Cairo is a city of breathtaking contrasts. Aside from the obvious desert and Nile river comparisons, the most illuminating contrast in my mind is the world-famous Egyptian Museum, which exemplifies so much of the country. The museum houses 160,000 artifacts, though how many are actually on display is constantly in flux. The museum has been in its current location, Tahrir Square, since 1902.
First off — the outside of the building is absolutely mesmerizing. The neoclassical style against the blue desert sky is unforgettable. It sits gated off, still and immovable, against the absolute chaos and constant motion right outside.
But at security, you begin to suspect the museum is not quite as professional as the exterior would lead you to believe. When we presented our student IDs to the guards in order to purchase our tickets at half price, they passed them around for nearly ten minutes making jokes, questioning their veracity, our choice of clothing in the picture, when our hair looked better…
And the museum itself was a whole new level of surprising. We had all been tempted to wear jeans that day, thinking we would be walking around a cold museum all day. Not only was it not cold, the place wasn’t even air conditioned! Doors and windows were flung open, admitting 100+ degree Cairo dust and pollution. Few of the artifacts were protected in any way, not even a little rope or sign asking patrons to keep a respectful distance. Objects were placed hodge podge everywhere that they could fit. Those artifacts that were in cases looked like they could have been stolen without any difficulty, and, obviously, were neither temperature nor humidity controlled.
Arabs wrapped in layers of clothing stood next to half naked Europeans, both emitting odors offensive to my person. If it’s respect that some Arabs feel they don’t get from America, I take umbrage. I have seen hundreds of foreigners since being here and I have never seen an American in anything less than completely impractical, modest attire. Europeans, on the other hand, walk around in booty shorts and tube tops. I saw a roughly eight-year-old blonde girl in pigtail braids and no shirt whatsoever, and a 45-year-old man in the same get-up (minus the braids). Whatever issues people may have with us, at least in Egypt, I have seen Americans go to all extremes not to offend.
Moving on. The museum reminded me of a research project I conducted last summer regarding the repatriation of controversial museum artifacts, the Nefertiti bust included. The Germans have the bust, and just about every other artifact, in a sterile temperature and humidity controlled case, with UV shades drawn, and security cameras at every corner. Furthermore, they go out of their way to educate their patrons in multiple languages.
The Egyptian Museum, on the other hand, was so filthy and hot I thought I was going to pass out after just an hour, and I would gladly set up residence in any number of museums. There were hundreds of artifacts of immeasurable historical value lacking even a name or brief description so the patron could do research independently. Very few items were labeled, and for the few that were, the writing was in Arabic.
While returning the Nefertiti bust would arouse great national pride and many other fuzzy sentiments, what good will it do to send an object of priceless historical value to a museum where it may not survive another century?
I have come to realize that much of Egypt is a contrast, yet the old and new of Cairo seem to support one another. The Egyptian Museum stands still amid the constant onslaught of 17 million inhabitants in one of the densest cities in the world, providing a refuge and sense of identity. Desert and river, ancient and modern, conservative and nudist all seem to have a place.
I can imagine it no other way.
Author’s note: I wrote the post above in 2010, when I studied abroad at The American University in Cairo for a semester.