This was written back in 1994 when I spent some time in Cairo.
The pictures  of Midan Tahrir and  the mummy , and the museum interior picture
are  'borrowed'  from  unknown internet sources.
The Beauty of a Mask
It cost five pounds. Egyptian pounds. I paid while I realized that  by entering this building my state of mind had changed completely, and in only a short minute. Museums sometimes do this to you, at least many of them do, situated as they are in the center of big, busy cities. Once inside the doors silence takes hold of you, as if you are suddenly transported to some remote and still wilderness. Traffic sounds are replaced by the slight echo of voices kept low, and there are only slow moving spectators instead of the pedestrian anthill outside, where time is the chaser and presence is replaced by destination. Inside the walls your eyes are allowed to rest on tastefully arranged artifacts or objects of art, whatever they might be, contrasting the visual collisions of the city outside. They're like a hole in a wall to peek through; like the center of a hurricane; like a warming sunray breaking through a cloud. A hall of peace. A sanctuary.

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo was to be my sanctuary for the next four hours. Left behind was the gigantic circle of Midan Tahrir: between the Coca-Cola neon signs crowning the offices on one side and the Soviet inspired Mogamma building - where we all had gotten our papers signed - on the other, and the open space in between filled by the entwined, yet always moving and happily honking hordes of cars, taxis and busses. To emphasize this noisy confusion hundreds of workers were busy building a subway station for the new Shubra line in the center of the square. Inside the museum silence resounded between the walls - the contrast was formidable.

Past the ticket booth a girl, well, I guess she was around twenty-five, put a new film into her camera.
"No flashes here, right?" The introductory line was mine.
"Hi. Yeah, right. I guess I'll have to trust my hands to be steady." She was American. A good camera. She snapped the back of it and pulled the film forward with a well-practiced thumb-movement. She looked up and smiled. "Do you know where you're supposed to start here?"
"No. Well, there's a guide moving to the left there, but I don't know." My eyes had already registered the great stone statues of a pharao and his queen in the top lit hall in front of us. "I'll have to start here. Hope I don't get lost."
"Yeah." She smiled again. "I think I'll go this way. Guess I see you later."
The museum and its atmosphere had already caught hold of me. This place was special and there was a strong urge somewhere inside pushing to get started. I repeated her "see you later" and turned my steps toward the ancient past.

A fifteen foot statue of Ramesses and his wife, and than a beautifully carved sphinx in polished granite, and then more and more and more -  an overwhelming display of an incredible age. The day before my visit my expectations had dropped when James came back from the museum and said he had been disappointed. Worn and overfilled and just like it had been ten years ago, he said. Well, I hadn't been there ten years ago, but I was there now, very much there.
James was right about the mass of exhibited artifacts. Too much to take in, but every piece I devoted some time to was like medicine to a heart that had just arrived from what is called the real world. There was a certain serenity transmitted through the work of all these ancient artisans: the pleasant smiles of total relaxation, and mild eyes reaching straight for your soul. Weather a wooden pharaoh with a hunting spear, the jackal-God Anubis in a strict, guarding posture or Osiris going through all his rituals in the night world below, they all had this Buddha-like control. But there was more to it than that. All the faces were so astonishingly beautiful! The carvers and writers must, of course, have introduced small improvements to their models, just like painters and sculptors have done elsewhere in the world through all times, but no, it's not that. It's the sense of beauty. How is it that I seem to have the same scale for beauty as a carver who lived three or four thousand years ago?

A sarcophagus - one of what must have been a hundred - was modeled as a pharaoh with his plaited beard in lapis and gold, his forehead ornamented with a cobra, but with the vulture missing. His face and neck had been gilded, but most of the gold on the face was no longer there - a blue eyebrow and an eye lined in the same colour, but below that the vague shapes of a nose, chins and a mouth were visible only in the rich, brown wood of the coffin. Age-ridden wood, yes, striped like crackelated. The pharao had lost some of the glory with which he was to travel with Osiris, taken by time, but the serenity and majesty of his appearance was intact. I leant my camera on the glass case and adjusted my position to get the most out of my standard 45mm lens. The tranquility of the carved face, the ancient's reverence for death and life, and the outstanding skill of some anonymous craftsman were captured for keeps - click.

I was touched, almost dizzy, but there was room for more, and more was to be found in the next room. The rebellious Aknathen and his wife, the wonderful Nefertite. The unfinished stone head of the queen has given her status as one of the most beautiful women in history. I stopped not only because of recognition, but again to wonder about beauty. I had learned that the ideal for women's looks, and men's idea of good-looking women, had changed through the ages, the old clay figure of a fat mother-Goddess pointed to as evidence. Nefertite seemed to prove the opposite. The neck, the nose, the proud pose - I would have turned in the street had she passed me today. If this is what she looked like, of course. Well, she must have been beautiful to trigger such inspiration in the hands of the mason. Is beauty a constant to which time only brings small and superficial waves of changes, I wondered?

