Egypt’s Astonishing History

When we arrived in Egypt, we were anxious to visit the Egyptian Museum in Cairo as it is home to 120,000 objects from the prehistoric to Greco-Roman era. The Egyptian government established the ‘Service des Antiques de l’Egypte’ in 1835, mainly to halt the plundering of archeological sites and to arrange the exhibition of the collected artifacts owned by the government. The present museum was built in 1900, in the neo-classical style. After a number of days in Cairo, we were reintroduced to large groups of Western tourists who are bussed to the museum and the pyramids from their comfortable hotels, by and large, missing the rest of Cairo.

The most famous attraction at the museum is the headpiece and funerary artifacts of King Tutankhamun. 1700 artifacts from the tomb of Tutankhamun are on dispay in the museum. Although the tomb of King Tut was one of the smallest and least flamboyant, it is extremely important because, unlike the larger and more lavish tombs, his was found intact, in 1922 by Englishman, Howard Carter. The find was a huge bonus to Egyptology and our guide at the museum spoke of Carter with great respect. Many other similar tombs have been pilfered by local and foreign thieves and archaeologists.

The 5000 year long history of Ancient Egypt has been divided into 8 or 9 periods. There were three recognised periods of prosperity and unity, the Old, Middle and New kingdoms, flanked and seperated by intermediate periods when Egypt was ruled by provincial, divided rulers. Tutankhamun, the boy-king, ascended the throne against a background of political and religious unrest, around 1,300BC. With his accession, the Amarna interlude was brought to an end, and the country gradually regained its traditional beliefs. The young king was to rule Egypt for nine years, although the real power was in the firm hands of others. Due to his sudden premature death, his tomb was prepared hastily.

The Egyptian Museum has many displays of interest to ogling visitors, including the royal Mummy Room where a dozen famous pharaohs lie in state. We came face-to-face with the exposed mummified head of Rameses II, the greatest pharaoh of all time. Towards the end of the New Kingdom, Ramesis II left many extravagent monuments to his 67 year rule, including the Sun temple of Ramesis himself and the Hathor temple of his favourite wife, Nefertari, at Abu Simbel in Southern Egypt. Like every other visitor to Cairo, we did not want to miss out on a trip to the Pyramids. We took a metro towards the Giza Plateau, on the West Bank of the Nile, and then a taxi to the entrance of the fenced area of desert, touts, tourists, tourist police, one sphinx and nine pyramids. It’s bizarre to drive through busy Cairo and spot a pale yellow pyramid, surviving since Egypt’s Old Kingdom, peeping through a gap in the buildings and billboards.

Once we’d finished haggling with the taxi driver, we walked straight up to the Sphinx, with its monumental proportions, feline body, and human facial features. It stretches 73meters in length and reaches 20 meters in height. The Sphinx was carved out of a single outcropping of rock around the time of the construction of the Pyramid of Khafre, around 2500 BC, and the features are thought to be those of King Khafre wearing the royal nemes headdress.

The Pyramid of Khufu is the largest of the three principal pyramids on the Giza Plateau, the oldest, yet the only surviving of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. I wish I could say I was speechless, but having heard about the pyramids since childhood, I thought they could have been a little taller, the blocks a little larger and the Sphinx a little bit mightier. Still, it was pretty impressive to stand in the shadow of these monuments to a highly advanced ancient civilisation.

We both made the crouched climb down and up into the centre of the Pyramid of Khafre to stand below 136 meters of rock. The uppermost part of this pyramid still has it’s original polished limestone veneer, which must have looked quite stunning when complete. The Pyramid is flanked on either side the pyramids of Khufu and Menkaure. Although there is much speculation regarding the basis for these extravagant, geometrically significant structures, one thing is certain; like other tombs of Pharoes along the Nile, they were tombs where royalty such as Khufu, Khefre, and Menkaure could start their mystic journey to the afterlife.

– Written by Malachy Harty and published in The Imokilly People

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