Nortina’s Egyptian Travel Diaries (#AtoZChallenge): “M” is for Museums and Mummies

We’ve reached the midway point of the A to Z Challenge, but I actually want to skip ahead to our final full day in Egypt, when we visited the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities near Tahrir Square in Cairo. The museum was actually within walking distance from our hotel, but I wouldn’t dare attempt to cross a street in Cairo. Traffic there is like five o’clock rush hour traffic the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend, with the addition of motorcycles, random pedestrians jumping into moving taxis, and horse-drawn carts. In a nutshell, it is pure chaos, with a cacophony of horns. But I plan to touch on this more in a later post. All you need to know for now is that we took the bus the quarter-mile bend to the museum.

The Egyptian Museum has a rich collection of artifacts from the various periods of Ancient Egypt—the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, the New Kingdom, the Greek period, etc.

The collection is so rich, in fact, that they’ve actually run out of space. A newer larger museum to house the riches of Ancient Egypt, including the complete exhibit of King Tut’s tomb, is set to open later this year, located just outside of Cairo on the Giza Plateau. In fact, we drove past it on our way to the pyramids! It will be called the Grand Egyptian Museum, and from the looks of it, it will truly be grand!

You can almost see the new museum from the Great Pyramid—the gray angular structure in the center-left part of the photo.

Until then, we have the Cairo Museum, which despite its limited two-story capacity, holds a gargantuan number of artifacts within its walls. I can’t remember the exact number our tour guide told us, but I believe it was in the hundred thousands. She said there was no way anyone could possibly see everything the museum has to offer in one visit. You’d be there for weeks. So instead, she took us on a tour of the highlights, which is what I will do in this post.

At least the highlights I remember and have a picture for.

The Three Kings

Do you remember when I said that each of the three main pyramids of Giza was built for a king of Egypt? One for the father, one for the son, and one for the grandson. Can you guess, from the kings pictured above, who had which pyramid?

Here’s a hint: If you’re basing it on size, you’d be wrong.

Yes, King Khufu, the owner of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the tallest pyramid in the world and the oldest Ancient wonder of the world, is the king with the tiniest statue, no bigger than my hand. When the statuette was first excavated, it was originally detached from its head. The head was found three weeks later.

Remember how I said his son Khafre had a permanent chip on his shoulder and desired to eclipse the greatness of his father? By the way, that’s just an assumption I made based on no factual evidence whatsoever other than a pyramid that appears taller but is not in fact taller than the Great Pyramid built by his father. Please don’t take my words as indisputable truth.

Khafre’s life-size statue is the biggest of the three. Behind his head, the falcon god Horus (the god often associated with the kings of Egypt) spreads his wings as a sign of protection as well as to legitimize his reign as king. Am I the only one who thinks Khafre is overcompensating for something?!

The middle-sized statue belongs to the king with the smallest pyramid of the three at Giza, Menkaure. This statue is actually one of a series of three showing the king flanked by two goddesses: Hathor to his right, who is crowned with the sun disc between two cow’s horns, and to his left, a goddess from different regions of Egypt. Each of the three statues shows a different regional goddess on his left, represented by a different symbol above her head.

Tour guide using her water bottle as a pointer. 😂

The Seated Scribe

Scribes in Ancient Egypt were the assigned record keepers. They recorded the stocks of food, court proceedings, wills and other legal documents, tax records, and all the things that happened in everyday life. Scribes were held in high regard in Egypt. So high, in fact, that they are printed on Egypt’s currency!

You may notice that the statue above appears to be incomplete at the legs. This was actually intentional, as the focus is meant to be on his face as he listens to receive the information he must write down, on his hand positioned to grip a writing utensil, and on the papyrus scroll spread across his lap, on which he will be inscribing the record.

Akhenaten, the Heretic Pharaoh

Akhenaten was a pharaoh from the 18th Dynasty (actually King Tut’s father) who was quite controversial. During his reign, he enforced a complete overhaul of Egypt’s religion, promoting the Aten, the disk of the sun, as the one and only god, who should be worshiped above all else. He forbade the worship of Eygpt’s central deity, Amun-Ra, and all other gods and even changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten, which translates to mean “living spirit of the Aten,” to symbolize his association with the god he now served. He also shifted the capital from Thebes to Amarna.

And his changes didn’t stop there. In addition to shifting the religion from a polytheistic one to a monotheistic one, he also changed how the royals were depicted in art. Gone were the smooth oval, almost childlike, faces and athletic builds. Now the pharaoh’s image had sharp, structural features in the face and a curvy, almost feminine, torso and lower body, making him appear androgynous.

