The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization

To watch the Egyptian history closely, and to know more about the different concepts and thoughts of more than six civilizations lived in harmony with each other on the same land, I decided to visit the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Al-Fustat, Cairo. Al-Fustat is one of the most unique cities not only in Egypt but in the Arab world too and it was the capital of Egypt for hundreds of years when Amr Ibn Al-as and his army entered Egypt in 641 A.D and he chose it to be the capital. Its location is distinctive and it is near many historic sites in Old Cairo like the Citadel of Salah Al-Din, the Hanging Church, the Coptic Museum, Amr Ibn Al-as Mosque, Ibn Ezra Temple. When I was on my way to the museum, I saw some of the previous historic sites and buildings which was a valuable warm up to start my visit to the museum.

The entrance of the museum was wide and white so visitors I saw didn’t feel the crowd, and the large number of ramps helped disabled visitors to enjoy their visit. The design of the museum makes it easy to see the dimensions of the museum clearly thanks to Al-Ghazali Kassibah who designed the museum. The story began when UNESCO cooperated with Egypt to launch a contest to choose the perfect design for the new museum and Kassibah won. Al-Fustat wasn’t the first chosen location, but another place near The Cairo Opera House was the chosen place to build the museum, then the decision about the location changed to be Al-Fustat. The museum was partially opened in 2017 and it was completely opened in 2021. The world watched the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade in April 2021 when 22 royal mummies were moved from the Egyptian Museum in Al-Tahrir Square to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. The pandemic wasn’t an obstacle and in February 2022 the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization broke the record of number of visitors since its opening.

The museum overlooks Ein El-Sira Lake which makes the museum not only a historic and a cultural destination, but the view of the lake makes visitors feel the same feeling when they watch the Nile from the top of a building or a bridge. When I entered the main building of the museum, I went towards another wide gate to see the lake and the gardens outside.

The museum houses 50000 exhibits summarize the Egyptian history and legacy, so it is like a time machine transports visitors to thousands of years ago to know the story from the Prehistoric Period till the 20th century in just five or six hours with listening to the background music of the museum.

There was a hall on the left-hand side dedicated to textiles, hair and beauty, garments in Egypt throughout history, and collections dating back to Mohamad Ali Dynasty (19th century-mid-20th century). But I preferred to go to see exhibits dating back to the Prehistoric Period because that would be better chronologically. The written elaboration differentiated between the Prehistoric Period (2,300,000 B.C) and the Predynastic Period (3100 B.C- 9000 B.C). The explanations help visitors who think that the Prehistoric Period and the Predynastic Period are the same.

The Skeleton of Nazlet Khater (35000 years ago, Prehistoric Period) is very popular and it always attract visitors’ attention. The skeleton was found near Nazlet Khater village, Sohag (Upper Egypt). As usual, carrying heavy weights destroys bones and joints, in Khater’s case the shape of this young man’s backbone confirms that he carried heavy weights, maybe his job needed carrying heavy weights.

Naqada is a city in Qena on the west bank of the Nile River, Upper Egypt. Naqada culture (Naqada’s three phases lasted from 3800B.C to 3050 B.C) is considered as one of the main seeds of the ancient Egyptian civilization. So, when I saw potteries dating back to Naqada culture just a few meters away from Nazlet Khater Skeleton, I walked towards them and stared at the decorations of the potteries which revealed the development of decorations and designs happened at that time and I found that obviously when I saw potteries dating back to Naqada II with their beige color and shapes of plants, boats, and birds which were all in red.

Statues of sphinx were created for guarding and the Great Sphinx of Giza created for King Khafre (4th Dynasty) is the most beloved one with its famous broken nose. Its existence in the Old Kingdom in ancient Egypt confirmed the sphinx’s role and the followed kingdoms and rulers inherited the same concept. The NMEC houses the Sphinx of King Amenemhat III, Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, made of black granite. Its head was partially broken and it was one of the statues in front of the temple of Amenemhat III in Fayoum.

There was another statue of a sphinx belongs to the Ptolemaic Period in Egypt (Macedonian Greek dynasty ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great 305B.C-30 B.C). I felt that the two sphinxes showed the Ptolemaic rulers’ attempts to mix the two civilizations. They did their best to form a fusion between the ancient Egyptian culture and the ancient Greek culture. So, they decided to put statues of sphinx in front of their temples to strengthen the mix.

The statue of Hapi the Scribe motivated me to leave the Ptolemaic period to return back to the 19th Dynasty, New Kingdom. Scribes enjoyed a very high status in ancient Egypt and Hapi was the administrative supervisor of the temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak. Sculpturing him holding a papyrus shows his pride, like doctors and lawyers in the Modern History and at the present time who show their pride when they take photos wearing their white coats and their black robes.

The collection of the tomb of Sennedjm (19th Dynasty) was the main cause to stay longer watching exhibits belong to this dynasty. Sennedjm was an artisan and he decorated royal tombs. The funerary masks of his wife and his daughter in law caught my eyes. There were colorful potteries, his coffin, funerary furniture.

There were exhibits showed other features like music, medicine, fishing, and trading. For example, there were drawings of a banquet and a musical band on an ostracon (19th Dynasty, Limestone). There were models of boats and ships in different size. The museum provides digital display screens which attract the attention of those who find reading the written elaboration on pieces of papers beside exhibits boring.

