Then and Now


This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, June 02, 2004 was originally posted on June 04, 2004.

DAY 228:  Unless you’ve been comatose for most of your life, you already know that one of the greatest civilizations of ancient history was the Egyptian one.  You know of the pharaohs and the mummies and the pyramids and the hieroglyphics, which comedian Billy Crystal once theorized where just “a comic strip about a guy named Sphinxy.”  However, it’s one thing to read about all these things in a school history book, it’s another to be there in Egypt and see the old artifacts of ancient society juxtaposed to the modern one.

For me, Egyptian history was taught in the sixth grade by my history teacher Mr. Luderer, who had been to Egypt himself.  I remember the day he showed us a slide show of his trip to Egypt and remembering how, as an eleven-year-old, I thought Egypt was a far off exotic place I’d probably never go to.  That was then in 1986, but now in 2004 I had made it to see just for myself, the artifacts I had seen in textbook and slideshow photos.

Most of these artifacts were located in the Egyptian Museum (picture above), just on the other side of Tahrir Square from my hotel.  After a haircut and dining on the backpacker staple shawarma (in its home region finally), I went over to the museum, which was more like a fortress with its small army of armed officers protecting its precious historical valuables inside.  You might have thought it was a presidential palace with all the security — even cameras had to be checked in at the gate since absolutely no photography was allowed inside, only at the statues outside.  Metal detectors, bag x-rays and body frisks were common upon entering the building.

Unlike museums in New York, there wasn’t much of an exhibition design to the place.  I mean, everything was in order in specific rooms, but there wasn’t any good signage pointing you to this way or that way or telling you what’s what.  I’d say a good 90% of the tourists inside didn’t need them because they were in big package tour groups with stickers on their shirts, following around a guide with a flag or colored sign to led the herd around.  For me, the independent traveler, my option was to rent a digital guide, a little interactive Pocket PC palm computer with a touch screen that led me on self-tailored tours around the century-old museum’s 92 galleries and showrooms.  At twenty Egyptian pounds, it came with a carrying case and a headset; all the text on the screen was spoken to me in a computerized voice, which made the whole experience feel like a personally guide tour by Stephen Hawkings himself.

The highlights of the museums were two main exhibitions, the first being the mummy room, which required an additional fee to get into.  Inside were the well-preserved remains of eleven kings and queens who ruled Egypt between 1552 and 1069 B.C.  For fifteen years, they had been put away because of cultural and bureaucratic refusal to show them to the public, they now they had returned to the museum in a cold, climate-controlled environment with very tight security. 

According to the voice of Stephen Hawkings, most of the mummies were of men and women who died in their 40s, preserved in different qualities of embalming.  The mummy of King Sequenre still had his brain in his skull cavity, the mummy of Tuthosis IV still had his hair.  The bodies of the dead pharaohs were incredible; you could even still make out their facial features and what they looked like when they were alive 3,500 years ago.  Before me stared the faces of Amenhotep I, Queen Nedjemet and other mummies not bandaged up like the old Hollywood stereotype, but in clothes with their hands folded — some with skin still on the bone.  I really wanted to take photos of it all, but I surrendered my little spy camera as well.  It was a good thing I did though, so I wouldn’t be tempted; a guy with a cell phone camera was caught shooting photos and was totally busted by police officers.

USING THE INTERACTIVE MAP on my rented Pocket PC, Stephen Hawkings’ voice led me to the prized possession of the Egyptian Museum, the treasures of King Tutankhamen (or “Tut” for short), the most complete royal treasure ever found.    It may be noteworthy to mention that it was actually found by accident by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922, when he was commissioned to excavate something else near the Valley of the Kings.

Stephen Hawkings’ interactive map wasn’t really necessary because all I had to do was follow the herds and herds of French, Japanese and American tourists marching the hallways to see the exhibition.  The centerpiece of Tut’s treasures was his famous gold mask (photo of a postcard) — the definitive image of Egyptian artifacts on the cover of most books — designed in the exact facial image of the former pharaoh so that his soul would recognize his face in the afterlife.  Above his face were figures of a vulture and cobra, to represent kinship and protection respectively.  No longer was it in a book but right before me in an encased glass box, lit dramatically in the center of the room.  If it weren’t for all the tourists around, it might have looked like the set of a Hollywood heist movie. 

Nearby where the inner and middle coffins of Tutankhamen (one placed inside the other for maximum protection) — the outer one and the mummy remain at the site in Luxor — which were equally impressive.  However, the crowds seemed to be a bit too much and it took away from the thrill of being in its presence.

