Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Founded in 1902, the Egyptian Museum, or Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, is Egypt’s largest museum that houses ancient Egyptian antiquities.  It also currently houses Egypt’s most famous archaeological objects.  Located in Tahrir Square, a central square in downtown Cairo, it experienced some looting and damage during Egypt’s 2011 revolution. 

I had the opportunity to visit the Egyptian Museum at the end of 2010, right before the political turmoil began.  The Museum was built when Britain had a presence in Egypt, so something about it somehow reminded me of the British Museum.  However, it was no British Museum.  It seemed as if half of its objects on display did not have signage, or clear signage.  Additionally, some objects seemed to be stuffed into corners, because of the lack of space.  Many of the objects were out in the open, unprotected, so that you could easily touch them. 

Because of the lack of space and protection, Egypt is currently working on distributing its archaeological objects among two additional museums.  The first is the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, which partially opened in 2017, and has ties with UNESCO.  The second is the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is supposed to open in 2020, however, with the COVID-19 situation, perhaps this may change.  Construction on this latter museum began in 2002, and is located near the Giza Pyramids, which is probably Egypt’s top tourist attraction.  Currently, the treasures of King Tut’s (Tutankhamun’s) tomb are located in the Egyptian Museum, but will be moved into the Grand Egyptian Museum once it is completed.  King Tut’s tomb is famous, because it was the first royal tomb archaeologists found untouched by looters.

In order to enter the Egyptian Museum, you need to go through security.  However, in order to enter the room that stores the valuable treasures of King Tut’s tomb, you need to pass through additional security.  Unfortunately, I went to the Egyptian Museum near closing time, so I had to rush through the room containing his treasures.  Although King Tut’s treasures are currently in the Egyptian Museum, his actual body is in the Valley of the Kings, where he was originally buried and discovered.  When British archaeologist, Howard Carter, discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922, his team had trouble removing Tut’s body from his sarcophagus, so his head is no longer connected to his body.  However, you would not know this by visiting the Valley of the Kings, because King Tut’s body is displayed under a blanket, with only his head and feet visible.

The Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt, where pharaohs from the New Kingdom were buried, including King Tutankhamun. I could not take photos at the tombs, so had to take one from the parking lot.

In addition to King’s Tut’s treasures, the Egyptian Museum houses many other famous objects and mummies, including many animal mummies.  The human mummies include the bodies of pharaohs, such as Ramesses II.  He was around 90 years old at the time of his death, and his mummy has red hair (which may be because of the embalming?).  Some scholars believe that Ramesses II was the ruling pharaoh during the time of Moses.  If he was, then Ramesses II’s mummy is the only Biblical character that you can actually still see.

Two other noteworthy artifacts at the Egyptian Museum are the Narmer Palette and the Merneptah Stele.  The Narmer Palette depicts the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt during the Early Dynastic Period under King Narmer.  The Merneptah Stele (a stele is a vertical stone monument) describes Pharaoh Merneptah’s battle victories.  Its fame comes from the fact that one of the defeated enemies mentioned on it is “Israel.”  Thus, this stone is the oldest reference to Israel ever found.  When I visited the Egyptian Museum, the Merneptah Stele was located in a back corner without a sign, and unprotected.  On this tall stone monument, the word “Israel” was easy to identify in the carved hieroglyphic text, even if you could not read hieroglyphs.  This is because the word was worn down by so many people touching it, giving it a different color than the rest of the stone.  Unfortunately, I could not resist the temptation, and touched it too.

Professor Anson Rainey believed that Pharaoh Merneptah’s inscriptions at the Karnak Temple complex in Luxor, Egypt, depict the Israelites that are mentioned on the Merneptah Stele.

Photography is not allowed in the Egyptian Museum.  I did not try it, but I was told that you can bribe the guards if you really wanted a photo.  That rule apparently applied to other places in Egypt as well.  As a final note, I do not recommend females walking through the Egyptian Museum by themselves.  Whenever I did, the security guards would start coming towards me to start an unwanted conversation with me, so I then found a male friend from my group, and stayed with him.

