sometimes with the mummy of the deceased, but empty of the treasures you would expect of royalty.
With one exception . . .
Tutankhamen was a Pharaoh during the New Kingdom who ascended to throne when he was only nine, ruled only 10 years before dying and is relatively unimportant. He is thought to be the child of an incestuous relationship and suffered from several genetic defects that contributed to his early death. CAT scans show that he badly broke his leg shortly before his death and DNA analysis also showed the presence of malaria
Tutankhamen’s tomb, which lies in an area that was not normally used for royal burials in the Valley center, was apparently quickly dug and Tutankhamen was buried deep below the surface of the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at Luxor (ancient Thebes). It was forgotten about until Howard Carter discovered it on November 4th, 1922. Part of Howard Carter’s luck was that it was not discovered earlier when, his predecessor in the Valley, the American Theodore Davis, came within little more than a meter of finding it himself. Tutankhamen’s tomb is not nearly as interesting as many of the other tombs in the Valley of the Kings. It consists of an entrance leading to a single corridor, followed by several annexes for funerary equipment. At a 90 degree right angle is the small burial chamber, with another annex attached leading back in the direction of the entrance. What made it interesting is that it was stuffed with treasure. And it should be noted that even this tomb was not found completely intact. In fact, there had been at least two robberies of the tomb, perhaps soon after Tutankhamen’s burial, probably by members of the tomb workers union.
So if the tomb of this relatively unimportant Pharaoh contained all this amazing treasure, one can only imagine what the other tombs must have held before over the centuries they were looted.
After Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered, and his mummy unwrapped and the treasures that were enclosed within the wrappings were removed, Tutankhamen’s remains, including his brain and viscera which were preserved separately wrapped in tiny golden coffins, enclosed in alabaster jugs, were reburied in the actual Tomb of Tutankhamen which can be visited in the Valley of The Kings. All of the amazing treasures including his throne, his chariot, his jewelry, the various golden boxes and coffins in which his mummy was encased, almost like Russian dolls, one within another, are all at the Egyptian Archeological Museum in Cairo.