Howard Carter found 3,850 artifacts of the 18th dynasty in the tomb of Tutankhamen, and most of them where on display for people to see (but not photograph), from the royal throne and footrest to shawabtis (figurines) to all the weapons, boomerangs, toys, pottery, chariots and jewelry Tut was taking with him to the afterlife.  Very exciting stuff; it was no wonder it was such a tourist draw.  I think I might have even heard a slight inflection of excitement in Stephen Hawkings’ voice.

WHILE THE MUMMIES AND THE TREASURES OF TUTANKHAMEN were the highlights of the museum, they only comprised about a quarter of the collection, if not less.  There were still many other artifacts to see from the other pharaohs of the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms of Egypt, the treasures from the Royal Tombs of Tanis, plus some Greco-Roman artifacts.  Walking the ground floor I walked passed engraved stone monoliths, a couple of which I totally remember from Mr. Luderer’s history class in the sixth grade.  It’s funny how images of the past can suddenly become vivid again in your mind when you are in its presence.

AFTER AN AFTERNOON IN EGYPT’S PAST, it was time to explore its present.  Egypt has come a long way since the days of the pharaohs.  Once a great civilization, it eventually evolved into a great modern city — a few thousand years has that sort of effect I guess.  No longer were Egyptian citizens slaving away to build pyramids for their rulers or obsessed with collecting things for their own afterlives.  Today they were smoking hookahs at sidewalk bars or running their own businesses or going to the movies. 

I joined the locals at an early evening showing of the just-released third Harry Potter film, which was almost like the theater experience in the States.  Sure it was full of the usual parents bringing their kids, or teenagers going in groups — including the one group of teenage girls in teenybopper fashion with teenybopper cell phones discussing how one of their boyfriends think that “Buffy’s hot!”  (Unlike the traditional Muslim dress for women in which most skin had to be covered up — one woman I saw earlier that day only revealed her eyes to see and even wore gloves — more than half women had started to live in modern times with modern clothes.) 

The difference in the modern Egyptian theater experience was in the way it was organized.  I bought an advanced ticket for a 6:30 p.m. show and got there by six to catch the trailers.  However, 6:30 was the seating time, which didn’t make much sense since seating was assigned by ticket and row like in a Broadway play.  Seating lasted a good half hour so nothing happened until 7 — then it was 20 minutes of trailers of Hollywood movies (Alien Vs. Predator, Van Helsing) and Egyptian ones (Tito) — the latter looked like they had just as good production values and story lines as the former.  By 7:20, Harry Potter, friend Ron Weasley and hottie-to-be Hermione Grainger filled the screen — but only until half way since there was a 15-minute intermission in between reels for a snack and bathroom break.  Quite a concept there.  In the end, the movie didn’t let out until about 10 p.m. 

Modern Egyptian society goes to the McDonald’s next door right after the movie — well, it was a “family film” — and so I did as the locals and splurged yet again on American fast food.  Man, the taste of those McDonald’s french fries… I’m sure King Tut didn’t know what he would have been missing if he was still alive, otherwise there would probably be some ancient McDonald’s fry box behind a glass case back at the museum.  Of course, you wouldn’t be allowed to take pictures of it.  Not even with a mini cell phone camera.

Next entry: Taken For A Ride

Previous entry: An American in Cairo

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Comments for “Then and Now”

  • WOW, I’m all caught up, minus the story about yesterday, which I still have time to do according to my schedule…  Enjoy, and send your comments!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/04  at  11:11 AM

  • NEVEN:  Hey, there’s a book called “What happened to the Egyptians?” which explains the social and economic modernization of Egyptian society in the 1990s…  thought you might be interested…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/04  at  02:50 PM

  • after reading that entry, now i want to go egypt!

    i went to the museum of natural history with the bug yesterday morning - she throroughly enjoyed; i think she’s ready for a trip to egypt - or anywhere else around the world wink

    im not sure how i would feel about assigned seats at the movies - or if they had intermissions! but what’d you think of azkaban?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/04  at  04:20 PM

  • watching movies around the world is definitely different…

    i know in the philippines, people would go in at any time…like the middle or toward the end and just stay and watch the movie from the beginning to the part they already saw….

    about assigned seatings…yeah…there is a theater in philly called “the bridge” (there’s also one in LA), that has assigned seatings…so when i went to watch 25th Hour there it wasn’t that crowded to people just sat anywhere…so when a group of people walked in with their assigned seating ticket, they made a big fuss over it…

    most be one of those things, if it’s in writing, then it’s in writing….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/04  at  04:45 PM

  • you better leave Stephen Hawkings alone. Don’t make me come over there!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  06:53 AM

  • Egypt is tops on my list of destinations not yet visited. I’d really appreciate it if you can give us an idea of the vibe there—that is the friendly toward American tourist vibe. With all that’s happening in the world these days, and with the chronic instability just east of there I’m having a hard time mustering my courage (and my hubbie’s) for the journey.  I’m desparate for a cruise up the Nile. Touristy yes, but got to have it baby!