If you see a crowd around a shiny coffin, you should know that it is the famous gilded coffin of Nedjemankh which was looted in 2011 and news about it spread everywhere till it returned to Egypt in 2019. The coffin’s length is about 2 meters covered with funerary hymns from the Book of the Dead. He was a priest of the god Heryshef, Ptolemaic Period (305 B.C-30 B.C).

The Statue of Pen-Menkh gave me a clue that exhibits belong to the Roman Period in Egypt were so close because Pen-Menkh witnessed the end of the Hellenistic era and the dramatic end of Queen Cleopatra VII after the Battle of Actium. He was the Governor of Dandarah, Qena (Upper Egypt). The statue reveals the complementary method between the ancient Egyptian style and the ancient Greek style. This could be seen obviously in the sculpturing way used for sculpturing the statue’s arms and head. The statue was in The Alexandria National Museum before it relocated in the NMEC in Cairo.

The Douche Treasure (2nd Century A.D) is one of the most valuable exhibits in the museum. When Romans ruled Egypt after the collapsing of the Ptolemaic Dynasty and the end of the Hellenistic era, they realized that Egypt was a main source of wheat and yields so they paid attention to the strategical location of the Western Desert in Egypt and its safety to deliver supplies to the rest of the empire. The treasure was found in Kharga Oasis, Western Desert, and it was hidden in the wall of the Roman fort, Douche. There were the two necklaces, bracelets… but the crown captured my attention. I felt that god Serapis (Graeco- Egyptian deity) and his position at the entrance of a temple dominated, and it took time to see all the details of the tiny sculptures of other gods and goddesses like Harpocrates, god of silence.

The crown of The Douche Treasure
PHOTOGRAPH BY Lobna Samy

Setting on one of the desks in the hall to have a rest was my decision before continuing. I left the B.C and reached to the A.D. I liked the Epaggelia which means the place of the Bible. Some inherited decorations were used for decorating the Epaggelia especially the shape of a lion hunting a prey. There were amazing Coptic textiles and one of them showed a beautiful lady wearing jewels (6th- 7th century A.D).

Group of students gathered around the ceramic vessels with oriental decorations, wooden doors inlaid with ivory, decorated censers belong to the Fatimid Period and the Mamluk Period because some of them saw the same in Khan Al-Khalili (the most famous bazaar in Historic Cairo). I liked the Mamluk lamps (mishkawat) (Mamluk rulers ruled from 1250 to 1517). Mishkawat are glass lamps decorated with Arabic calligraphy, and a wick of cotton and clean oil were used. Mishkawat were used for lighting mosques and schools and they are still used as decoration items. In the same section I saw a reddish light brown Ottoman period carpet with diamonds and rectangular shapes. Its style was very popular in the 19th century in Egypt.

When I reached to the exhibits belong to the Modern age (20th century) I saw the statue of the Female Peasant by the iconic Egyptian sculptor, Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891-1934). Egyptians have depended on farming for thousands of years and peasants always represent the Egyptian soul. Mahmoud Mokhtar put the important role of the Egyptian women in ancient Egypt and her deep relation with the countryside in front of his eyes to sculpture a modern statue showing the continuity of this deep relation.

Then, groups of visitors including me, stood silently with concentration watching the fantastic multimedia show. The background music and the pictures of coffins, mummies, symbols, inscriptions… motivated me to go downstairs to visit The Royal Mummies Hall. “Photography is not allowed inside the Royal Mummies Hall” said one of the employees. The hall was like the Royal tombs in Luxor and I had to follow the drawn white arrows to see all of the mummies. There were tens of people but no one said a word, we just looked carefully and walked slowly. After finishing, a group of visitors said that they came to see the mummies of Queen Ahmose-Nefertari, Queen Hatshepsut, and King Ramses II but when they finished their visit, they realized that they had to expand their knowledge about all the mummies in the hall (22 mummies).

After that, I went to the hall dedicated to textiles. There were written elaboration about using flax in ancient Egypt, a statue of the overseer of the royal textiles his name was Merer-Nisut (4th Dynasty). One of the attractive exhibits was a model of a textile workshop (11th Dynast) and I felt that it showed the tailors vividly. There were statues of ladies showed the development of fashion during the Graeco-Roman period in Egypt and there was a Tunic belongs to the Roman Period with ancient Egyptian myths’ scenes. Some folk textiles from Sinai and Nubia were displayed. In the higher floor of the hall, there were shiny jewels, gold medals, precious watches, all dating back to Muhammad Ali Dynasty (19th Century-mid 20th Century). There was a big black and white photo of the service fashion during the rule of the Muhammad Ali Dynasty.

At the end of my visit, I realized that I took tens and tens of photos of the exhibits because I believe that photos show details that words cannot explain. I have concluded that visitors could see developments and changes happened in Egypt throughout history closely and accurately in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization and that’s why I recommend it. Museum opening hours at 9:00 AM- 5:00 PM each day of the week, Friday 9:00 AM- 5:00 PM and 6:00 PM- 9:00 PM.

The website of the museum is www.nmec.gov.eg.

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Lobna Samy

Lobna Samy, lives in Cairo, Egypt. I’m working on my book about the phases of some ancient Egyptian arts. Bachelor Degree of Arts and Education- Specialty: History, Ain Shams University. Writing, museums and historic sites, colloquia, photographing, all the previous form my life.

Twitter @LobnaSamy15