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Cairo's Egyptian Museum, Filled with Art of the Pharoahs

Cairo, Egypt

Cairo's Egyptian Museum houses the world’s best collection of ancient Egyptian art, including art for the pharaohs dating from about 3000 to 1000 BC.

Complete Video Script

The iconic sights of ancient Egypt — four or five thousand years old — are basically buildings and art for dead people. Back then, they believed you could take it with you. And your big challenge: to be sure your body and your valuables survived the journey into the afterlife. That's why, if you had the power and money, you'd lock everything up in a big tomb — a pyramid. These are the most famous: the Pyramids of Giza.

But the oldest pyramid is actually nearby at Saqqara, the tomb of the king or pharaoh named Zoser. This structure — which marked his tomb — is a "step pyramid." Dating from around 2600 BC, it's a century older than its more famous sisters at Giza. This first-ever towering stone structure is more than just a grave marker. With an innovative stacking of layers, it provided a new way to glorify a king: [by] creating a stairway to eternity.

A visit to Cairo's Egyptian Museum helps bring the country's many ancient sights to life. Along with the Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza, this museum shows off the best collection of ancient Egyptian art anywhere. The core of the collection, art from the age of the pharaohs, dates from about 3000 to 1000 BC.

Nearly everything filling these old halls is funerary art, art designed to help save the souls of the pharaohs: statues filled with symbolism, written prayers, and offerings to deal with the gods and help assure a happy transition into the afterlife.

This ancient art is so well-preserved because most of it was hidden away for 4,000 years, dark and dry, in tombs. This portrayal of geese from 2500 BC is perhaps the oldest surviving painting. This "seated scribe" recalls the importance of the educated elite in the court of an often-illiterate king. And this couple — a husband and wife — was also found in a tomb. It's all art for the dead, locked up until rediscovered in modern times.

Many mummies patiently await your visit. Ancient Egyptians preserved bodies through a complex process of mummification in hopes that the soul could re-inhabit it in the next world.

And the coffins were elaborately painted with an inventory of things that, hopefully, would accompany the body, and with prayers — to be sure all went as planned.

The art looks essentially the same from century to century. A remarkable thing about ancient Egyptian art and society as a whole was its stability. For 2,000 years — from 3000 to 1000 BC — relative to other times and other cultures, very little changed.

Religion permeated Egyptian society. As long as things were going reasonably well, the gods were happy — and it was status quo. Every year the Nile would flood, bringing water and fertile silt to the land. When the gods are happy, the people have food — and you don't change things.

And the pharaoh was considered a god. If your leader is a god, you question nothing. You obey the rules. Things stay the same.

Akhenaten was the one exception in a 2,000-year line of conformist pharaohs. Rather than the same, predictable idealized features, Akhenaten had his own voluptuous looks — from a strangely curvaceous body to big sensuous lips. Ruling around 1400 BC, he was considered history's first monotheist. Akhenaten replaced all the gods of the Egyptian pantheon with one all-powerful being, the sun god, whom he called "Aten."

In reliefs from the reign of Akhenaten we see Aten — the sun — shining down on everything. During the time of Akhenaten, people were portrayed looser, more intimately. Casual family scenes? Must be from the time of Akhenaten.

As always, I appreciate the services of a guide, so I'll understand the symbolism and know what to look for. So, we're joined by my friend and fellow guide, Marwa Abbas.

She explained how lots of ancient hieroglyphic writing on papyrus survives, and how it helps us better understand the mysteries of the pharaohs.

Marwa: Papyrus is made out of the stem of the plant papyrus. Which is hammered and then it is woven and then we press it in a pressing machine or stones to get those beautiful papers. These are the hieroglyphs, one of the most ancient written languages because of which we understood a lot about the civilization of ancient Egypt.

So, these are beautiful paintings of the afterlife. Even in the afterlife they were trying to bribe the gods and deities in order to help them in the afterlife path. Even here in front of the judge Osiris is a big offering pile of lotus, onions, oxen leg, as well as breads and vegetables.

Rick: Anything to make the god happy.
Marwa: Anything to make him happy.

The son of Akhenaten was Tutankhamun, perhaps the most famous pharaoh. A highlight of the museum's collection is a section filled with King Tut's treasures, from his splendid coffin to his jewelry.

Rick: This is exquisite.
Marwa: It is a beautiful piece of the jewelry of Tutankhamun around the year 1300 BC made out gold, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and you can see the beautiful symbolism over here, where you can see the scarab, the sign of existence, as well as the sun disc. The cobra is wearing the crowns of upper and lower Egypt as well as the ankh, symbol of life. The ancient Egyptians used to mummify their bodies and also mummified their organs. King Tutankhamun around the year 1300 BC had his organs inside this beautiful alabaster box and that was also inside a wooden gilded beautiful box that had the surroundings of the four goddesses for protection. So it was always about protection.

The mask of Tut looks like his face so his soul could recognize him on his journey to the afterlife. Placed over the head of his mummy, it was 24 pounds of gold, with a cobra and a vulture to symbolize the united kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt, which Tut proudly ruled.