Cairo is a city of breathtaking contrasts and irreconcilable harmony. Aside from the obvious desert and Nile River comparisons, the most poignant and illuminating contrast in my mind is the famous Egyptian Museum, which exemplifies so much of Egypt. The museum displays some 136,000 artifacts, and Lord knows how many more lie undocumented in basement storerooms. The museum has been in its current location, Tahrir Square, since 1902.
First off – the outside of the building is absolutely mesmerizing. The neoclassical style against the blue desert sky, slightly modified to Egyptian tastes, is unforgettable. It sits gated off, still and immovable, against the absolute chaos and constant motion right outside. You begin to notice that the museum is not quite as professional as the exterior would lead you to believe at the security checkpoint. When we presented our student IDs to the guards in order to purchase our tickets at half price, they passed them around for nearly ten minutes making jokes, questioning their veracity, our choice of clothing in the picture, when our hair looked better …
It was upon entering the museum itself that we were forced to determine that all was not as it seemed. We had all been tempted to wear jeans that day, thinking that we would be shuffling around in a cold museum all day long. Not only was it not cold, the place wasn’t even air conditioned! All of the doors and windows were flung open, admitting 100+ degree Cairo dust and pollution. Few of the artifacts were protected in any way whatsoever; there was not even a little rope or sign asking patrons to keep a respectful distance. Objects were placed hodgepodge everywhere that they could fit. Those artifacts that were covered looked like they could have been opened with a strong flick of the wrist, and, obviously, were neither temperature nor humidity controlled like most other major museums of the world.
Arabs wrapped in layers of clothing stood next to half naked Europeans, both emitting odors offensive to my person. If it is respect that some Arabs feel they don’t get from America, I take umbrage. I have seen hundreds of foreigners since being here, and I have never seen an American in anything less than completely impractical, modest attire. Europeans, on the other hand, walk around in booty shorts and tube tops. I saw a roughly eight-year-old girl in braids and no shirt whatsoever, and a 45-year-old man comporting himself in the same curious fashion (minus the braids). Whatever issues some may have with us, at least in Egypt, I have seen Americans go to all extremes not to offend. Hopefully it’s not some form of modern attire appeasement.
Moving on. The museum reminded me of a research project I conducted last summer regarding the repatriation of controversial museum artifacts, the Nefertiti bust included. The Germans have the bust, and just about every other artifact, in a sterile temperature and humidity controlled case, with UV shades drawn, and security cameras at every corner. Furthermore, they go out of their way to educate their patrons, which is, presumably why they frequent museums in the first place.
The Egyptian Museum, contrastingly, was filthy and stinky – I thought I was going to pass out after only an hour and a half, and I would gladly set up residence in any number of museums. There were hundreds of artifacts of immeasurable historical value, lacking even a name to identify it so the patron could do research independently. Nothing was labeled, and if it was, it was in indecipherable Arabic.
Aside from the illegality of imposing a law after the fact, I am convinced that, while the Egyptians would obviously love to have Nefertiti back, and there would be national pride and many other fuzzy sentiments aroused, they simply cannot take care of her, or any of the hundreds of thousands of artifacts they are currently housing. The place was APPALLING.
I have come to realize that much of Egypt is a contrast – the outside of a building is often misleading. From the conversations I have had and classes I have taken, I have come to learn that much of this part of the world embodies such traits in their personalities. Integrity and character mean much less than one’s appearance. It is more important to be perceived as important and respected than to actually be important and respected. Losing face is to be avoided at almost all costs.
But strangely the old and new of Cairo seem to support one another. Ancient buildings not only stand strong against the constant onslaught of 17 million inhabitants in one of the densest cities in the world, they seem to provide a refuge and a sense of identity. Desert and river, ancient and modern, conservative and nudist all seem to have a place – I can imagine it no other way.
(In photo: Felluca boats grace the modern Cairo skyline.)
P.S. Except for the artifacts in the museums. I would like to see those properly taken care of.