    As for museum security… Cairo sounds alot like Italy & France. Since 9/11 it’s been that story at every world-class museum I’ve been too. Metal detectors, guys with wands, and baggage checks. Even at the Met in NYC. But that hand-held do-dad sounds great.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  06:58 AM

  • CHRISTY- I have to muster my husband’s courage for Egypt too LOL But then he’s Japanese and is worried about being gunned down in a tour bus.  *rolls eyes*  Sounds like we have to worry a lot more about scam artists!  I’m definitely with you on the Nile cruise bit.

    Posted by Liz  on  06/06  at  11:15 AM

  • CHRISTY / LIZ:  I must say, since the Muslim town of Stone Town, Zanzibar, I feel a lot safer when I’m surrounded by Muslims… they are a peaceful people; it’s only the extremists you have to worry about… Oh yeah, and the touts… 

    The next entry will show you the attitude of locals towards Americans—I hung out with NEVEN’s friend Hesham, a Cairean—and he gave me the lo down, including more things that the Bush administration has us duped on.  Stay tuned!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  01:06 PM

  • FUNCHILDE:  Don’t worry, Stephen Hawkings rocks!  I’ll never forget everything he taught me when he was the voice of my old Speak-n-Spell… Hahaha j/k Steve-O…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  01:07 PM


    I saw Wayne “the mail guy” the other day on the corner of 14th and 6th. Aight aight!

    So, how do you think Israeli’s would be treated in Israel?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  06:02 PM

  • Egypt…not Israel.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  06:04 PM

  • EL ZEE:  Actually, I just came from the High Dam in Aswan… there is military presence all over… My guide said it was for fear of Israeli terrorists…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  06:20 PM

  • ANIN:  Azkahban… really dark…  Looks to me like the ringwraiths from Lord of the Rings were out of work and ended up in a Potter film…  Did the Doodle enjoy?  There were older teens in my audience that were scared of the scenes even…

    Hope you went to the Rose Center too!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  06:26 PM

  • Markty: true that .. I don’t wanna spoil it if Erik decides to go see a movie in Thailand but like any large social event in the states the theater crowd stands up for a tribute to the King .. kinda coo they’re many versions of the song that is played that accompanies it.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  06:41 PM

  • erik, did you get to see the supersize me movie? if you haven’t, you should, it is really funny and scary at the same time. that, and it’ll get rid of your cravings for mcdonald’s. at least for a while. i came out of the theater feeling guilty and craving a salad for dinner. =P

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  10:26 PM

  • ALICE - but McDonald’s make salads now! grin

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  10:35 PM

  • “Supersize me” is really funny.  My friend and I went to mc donalds right before to get in the mood.  Then we both bought salad items at the grocery store for dinner!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  10:38 PM

  • ok, i mean a GOOD salad, not made out of iceberg lettuce. iceberg lettuce has no nutritional value. and topping it with a crappy chicken patty from the mcChicken doesn’t help. =P

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  10:49 PM

  • I can’t wait to see HP - I want to see it on the IMAX. There’s another theatre here in LA that has reserved seating - and I’ve become seriously spoiled seeing movies there. Giant seats, leather, tons of leg room, etc, just generally good times.

    There were blondes at the Mickey D’s with you - were they dyed blonde?

    And, according to Super Size Me, Alice and Markyt, the salads at McDonald’s are worse for you (I think calorically) than a Big Mac.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/08  at  07:19 PM

  • I love reserved seating.  That’s how they do it in the new theaters here in Japan… you know the ones with stadium seating. Love that. The old nasty ones with velour seats and about 5 degree pitch bite.  And you have to line up and fight for seats in those ones.  No thank you.  Especially when the Japanese start lining up an hour before for a good movie.  I’ll take reserved seating any day smile
    Haven’t all those old theaters in North America gone out of business now anyway?  I recently went to one of the old theatres and couldn’t believe how crap the sound quality was.  Nor the fact that mauve purple velour was actually fashionable at one point wink

    Posted by Liz  on  06/09  at  07:54 AM

  • I’m glad I’m not the only snob out there who likes my reserved seating, thankyouverymuch!!

    The girl with the 36” inseam likes the stadium seats and reserved seating and nice seats… it’s the best.  But, one has to wonder - are the seats up to the quality in Egypt? B/c when I was in London 5 years ago, in the reserved seating theatre, the seats were crap.

    Just a wonderment. smile

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/09  at  09:20 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Taken For A Ride

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An American in Cairo


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