The open-air courtyard of the Ibn Tulun Mosque

Mummies and Minarets

An extra day off school calls for extra exploration. To wrap up the long weekend a classmate and I visited the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities and the Mosque of Ibn Tulun.

We started early at the museum, which is right in Tahrir Square. Getting in is the typical process of running your bag through an x-ray machine, stepping through (and setting off) a metal detector, checking your camera at a locker, and arguing for the student admission price. Once that’s all done, you can have your ticket checked by two-three more people and finally enter the building itself.

The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities

Cairo is a hot city. The temperature during the day hovers around 100 degrees, and either the museum does not have AC, or is too big for it to do much good. Food and drink is prohibited, but bring water and drink it anyways. The guards are too hot to get up from their chairs and do anything about it.

The museum is huge. It has two floors available to the public, and it has stuffed thousands and thousands of items in there. In fact, the building itself feels like a relic with its typewriter information cards and coating of dust. Many of the exhibit cases are secured with locks looking old enough to have their own cases. Unopened crates lay in the hallways, presumably filled with more ancient artifacts that will never see the light of day. Immense stone sarcophagi are pushed into corners to make room for other wonders, each hundreds or thousands of years old.

Walking through the museum is like visiting an old curio shop. There is the sense that around every corner is a new treasure to discover, and no one will ever know everything in it. In fact, I would be very surprised if there was even an up-to-date and accurate catalogue of items. If the visitor experience was anything to go by, I suspect not. I even spotted a closed third floor, undoubtedly filled with even more to see.

After the ancient pottery, statues of gods and kings, ceremonial jewelry, and stone tombs, there are the mummies. The museum has a lot of them, stacked to the ceiling on industrial shelves. Some are wrapped up tight, some are sealed from external air, and some are on display under thin cases. There are mummies of pets and common animals. There are preserved fish as big as a chair, and a crocodile as long as a bus. (It must have died naturally, because I don’t think there is anything that could have killed it.) There are mummies of everyday workers, lordly nobles, holy priests, and even the kings of Ancient Egypt as well.

The pharaohs, who’s names are chiseled into temples and ruins across the country, have their own climate-controlled room. For an additional entrance fee, you can stand over the shrunken husk of an ancient ruler and imagine them alive, dictating the will of the gods and ruling over the known world. It is these now-brittle, peeling kings that are responsible for the pyramids, the sphinx, and the monuments that Egypt is covered with.

Among the royalty, however, there are a number of missing names. The most recognizable is of course King Tutankhamun. Nearly all of King Tut’s impressive burial treasures are in the museum, including the famous burial mask of gold and lapis luzu. It’s quite a sight. However, its owner is still in his tomb in the the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. I’ll have to catch up with him later.

The best way to navigate the museum is with a third-party handbook, which has taken the time to navigate and identify each small niche and room for you. There are also tour guides for hire, and the sound of guides rattling off facts in languages from across the world can be heard in every part of the museum. Throughout Cairo, this is where I saw the most tourists.

The Center Atrium of the Museum
The Center Atrium of the Museum

Not all visitors to the museum are human. We spotted a gecko traversing the walls in one room, and in another, a cat patiently gazed up at an exhibit. It would spend some time at one, then stroll to another and sit in front of it for some time. Street cat, museum pet, or Egyptian god Bastet?

After a few hours wandering around the museum we recovered our cameras (for a small donation, of course) and headed to our next destination for the day: The Saladin Citadel of Cairo. A medieval fortification, it offers two things difficult to come by in the city: a good view and a fresh breeze. The heat made our visit short, but the views of the Cairo skyline and the intricate decorations in the Mosque of Muhammad Ali made the trip worthwhile.

Cairo Skyline from Mosque of Mohamed Ali

We also decided to take a short ride over to the Mosque of Ibn Tulun. It was easy enough to find the place, but a little more difficult to find the entrance. Looking for it, we ended up walking around the neighborhood and observing local juice stands, children playing in the streets, and the ever-present cohort of old men sitting at cafes drinking tea. Being tourists in an area not meant for tourists, every single person stared at us as we passed.

When we did finally find the entrance I thought we might be at the wrong place. Stepping through an open gate revealed the typical cohort of military personnel, but the usual zest to check our bags or identification was replaced by a heat-induced lethargy that prevented them from getting up from their chairs. They were able to affirm that we were in the right place at least before waving us forward.

Passing through the outer wall revealed a wide corridor that wrapped around the inner wall and funneled hot wind towards us like a cruel fan. Moving inside the inner wall brought us underneath a roof, and introduced us to a group of men reclining on carpets, drinking tea, and chatting. Two of them got up to make sure we had the adequate foot-attire for our visit, and to ensure we communicated our appreciation through the donation box.

Cloth shoe coverings are an acceptable alternative to taking your shoes off in a mosque
Stylish cloth shoe coverings are an acceptable alternative to taking your shoes off in a mosque.

There was one other group of tourists, but other than that the place was empty. The mosque is open air with a roof only partly extending towards the central ablation fountain from the inner wall. The size of the mosque means there is still ample space, but for the most part it is open to the wind and sun. Rising from one side of the outer wall is also a minaret with a wraparound staircase.

Underneath the roofed walkway of the Ibn Tulun Mosque
Underneath the roofed walkway
The open-air courtyard of the Ibn Tulun Mosque
The open-air courtyard

After walking around the open courtyard, it was there we headed. The man to whom we returned our shoe-coverings just waved us in the general direction of the minaret when we asked how to get there. We exited the inner wall and walked around it to reach the the minaret. The corridor was completely empty, save the heat and wind. At the base of the minaret was a large wooden door, partially ajar.

Between the inner and outer walls of the Ibn Tulun Mosque
The walkway between the inner and outer walls

Unsure if we were in the right place, or should be there, we hesitantly pushed against the door to find it unlocked. There was no where to go except up the stairs, so we started climbing. The staircase got narrower and narrower the higher it went, while at the same time the wall separating us from an unpleasant fall got shorter and shorter. Halfway up, the staircase split. One direction led to the flat roof of the mosque, while the other continued even higher.

The view of the courtyard from halfway up the minaret
The view from halfway up the minaret

Choosing the latter, we continued to the where the staircase ended and were greeted by an amazing 360 degree view of the city. Even then, we discovered that there was a second, inner staircase of worn stairs going to the very top of the minaret. We had to squeeze through a gap to get onto a wooden platform, but we made it! We could look over the city and hear the sounds of cars, dogs, and people going about their daily life. It was the best view of Cairo I’ve seen.

The best parts of sightseeing today were not what was listed in the guidebook or on a map. It was the unexpected quirks discovered by squeezing past crowded displays or clambering up numerous steps. It was seeing modern-day life from an 8th-century mosque. And it was finding a quite place in the midst of a busy city. I can only hope that I never forget the importance of getting off the beaten path.

Jack Struck

Student in our nation's capital, studying International Relations with a focus on the Middle East. Web designer, runner, reader, and leader.

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