A fascinating trip to antiquity

By Mpiletso Motumi Time of article published Jan 20, 2019

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What's the significance of a pharaoh’s beard? The answer is literally between life and death. This is something Union of African Journalists fellows discovered while on an enriching tour around the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, Egypt.

It is more commonly known as the Egyptian Museum and is home to an extensive collection of ancient antiques. It has more than 100000 items and officially opened to the public in 2017.

Ahmed Samir, a curator at the venue, certainly knew how to keep us intrigued. His knowledgeable quips and gestures had us eating out the palm of his hand. Once we noticed the pharaoh statues actually had different types of beards, some curved and some straight, our interest was piqued.

“When the beard is straight at the bottom it means the statue was carved when he was alive. If the beard curves, the statue was carved after his death.”

A statue of Khafra, an ancient Egyptian king of the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom.

He showed us another detail we were not paying attention to; the left leg of the statues was always forward.

“We believe that because the heart is on the left side of the body and beats all day and night, it is a sign of being alive, but unfortunately we have seven statues in the world that advance to the right. One of them is in this museum and the others are in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. We don’t have a reason why they advance to the right. It is a mystery to us.”

Samir asked the English-speaking group - which included men from Ghana, Zambia, Sudan, Namibia and Angola - what was behind every great man.

“A woman!’ shouted the ladies from Gambia, Uganda and Lesotho.

“Or,” laughed Samir, “their last son or daughter.”

He explained that behind the left leg of the pharaoh statues stood one of their family members.

“The crown prince will become the king after his father. He stands behind his leg and supports his father. Sometimes it can be his daughter or wife. The closest person to his heart he puts behind his left leg. Sometimes to not make the women jealous he puts one on the right and one on the left, the same with his sons if he has more than one.”

Historically, chiefs of tribes would dress differently. With the pharaohs’ leg placement out the way, it was time to understand more about the tails on their backs.

“Sometimes the chiefs would put on the tail of a lion or that of a bull. If you check between the legs of a king, you will see a tail.”

The tails can be seen not only on the pharaohs, but also in the etched drawings in the museum.

“In their belief it meant they had the power of the animals. It is an ancient Egyptian habit and has been taken to all over Africa.”

The Egyptian Museum is filled with historical artefacts to view and discover

Egyptian Hieroglyphics was the writing system used in Ancient Egypt. It is a combination of logographic, syllabic and alphabetic elements made up of 1000-plus characters.

A closer look at some of the hieroglyphics at the museum allowed for Samir to give us a quick lesson on how ancient “autobiographies” were written.

“Take, for instance, the job title of a person. In inscriptions you will notice the job titles of the person increase with age.”

Samir explained the job titles on one inscription by translating the symbols.

“One of the most interesting job titles involves the three symbols of a bird, simple ivory of elephant and an arrow. The bird meaning great one, ivory meaning tooth and the arrow means doctor or physician. Altogether will be the great physician of tooth, or the great doctor of tooth, meaning he was a dentist.”

In front of the smallest pyramid of the three pyramids of Giza is the Valley Temple of Menkaure, where five triad statues were found. Three of the triads are on display at the museum.

This triad of Menkaure, an ancient Egyptian king (pharaoh) of the 4th Dynasty, is one of three on display at the museum.

The ancient Egyptians believed in the afterlife.

“They believed that every human consisted of seven elements - the body, soul, shadow, light and a double that you cannot see. The sixth element is the heart. It collects all you do in life - if you do good, it will be written in your heart. In the afterlife your heart will be taken away from you and put in front of the feather of justice on a balance.”

Samir said according to their beliefs, if your heart was light, you would go to paradise through Osiris, the ultimate judge. If your heart was heavy with sin, it would be eaten and you would go to hell.

“The seventh element is the name. If someone wants to take revenge on you after you have died, they can go to your tomb and erase your name so you don’t have existence in the afterlife.”

The inscriptions also outlined what offerings the dead would need in the afterlife, from food to jewellery. Many of the statues, though similar, differ in the shape and cut of their faces.

Samir says this is because the pharaohs wanted to send a message to their people.

“The prominent cheekbones represent that he did not eat a lot as he was working all day for his people. The frown shows how serious he was about his tasks. The low eyelids show that he could not sleep and the big ears are to hear people complain. This shows you can send messages to people through art,” he said.

Many of the noses on the statues are damaged due to erosion

Samir also shared the story of the sun god Ra and how the half man, half animal statues came to be. The lion/woman statue of the warrior goddess Sekhmet stands tall in the museum.

“Ra was angry at the Egyptians for their sins and wanted to cure Egypt. One day he took out his left eye and threw it on the ground. It turned into a woman’s body with the head of a lion. He then told her to kill the sinners and drink their blood. The people eventually prayed to the sky and asked Ra to take it away from them.”

When Ra eventually summoned the goddess back, she refused to return, answering that she was doing the will of Ra.

The monumental statue of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye weighs 16 tons and was broken into smaller pieces before being reassembled in the museum. When the restorer started putting it back together, some of the original pieces could not be found.

“It had to be composed with replacement stones. The darker stone is the original, while the lighter stone is the replacement. The originals were later found, but the statue could not be redone because the base of the storage ceiling cracked and it is supported with iron rods to prevent it from cracking any more. If you notice, the restorer made a mistake by placing the king’s hands on his lap. One is supposed to be behind the queen to show that they support each other.”

The miniature statue of the daughter between the king and queen represents that, no matter the age, a child will never grow up in the eyes of its parents.

The monumental statue of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye weighs 16 tonnes and was broken into smaller pieces before being reassembled to sit in the museum

There is so much to see and learn at the museum, including the 11kg solid Gold Mask of Tutankhamun, the grave mask of king Amenemope, mummy mask of Psusennes I, the figurine of Khufu, the statue of Khafre, the Merneptah Stele and the Narmer Palette, among many other ancient Egyptian antiquities that will take you on a journey you will never forget.

In late November last year, 30 mummies were found in a newly discovered 2600-year-old tomb in a vast necropolis (a large cemetery with elaborate tomb monuments) of Saqqara outside Cairo. Maybe they will make their way to the museum soon.

Make it a point to visit this tourist attraction close to Tahrir Square and if you are lucky you will get to experience it through the eyes and knowledge of curator Ahmed Samir.


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