Here’s my ultimate local’s guide to the must-see things at the Egyptian Museum – plus insider tips to plan your visit.
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo has the world’s largest collection of Ancient Egyptian antiquities – including many must-see masterpieces like the gold mask of Tutankhamun.
This iconic museum in Tahrir Square is simply massive. It holds some 120,000 items across two floors that are packed with artifacts. As a long-time expat in Cairo, I’ve been going there for years and I still haven’t seen it all!
Though there are some misconceptions surrounding this museum. It is not closing – and yes it’s still the best place in the world to dive into Ancient Egyptian masterpieces.
What has changed? The collection of mummies has been moved to the recently-opened National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (which has exhibits that span all of Egyptian history and not just Ancient Egypt). You’ll have to head to that new museum to see the mummies.
Insider’s tip: When you’re done at the museum, stop by the nearby AUC Press bookstore on the campus of the American University in Cairo (about a 5-minute walk away). It has a much larger collection of books on Egyptology than the museum shop.
To make your visit manageable, here’s my ultimate guide to the 10 Must-See Things At The Egyptian Museum. Plus, practical things you need to know before visiting – and my insider’s tips for a great visit!
Egyptian Museum guide:
1. Mask of Tutankhamun (New Kingdom)
Upper floor, room 3
The gold mask of the 18th-century Pharaoh Tutankhamun is the most famous piece at the Egyptian Museum.
And it’s the best-known object from Ancient Egypt itself – it’s often a symbol of the ancient civilization that symbolizes mystery and might.
The Mask of Tutankhamun is housed in a darkened room on the second floor amid the vast collection of treasures discovered in the tomb of the young king. There are no photos allowed (as the security regularly yells out) to protect the fragile death mask.
The room also contains the spectacular inner coffin of Tutankhamun, along with jewelry and other objects found inside the tomb. You can take a virtual tour of Tut Hall here.
The mask is 54 centimeters (1.8 ft) tall and weighs over 10 kilograms (22 pounds).
It was discovered by Howard Carter in 1925 in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.
When Carter first looked into the tomb, a patron behind him asked if he could see anything. Carter was speechless and finally exclaimed, “Yes, wonderful things!”
The shoulders of the mask contain an inscription in hieroglyphs of an ancient protective spell from the Book of the Dead.
The mask is decorated with semi-precious stones and inlaid with colored glass and gemstones.
It is made with two layers of high-karat gold.
The mask portrays Tutankhamen wearing a headcloth topped by the royal insignia of a cobra and vulture (symbolizing Upper and Lower Egypt).
Popular culture has spread the myth of the curse of King Tut’s tomb – where those who dare to disturb a Pharaoh’s tomb are condemned to die. Eight people present when the tomb was opened died within twelve years.
This dazzling Tutankhamen collection is set to be relocated to the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza whenever that opens (early 2023?)
2. Narmer Palette (Old Kingdom)
Ground floor, gallery 43
The Narmer Palette is known as the first historical document in the world – and it depicts the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in stunning detail.
Dating from around the 31st century BC, the palette depicts King Narmer who founded the First Dynasty and unified Egypt.
And it’s actually a cosmetic palette, which were used in predynastic Egypt to grind the cosmetics used to adorn the statues of deities.
The Narmer Palette is one of the first exhibits you’ll see when entering the museum.
The Narmer Palette contains some of the earliest hieroglyphics ever found.
It has survived five millennia in nearly perfect condition.
The Narmer Palette was discovered by British archeologists in 1898 in Nekhen, the capital of prehistoric Upper Egypt.
It is 63 centimeters (2.07 ft) tall, carved from a single piece of siltstone.
The king is depicted on one side wearing the crown of Upper Egypt, and on the other side wearing the crown of Lower Egypt.
Front of Narmer Palette:
Two human-faced bovine heads adorn the top, representing the cow goddess Bat. The center depicts Narmer (wearing the crown of Upper Egypt) wielding a mace and about to strike a kneeling prisoner. Horus, the falcon god, is depicted on the upper right holding a rope tied around an enemy. On the bottom are more prisoners.
Back of Narmer Palette:
The top image depicts Narmer wearing the crown of Lower Egypt. Before him are four standard bearers. At the far right are ten decapitated corpses (with their genitals stuffed in their mouths) killed during Narmer’s conquest.
Underneath this procession, two men hold ropes tied around a mythological creature – the circle formed by their necks is where the cosmetics were ground on the palette. The intertwined necks may represent the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. At the bottom, a bull (representing Narmer) knocks down the walls of a city.