Unfortunately for Akhenaten, the powerful priests of Aum-Ra didn’t take too kindly to his changes, and the new religion only lasted the length of his short reign and that of his queen, Nefertiti, whose bust is the most famous and most reproduced image from Ancient Egypt.

Unfinished head of Nefertiti

After his death, as a final insult to the heretic pharaoh, Akhenaten’s sarcophagus was destroyed, and his royal cartouche on the coffin lid was completely erased. 

Note the cutout section where the cartouche containing his name would have been.

When Tutankhaten became pharaoh, he reinstated worship of the god Amun-Ra (likely under the influence of the powerful priests), changed his name to Tutankhamun to show his affiliation with this god, and moved the capital from Amarna back to Thebes, thus marking the end to the legacy of a king Egypt would prefer to forget.

King Tut, the Boy Pharaoh

Outside the tomb of King Tut in the Valley of the Kings. Going inside required the purchase of a separate ticket, so this was as close as we got. Given the huge display at the museum, I’m curious about what’s still in the tomb.

Since we’re on the topic, let’s talk about King Tut! His exhibit in the museum was closed to photography unfortunately, so I couldn’t take pictures. I think the fascination with King Tut stems from the fact that his tomb was discovered almost completely intact, with all of the treasures, the gold sarcophagi, and his mummy inside!

According to our tour guide, his tomb wasn’t all that impressive compared to other pharaohs buried in the Valley of the Kings. Because he died unexpectedly at the young age of 19, there wasn’t enough time to build an elaborate, grandiose tomb like Seti I’s, and thus he was likely buried in a tomb intended for someone else.

Although we couldn’t take pictures inside the main exhibit, there were some treasures from his tomb on display elsewhere. When the new Grand Egyptian Museum opens, everything will be moved there, including, I presume, his mummy.

Click images to read captions

Mummies on Display

Speaking of mummies, another huge exhibit was the funerary objects of Yuya and Thuya, distant relatives of King Tut.

It was at this exhibit that I began to feel that same uneasy feeling I had inside the empty/desecrated tombs. Yes, the discovery of these tombs and the items within them has great historical and archeological significance, but is it right or even ethical to have their mummies on display like this?

As I watched other tourists crowd the glass cases with their phones and cameras out, flashing photos of the exposed well-preserved faces of these people who were once living breathing human beings, I couldn’t help but feel that we had turned their deaths into a spectacle.

It reminds me of that Bible verse that opens up Jordan Peele’s film Nope.

I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.

Nahum 3:6

In Ancient Egyptian culture, it was believed that the spirit (or ka) returned to the mummified body. So just imagine being asleep for millennia and then waking up to a crowd of strangers hovering over you, gawking at you, snapping pictures of you. You would find that incredibly invasive, right? Exploitive?

I read an article recently that touched on this. The author suggested that referring to them as “mummies” rather than “human remains” or “mummified persons” has dehumanized them and desensitized us to the fact that these were once living breathing people like you and I and that if museums took more care in emphasizing this fact, maybe spectators would take more care in respecting the honor and sacredness of these mummified bodies.

Personally, if you ask me, taking more care would mean leaving the mummies where they were buried. I surely don’t want my body on display in a museum 3,000 years after my death. Then again, would human civilization even still exist in 3,000 years? At the rate we’re headed, probably not, so I guess I have nothing to worry about.

Click images to read captions

Book of the Dead

Last but certainly not least, as a fan of The Mummy, you know I had to get a picture of the Book of the Dead. Though the real Book of the Dead is nothing like the version portrayed in the film. It’s a papyrus scroll that’s commonly buried with the body and contains directions and spells to guide the deceased through the dangerous obstacles and tests of the Underworld to get to the paradise of the afterlife.


“A” is for Arrival
“B” is for Buyer’s Remorse
“C” is for Cruisin’ the River Nile
“D” is for Delays, Delays, Delays
“E” is for Empty Tombs
“F” is for Fragrance
“G” is for Great Pyramid of Giza
“H” is for Hatshepsut
“I” is for Island Temple of Philae
“J” is for Just Engaged!
“K” is for Kom Ombo
“L” is for Luxor

This April for the A to Z Challenge, I’m sharing my experience of traveling to Egypt last month. These posts likely won’t be in chronological order, depending on what memory each letter strikes up, but if you’d like to follow me on this journey, subscribe below.

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