Sources and Further Reading

Mark, Joshua J. “Tutankhamun.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. April 1, 2014. https://www.ancient.eu/Tutankhamun/ (accessed April 4, 2020).

Mullen, Dene. “Will This Be the End of the Legendary Egyptian Museum.” Daily Beast. July 13, 2019. https://www.thedailybeast.com/kushner-stockpile-claim-totally-at-odds-with-trumps-record?ref=scroll (accessed April 4, 2020).

“Project History.” National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. https://nmec.gov.eg/en/story/1096/Project-History (accessed April 4, 2020).

Rainey, Anson F. “Rainey’s Challenge.” Biblical Archaeology Society Online Library. https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/17/6/1 (accessed April 4, 2020).

Ancient Near Eastern Motifs

Del el-Bahari in Luxor, Egypt has an extensive mortuary temple complex.  In Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, some of the artwork was not exposed to the elements, so it is amazingly well-preserved and vivid in color.

In one section of the temple, you can see a winged sun disk, which is a common Ancient Egyptian motif. The sun disk often represented the Egyptian god Ra, later combined with Amun to become Amun-Ra.  Wings were often associated with the falcon god Horus, who also had a connection with the sun.

When I was at Deir el-Bahari, it was pointed out that this Egyptian iconography may be why the Bible used Ancient Near Eastern motifs that were familiar to people.  For instance, Malachi 4:1-2 (ESV) says:

”For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble.  The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”

Although I have not found verification, I was told that in addition to connections with the sun, Horus also had a connection with healing and protection.  Other Biblical references about healing or protection under wings can be found in Ruth 2:12, Psalm 57:1, and Psalm 91:4.

Here is a faded depiction of a winged-disk at the entrance of the Edfu Temple of Horus, who was later associated with the Greek sun god Apollo. This Temple was built by the Hellenistic Ptolemies, who would have had a greater connection with the Greek deities than with the Egyptian ones.

As I was thinking about Ancient Egyptian wing motifs, I was reminded of other Ancient Near Eastern deities related to the sun that also have wings.  For instance, the god Utu or Shamash was a sun deity among several Ancient Near Eastern peoples such as the Sumerians.  Interestingly, the word for “sun” in Hebrew is shemesh, in Arabic is shems, and in Aramaic is shimsha, meaning that these Semitic languages probably took their word for “sun” from this sun deity or vice versa.

The Ancient Assyrians later used very similar winged-disk iconography for their sun deity Ashur, which is where the word “Assyria” derives from.  Later, the pre-Islamic Persians used this iconography for their Zoroastrian symbol Faravahar.  I now wonder if there is a connection between the use of these birds of prey to represent chief deities / the power of a king manifested as a god, to the future use of eagles by more modern nations.  For instance, Ancient Rome used the eagle as its military symbol, which later led many modern nations such as Germany and the United States to also adopt the eagle as a national symbol. Interestingly, the current Egyptian flag also has an eagle depicted on it.

One final note about Egyptian sun deities.  One Egyptian god, Khepri, represented the sun but was depicted as a dung beetle or scarab. This is because when a beetle rolls a round piece of dung, it looks like a god moving the sun across the sky.  The 2019 Lion King film has a great scene depicting a dung beetle doing this. 

This is a dung beetle at Bet She’an, Israel.

This is the dung beetle god, Khepri, deppicted on a statue at the Karnak Temple.



Sources and Further Reading

“Egyptian Symbols: Winged Sun.” Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. http://egyptian-gods.org/egyptian-symbols-winged-sun/ (accessed September 1, 2019).

Mark, Joshua J. “Ancient Egyptian Symbols.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. February 10, 2017. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1011/ancient-egyptian-symbols/ (accessed September 1, 2019).