3. Statue of Djoser (Old Kingdom)
Ground floor, gallery 48
This painted limestone statue is the oldest known life-sized Egyptian statue.
It portrays King Djoser, who ruled in the 3rd dynasty and built the earliest important stone building in Egypt.
His reign was marked by great innovations in stone architecture. And you can still see some of these constructions in Saqqara (where this statue was found in the 1920s).
Djoser is most famously known for the step pyramid at Saqqara – the oldest colossal stone building from Ancient Egypt. Though today in Saqqara, a plaster copy of this statue stands in place of the original.
The statue was found in a serdab, a sealed chamber with a small hole to allow the soul of the dead pharaoh to move around freely. The hole also let in the scents of the burnt offerings to the statue.
Djoser wears a long, enveloping robe the king wore for the ceremony confirming the royalty of his rule.
Djoser’s feet rest on nine bows, a likely reference to the Nubians during his rule (who were known to use bows and arrows.)
The piece is a ka statue, which meant to give a resting place for the ka (or life spirit) of the person in the afterlife.
A painted mustache is still faintly seen on his upper lip.
Djoser’s eyes were once inlaid with semi-precious stones that likely gave him an expressive, life-like face.
4. Menkaure Triad (Old Kingdom)
Ground floor, gallery 47
This stunning statue depicts Menkaure, builder of the smallest of the Giza pyramids, in intricate detail.
King Menkaure is shown wearing the tall white crown of Upper Egypt. He’s flanked by the great sky goddess and divine mother Hathor (left) and the cow goddess Bat (right), the patron diety of the ancient Bat province.
The triad is remarkable for its symmetry and its attention to anatomical detail. You can make out individual muscles expertly carved in schist, which is notoriously difficult to work with.
Menkaure is shown as young and shapely, in the ideal male form of the Old Kingdom.
His body is masterfully executed with remarkable detail in his clavicle, knees and forearms.
The statue is part of a series commissioned by Menkaure depicting himself with various deities.
5. Statue of Khafre (Old Kingdom)
Ground floor, room 42
This magnificent statue depicts King Khafre, builder of the second-largest pyramid in Giza and the Sphinx, seated regally on his throne.
The falcon god Horus is perched right behind the pharaoh, protecting the backside of Khafre’s head with his outstretched wings.
But Horus can only be seen from the side of the statue – and not from the front. And this conveys the message that Khafre is not only protected by the gods but is a god himself.
This piece is another example of a ka statue. Just like Djoser’s statue (#3), it was meant to give the deceased person’s spirit (or ka) a final resting place.
The statue was discovered near the Sphinx in the valley temple of Khafre’s pyramid complex in Giza. Interestingly, the Sphinx bears the likeness of Khafre’s face.
It’s made of an extremely hard dark stone that was transported some 1,200 miles from the Sahara desert to the quarries and down the Nile to Giza.
The diorite stone was chosen for its permanence – and symbolizes the permanence of Khafre’s kingship itself.
Khafre is depicted in an ideal, flawless physique at the prime of his life.
He is wearing the royal headdress and artificial beard that’s traditional for all kings (even females like Hatschepsut worse them).
Khafre is seated on a throne decorated with majestic lions. The base is woven with lotus and papyrus plants that symbolize the unity of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Khafre sits on a platform engraved with nine archery bows – symbolizing his dominance over enemy tribes (the bows).
6. Statue of Ka-aper, aka Sheikh el Balad (Old Kingdom)
Ground floor, room 42
This sycamore statue is so life-like that it gave Egyptian diggers a real scare during excavation – they were awestruck at the realistic face dug up from the sands of Saqqara.
Then – in a funny plot twist – the diggers noticed that the statue looks exactly like their modern-day village mayor or Sheikh el Balad. And this ancient statue is still affectionately known by that nickname – even on the exhibit label at the museum.
The real Ka-aper depicted in the statue was an ancient Egyptian army scribe and priest (in charge of reciting prayers for the dead) who lived around 2,500 BC.
The statue was discovered in 1870 by Auguste Mariette in the Saqqara necropolis, near Djoser’s step pyramid.
The peaceful face is very well-preserved with life-like eyes made from rock crystal and copper plates.
The statue is an example of the excellent craftsmanship and skill of the late 4th Dynasty artisans. It was originally plastered and painted.
