Thousands of years ago, the capital of Egypt was centered at Memphis just south of the core of modern-day Cairo. Today, the city is a bustling metropolis of over 20 million people and one of the largest cities on the continent of Africa. The city also boasts a large number of museums and heritage centres. This week, the Nile Scribes bring you our Top 5 picks for the traveller on their way to Cairo.
1. Egyptian Museum
No visit to Cairo would be complete without endless hours spent looking through the phenomenal collection of the Egyptian Museum. Located at the northern end of Tahrir Square, the museum arose out of the earlier efforts of Khedive Said Pasha, Auguste Mariette, and Gaston Maspero in the mid nineteenth century – finally opening at this location in 1902. Visitors should also visit the memorial to Auguste Mariette just to the left of the exit and give their regards. Once the visitor makes their way inside, the larger-than-life Narmer Palette – so important to the early history of Egypt – dominates the first room usually seen by the visitor near the central entrance.
The museum consists of two floors and their galleries span the vast time frame of ancient Egyptian history. The ground floor is organised in a chronological scheme beginning with the Predynastic Period and spanning around the building to end in Graeco-Roman times. The second floor, however, presents a thematic approach and the Royal Mummy Room draws a crowd on a daily basis – why not – the mummy of Ramesses II is found here! As you walk around the museum, make sure to look closely at the little labels near many of the objects; you will find some pieces that are so familiar to us from many coffee table books – we are thinking here of Tutankhamun’s Restoration Stelawhich hides against a wall beside the exit!
2. Solar Boat Museum
After visiting Khufu’s Great Pyramid at Giza, visitors often walk around to the south side of the pyramid where the Solar Boat Museum offers a cool environment to escape the heat. The Solar Boat Museum’s main attraction is a 4,000 year-old cedarwood boat found in one of Khufu’s five boat pits surrounding his pyramid. The first solar boat pit was opened in 1954 and revealed planks of cedar, sycamore, and acacia from the dismantled boat along with ropes and oars. Four years later, Egyptian conservator Hag Ahmed Youssef Moustafa began the task of reassembling the solar boat’s 1,224 wood pieces in the ancient Egyptian way – the boat is held together with mortise-and-tenon joints and rope. The process of reconstructing the solar boat took 14 years.
The small museum is made up of two floors: on the ground floor, visitors can view cross-section models of the boat that illustrate how the planks were lashed together with ropes along with pieces of the original rope, and tools used by the restorer. The ground floor of the museum also incorporates the original find-spot of the solar boat – the long pit where the boat was found is empty now, but is still covered by many of the original sealing blocks. On the top floor, visitors follow a wraparound pathway to view the 43 meter-long solar boat from every angle.
3. Coptic Museum
A 30-minute drive south from the Egyptian Museum brings the visitor to Old Cairo, an historic area just north of Egypt’s first Islamic capital, al-Fustat. The Coptic Museum is located just beyond the remains of a fortress that was built in Roman times. The history of the museum goes back to the mid-nineteenth century – the ‘Coptic Hall’ was part of the Bulaq Museum (the forerunner of today’s Egyptian Museum) in the late 1880s. However, a museum devoted wholly to Coptic antiquities would have to wait another 20 years before the Coptic Museum was to be inaugurated in its current location in 1910. Marcus Simaika Pasha, a well-known Coptic Cairene, played a leading role in the foundation of the museum and today a statue in his name welcomes visitors just outside the entrance to the museum.
The building itself was renovated recently to coincide with celebrations of its centenary. Spanning across two floors, a chronological and thematic approach takes the visitor through the various galleries. Among the first galleries is the Gallery of Masterpieces which strives to showcase several significant and wide-ranging objects from the Coptic world. Following this gallery on the ground floor, another room explores several influences from ancient Egypt that persisted in Coptic art: the looped cross that derives from the ankh sign. Keep a look out for this motif in many of the pieces on display. The visitor will certainly marvel at the many icons throughout the galleries as these are very characteristic of Coptic iconography. The religiosity of many of the objects on display abounds in all the rooms and is also evident in the vivid colours of surviving Coptic textiles. Take a moment also to look upward and marvel at the highly-ornate wooden panels along the walls and ceilings as you walk through the museum.
4. Museum of Islamic Art
The Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo holds the largest collection of Islamic art in the world, comprised of nearly a 100,000 objects from numerous African and Asian countries. In 1903, the museum was inaugurated as the House of Arab Antiquities by Khedive Abbas Helmi, who had also inaugurated the new Egyptian Museum only a year earlier. In 1951, the museum was renamed the Museum of Islamic Art and was expanded several times over the next few decades at its current location in the Bab Al-Khalq area of Cairo. Recently, the museum was closed for extensive renovations which cost nearly $10 million US and took eight years to complete. The Museum of Islamic Art finally reopened to the public in 2010 but in January of 2014, a bomb targeting the Cairo Police Headquarters across the street damaged some of the museum’s galleries and objects, forcing it to be reclosed for renovations yet again. Now reopened since 2017, the Museum of Islamic Art not only beautifully tells the stories of Muslim cultures around the world, it stands as a monument to the skill of Egyptian conservators and the enduring respect of Egyptians for their cultural heritage.
5. Gayer-Anderson House
Located beside the famous Ibn Tulun Mosque (the oldest continuously active mosque in Cairo), the Gayer-Anderson House is actually made up of two houses built during the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries, now joined by a bridge on the second floor. The original houses belonged to the al-Kiritli family but were eventually sold to the Egyptian government. In 1934, a retired British army Major who had lived in Egypt for several decades was given guardianship of the houses with the intention of restoring and living in them. Major John Gayer-Anderson modernised the homes by installing electric lights and plumbing, restored the fountains, and decorated the rooms in the Ottoman style. When Gayer-Anderson left Egypt in 1942 due to poor health, he gave the buildings back to the Egyptian government and they were eventually opened as a museum. The Gayer-Anderson House also boasts a small display of ancient Egyptian objects.
As you tour the houses, you will notice the intentional differentiation between public spaces where the family could receive visitors and private spaces where the family living rooms were located. The windows of most rooms are covered by mashrabiya screens which keep out the harsh sunlight while still allowing some natural light inside. Mashrabiya screens were also used inside the house to provide privacy to female members of the household – you can visit one such area on the second floor where women would have stood to observe activities taking place in the formal reception room.
Lesley Lababidi & Lisa Sabbahy. 2006. Cairo: The Family Guide. New Revised Edition. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press. – Check out this guidebook to the city of Cairo for some of the lesser-known museums and institutions open to visitors.