Although I’ve travelled to Egypt a few times now myself, it always interests me to hear people’s first impressions of the country, especially when they are less familiar with the ancient society. Lynn Barber has written a delightful article in the Guardian on ‘how she fell for Egypt’, and it gives a wonderfully fresh insight on how the country and its landscapes, people, monuments, and artwork can captivate and capture the imagination so instantly and entirely.
It’s wonderful to hear about someone else falling for the first time for something you love too and it makes me recall my first trip to Egypt. To me Egypt was a civilization that I already knew very intimately, but to finally be there, I was just as astonished as Barber, or even more so.
I still vividly remember my first visit to the museum in Cairo. When I was a child, I delighted in the Egyptian gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum, but was awestruck when I finally encountered the more extensive collections of the British Museum and the Louvre- what treasure troves of wonder! But everything I had yet seen paled in comparison when I first visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. While the museum conditions are not ideal and the labelling is rather sparse, the collection of artifacts is incredible and not to be missed. Despite the rather shabby setting, I gasped in awe not just at each new room I entered, of which there was an astounding, seemingly endless number brimming with antiquities, but at each object that met my eye; many of them were familiar to me as significant pieces appearing in countless books, and the rest were new and thrilling, each one a tiny time capsule revealing some insight into the ancient Egyptians. From the imposing colossal statue of Amenhotep III and his wife Mut, who preside over the great statue court at the heart of the museum, to the thousands of tiny, delightful pieces stuffed into the rooms that tourists seem to ignore entirely in their dash for King Tut’s mask–they all made me fall in love with Egypt all over again.
A delightful unintentionally funny display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo
My first sight of the great hypostyle hall at the temple of Karnak was one of the few experiences in my life that’s been literally jaw-dropping, as in actually being unable to keep my upper and lower jaws attached. Karnak is the grand temple of Egypt, the one that every king had to add to until it became positively labyrinthine, and apparently the largest ancient religious site in the world. The hypostyle hall is its crowning glory: 134 massive limestone stone columns in the form of papyrus plants, some standing up to 80 feet high, form a veritable stone forest. I am sadly unable to find the words to describe the strange humbling yet inspiring feeling I felt standing dwarfed in the midst of that massive monument. I can only say, if you’ve never been, you need to go.
On one point in Barber’s article I’d have to disagree though- she describes her visit to the Valley of the Kings and says that while the main ticket allows entrance to three tombs, ‘if you want to see more tombs, you can buy another ticket or go to the Valley of the Queens, and the Valley of the Nobles, but three is probably enough’. I can understand that seeing a myriad of tombs might be overwhelming for those new to Egypt and three tombs in the Valley of the Kings specifically might indeed be enough, but missing out the Nobles and the tombs of Deir el Medina is a mistake that many tourists seem to make- both were deserted when I visited. The tombs of the kings and the tombs of the nobles, and also of the workers who made the kings’ tombs, are very different in style indeed. The royal design is understandably quite formal and focussed on religious motifs, and personally I think that the average person would probably enjoy the tombs of the Nobles and Deir el Medina much more with their lively decoration and relate more to the scenes of daily life.
A relief in the tomb of Ramose in the Valley of the Nobles, photo by Becky Ragby
The art in those tombs is truly superb and not to be missed. Actually, it’s hardly surprising that the artists who decorated the tombs of the kings did a rather wonderful job on their own tombs too! It was wonderful to read Lynn Barber describe Egyptian art in such glowing terms: ‘I expected to find ancient Egyptian art interesting: what I didn’t expect was that I’d find it as thrilling as, say, Florence or St Petersburg’. Sadly, Egyptian art has always historically been viewed as inferior to classical art, but I’m glad it’s not just the Egyptologists who’d disagree with this.
I’m not convinced either by her claim that ‘most of the tour guides in Egypt are fully trained Egyptologists’ since sadly I’ve heard numerous guides spouting ridiculous nonsense to rapt audiences of tourists. I’ve met a number of the Egyptian summer trainees at the British Museum and they’re actually curators and antiquities inspectors not tour guides.
Egypt can have a profound effect on its visitors, however Lynn Barber’s final comments in her article were incredibly amusing to me as an Egyptologist-in-training who decided on her career at the age of 6. Unfortunately Barber’s words of wisdom come perhaps slightly too late for me: ‘Incidentally if you have children of an impressionable age, do not take them to Egypt because it will inevitably make them want to become archaeologists when they grow up and then they will spend their adult lives sorting shards in some dim county museum… Egyptology is an incredibly alluring subject, but a disastrous career, I suspect’.