It is constructed from a single piece of sycamore wood and beautifully preserved thanks to the dry desert sands. The arms were carved separately and attached to the body.
Ka-aper is shown in a more realistic form than the idealized statues of kings – he’s bald and has a generous belly.
A wooden statue of a woman (likely Ka-aper’s wife) was also uncovered at the site – and it’s also on display at the museum.
The piece is unique because not many wooden statues survived from Ancient Egypt. Local wood was poor quality and it didn’t often preserve well.
7. Meidum Geese (Old Kingdom)
Known as “Egypt’s Mona Lisa,” this bold-colored painting depicts an extinct species of goose that lived 4,600 years ago in Ancient Egypt.
The painting was discovered in 1871 in a tomb near the Meidum pyramid – the first attempted pyramid located near modern-day Fayoum. It was inside a chapel dedicated to Itet, a vizier’s wife.
The geese don’t match any existing species. They’re considered either a work of the artist’s imagination or – more likely – a very realistic depiction of an extinct species.
The painting is the oldest and best-preserved of its kind. It’s remarkable for the bold colors and textures of the birds’ feathers and bills.
The climate of Ancient Egypt was very different from the modern-day desert. It featured lakes, grasslands and woodlands where geese easily thrived.
A researcher in 2015 suggested the painting could be a 19th-century forgery because it contains unique colors and geese that aren’t found in Egypt. But those claims were dismissed by Egyptologists.
The painting was found in the chapel under a scene that shows men catching birds in a net and offering them to the vizier (the tomb’s owner).
8. Statue of Rahotep and Nofret (Old Kingdom)
Ground floor, room 32
This realistic life-size statue depicts Prince Rahotep seated alongside his wife Nofret in beautifully expressive detail.
The statue is so realistic that it frightened an excavator when he descended into the dug-up gallery with a candle for a preliminary inspection.
The painted limestone statue was discovered in 1871 in the Meidum necropolis, site of numerous tombs from the Old Kingdom (and where the Meidum Geese were found).
Rahotep held many important titles including High Priest of Ra and Chief of the Royal Army.
He is described in the inscription as “King’s son, of his body,” which likely makes him the brother of Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Rahotep and Nofret are shown as idealized and young – as they’d want to appear for eternity.
Rahotep’s skin is painted a reddish-brown and Nofret is pale beige, suggesting her sheltered existence.
Rahotep wears an amulet meant to help hm on judgment day.
Nofret wears a heavy wig and a broad collar, along with a shawl wrapped tightly around her curvy figure.
Both figures have eyes inlaid with rock crystal that give them an uncanny realism.
9. Statuette of Khufu (Old Kingdom)
Ground floor, room 32
This tiny ivory statuette is the only intact portrait of King Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Standing at just 7.5 cm, it’s ironically miniscule compared to the massive creations of this great pharaoh.
“We see the energy, the commanding air, the indomitable will, and the firm ability of the man who stamped forever the character of the Egyptian monarchy and outdid all time in the scale of his works.” – Archeologist Flinders Petrie
The statue was found in 1903 in a temple ruin at Abydos by Archeologist Flinders Petrie.
The figurine was originally found without a head. All excavation was stopped and a reward was offered to any workman who could find the missing head. Three weeks later, the head was found after days of sifting in the rubble.
The statue shows Khufu seated on a throne and holding a flail in his right hand. He’s wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt and his name is inscribed beside his leg.
Some scholars think this statue is a reproduction from the 26th dynasty. They claim Khufu’s face is unusually chubby and different from the portraits of his contemporaries (who were depicted as handsome and slender).
10. Statue of Mentuhotep II (Middle Kingdom)
Ground floor, gallery 26
This strikingly colorful statue depicts King Mentuhotep II, who reunited Upper and Lower Egypt and founded the Middle Kingdom.
The statue was found in Luxor in 1900 by Egyptologist Howard Carter, who also famously uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamen.
Though this discovery was made entirely by chance when a horse stumbled into a hole that pointed to an underground tomb. The sandstone statue was found inside, wrapped in linen mummy bandages.
The statue depicts Mentuhotep II with black skin (the color of the Nile mud) that symbolizes the continuity of life and the fertility goddess Osiris.
It was found atMentuhotep’s temple just steps away from the famous Temple of Hatshepsut.
The statue depicts Mentuhotep II on a throne wearing a false beard and the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. He is dressed for the rejuvenation festival to celebrate 30 years of his reign and confirm his fitness to continue his rule (he ruled for 51 years).