The Egyptian Museum, officially known as the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, and located in the heart of the Tahir Square in Cairo, is a unique building designed by the French architect Marcel Dourgnon to house the history of Egyptian civilization, especially the world’s oldest collection of Pharaonic and Greco-Roman antiquities. Initially, the Egyptian government founded the museum in 1835 near the Ezbekieh Garden, which was later moved to the Cairo Citadel.
However, for reasons unknown, the government gave away its collection of artifacts to an Austrian archduke in 1855, which are now housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Austria. Nevertheless, following the foundation of the new Egyptian Department of Antiquities by the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, a new museum was established in 1858 in a former warehouse located by the side of the River Nile in Boulaq. Unfortunately, the building suffered damage in 1878 due to the flooding of the Nile, and in 1891, the collections were shifted to the palace of Ismail Pasha in Giza. The collections remained in the palace until 1902 when they were finally transferred to the current building in Tahir Square. It is the first purpose-built museum in the region that inspired many others to emerge in the country during the 20th century.
The building of the Egyptian Museum, consisting of a basement plus two floors, and located in Downtown Maidan Al-Tahir, carefully preserves inside its pinkish walls the priceless treasures of Tutankhamun and some other great Pharaohs of Egypt recovered from their relative tombs, along with their mummies, jewelry, personal belongings, even the food bowls that were buried with them for their use in the afterlife as believed by the ancient Egyptians.
The museum includes a huge section housing numerous remarkable and invaluable artifacts and items belonging to a vital period of Egypt, the Old Kingdom in ancient Egyptian history, also known as the Period of the Builders of Pyramids. It also contains a vast collection of small statues of the servants carrying out their daily chores as a representation of everyday life during that time. As a part of the Old Kingdom, a statue of King Khafre, made out of alabaster, is displayed in the second half of the ground floor of the museum.
The Middle Kingdom period in Egypt started after the fall of the Old Kingdom, and the Egyptian Museum houses ten of the most remarkable statues made out of limestone belonging to the Middle Kingdom and portraying King Senusret I of the 12th dynasty. At the beginning of the 12th dynasty, the living condition of the Egyptians was significantly improved, along with its positive effect on arts and the artifacts. However, corruption and chaos among the nobles gave the opportunity to King Ahmose, who defeated the Hyksos and founded the18th dynasty, the first dynasty of the New Kingdom. However, the largest and most surprising exhibitions are from the New Kingdom, which spanned from 1650 to 1070 BC, when the Pharaohs embarked on extensive building programme for the glorification of the god and the king, constructing temples and erecting statues throughout the Nile Valley, and even into upper Nubia.
Designed specifically to house a large collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, the building of the Egyptian Museum is a splendid architecture that reflects the manifestation of the western imperialism that characterized the time in which it was constructed.
It has Italian Renaissance influence, the classic Greco-Roman columns and arches in the large halls, and the prominent reproduction of ancient Egyptian temples in the entrance of the inner halls. Although the façade includes images of Egyptian goddesses, they are executed in the late classical Greek style. Even the inscriptions on the marble panels are in Latin, a language unknown to most of the Egyptians, and for a prolonged period, the only busts that were included adjacent to the sarcophagus of Mariette were of the European Egyptologists. However, to make the structure strong enough to survive the challenges it has faced over the century, reinforced concrete material and specific Italian construction methods were used for the first time in Egypt for the construction of the museum building.
The main façade of the building divides the museum into two similar parts, and the visitors enter the museum through a grand porch in the centre of the main façade, where an elegant archway flanked by two Ionic columns is decorated with the head of the goddess Isis. There are two high-relief female figures set into the walls on either side, which represent the Upper and Lower Egypt or the Nile Valley and the delta. The basement is equipped with several intersecting vaults supported by pillars and weight-bearing walls to make them strong enough to satisfactorily carry the heavy load stored on the floor above. While the first floor of the museum building consists of a long corridor and 51 halls, the second floor is equipped with a similarly long corridor and 55 halls. Added to it, there are double-height rooms topped by a skylight and connected by an outer and an inner ring gallery on both floors, which surround the whole edifice. The distinctive feature of the building is the infiltration of natural light to sufficiently illuminate the exhibits and the ventilation system to allow the flow of natural air without any need for the addition of any artificial facility.
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo contains a huge collection of around 120,000 artifacts, which include about 1700 items from the tomb of Tutankhamen or King Tut, even the solid-gold mask that covered the head of the Pharaoh. Items that were recovered from the tombs of the great Pharaohs like Thutmosis III, Thutmosis IV, and Hatshepsut, the fifth Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty and the second historically confirmed female Pharaoh, along with several artifacts from the Valley of the Kings, especially the items discovered from the tombs of Tutankhamen, are arranged on the first floor. The Royal Mummy Hall, comprising of two special rooms, contains mummies of several renowned Pharaohs which include Egypt’s most powerful Pharaoh Ramesses II, Seti I of the Nineteenth Dynasty, and Queen Hatshepsut.
Apart from numerous jewelry, papyri, coins, textiles, and wooden sarcophagi, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo also contains several statues which include, among others, a black granite sculpture of Queen Nefertiti of the Eighteenth Dynasty, a statue of Queen Hetepheres of the fourth Dynasty, a granite statue of Queen Hatshepsut, a sculpture of Amenhotep II as well as the colossal statue of Amenhotep III, the ninth Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty and his Great Royal Wife Tiye. The museum also houses a small but selected collection of Fayum portraits, also known as Mummy portraits from the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
Unfortunately, during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, also known as the 25 January Revolution, the museum was attacked by some miscreants and was vandalized, when some of the valuable artifacts were stolen, and several others were reported to be damaged. However, several of the lost items were later recovered. In a revolutionary move, Wafaa El Saddik was appointed in 2004 as the first female director-general of the museum.