A church or a cathedral has its crypt below the floor, its quiet, sacred place for the remains of their prominent servants. In the Egyptian museum one finds the Royal Mummies on the second floor, and you have to pay a few extra dollars to get in to see them.

A very dark room; textiles along the walls; absolute control of humidity and temperature. Silence. Photography not allowed. Eight coffins with dead people in the center of the room, and the few people inside walking around them in slow motion and in dead silence. The royal heads are uncovered, while their bodies are dressed with cloak-like garments or just the old, withered linen. The museum has done a great job in finding a proper and respectful framing for this macabre exhibition, but one still can't get rid of the feeling of being a trespasser.

These corpses, with their skin shrunk to fit only their bones, were once buried with great ceremony and were never expected, or meant to be exposed to light and looks again, but here we were peaking in with time and scientific curiosity as our alibi. I looked at Ramesses' profile, with his beak-like nose, and while wondering if this was right, I had to admit that the room put me in a state of mind that was definitely very pleasant.


This is where I met the American girl for the second time, by a mummified princess. At the entrance I had been so keen to get started, and here among the dead even the slightest whisper brought on feelings of guilt and disrespect.
"This is very special." She looked at me and I could tell the place had the same effect on her as it had on me.
"That pharaoh," she said once we were outside the dimmed chamber, "he was like a God. I mean, I don't think he talked or maybe even met anyone but his closest family and staff, or whatever. And here we're standing staring at his face from just two feet away."
"Yeah, but it does fill your head with something that wasn't there before, doesn't it."
"Definitely. I certainly won't skip that room if I come back here some day. Special atmosphere."

A few words were shared about all the overwhelming impressions we had both taken in over the last hours, before we continued - she to the left, me to the right. A while later I was standing in a large room full of bracelets and rings and other jewels that would have been the centerpieces of any other museum. I glanced just briefly, thinking that I couldn't take in much more in one day, and drifted through the hall leading to the treasures of Tut-ankh Amon. I could take more!

Gold is impressive in its capacity of wealth, but not only that. There is a certain depth to its colour, and richness to its glow. Combined with the craftsmanship, the ability to mold and hammer out figures of grace and beauty, the gold of the juvenile pharaoh grabbed a solid hold of my attention. From the two-foot figures of Tut in ritual positions and situations, to the chairs, to all the goods intended for his post life journey; then the four golden shrines - like big boxes once stacked tightly one outside the other around the sarcophagus. While examining the hieroglyphics on one of these golden walls - lines connecting the eyes of the pharaoh with the stars - my wonderings were again aided by the company of the girl. 

Neither of us had the full story on what happened to the pharaohs when they left this life, so we helped each other to fill in some of the blanks. It was good to have someone to share with. Not that the experience and the impressions weren't strong as they were, but no; putting words to ones thoughts makes them grow, and exchanging views is always creative and developing and besides, I like having company.
"I'm Karen, by the way." She smiled. 
"I'm Jan. It's nice to have someone to bump into." Another smile.

We admired the golden sarcophagi - the ones that actually look and function like Babushka dolls, all portraying the resting Tut-ankh Amen - before we strode into the room where his mask was placed in the very center, enclosed by glass and probably triggered with every thinkable alarm. The mask, the very one: the mask that his mummy wore inside all the other cases; the mask that is pictured in every book about Egypt; the ten kilos of gold. Even though you knew it was coming, it leaves you dumbstruck and almost bewildered - the gold, the blue, the red; the harmony of lines, the beauty of his face, and his look. His gaze. Determined, but yet tranquil and serene. Into timelessness.

"Beautiful." Yes, I couldn't help thinking of beauty again. After so much of it, this was still to strike me as some ray from above. If I'd ever had sympathies for the Protestant idea of barren church walls they would have been lost at this moment: this piece of art is divine, capable of grasping your very self, beyond the material - a piece of heaven.
"He really was a God, wasn't he?" Her words were sincere.


Taking a picture demanded patience. Although the museum was far from crowded there were a few people walking around the glass shrine at all times - everyone had to pause a minute by the mask, to feel it's power, to admire it's massiveness and serenity, or just to be able to say: I've seen it. I couldn't snap my camera with someone standing behind the case, and there were also reflections in the glass to consider. I had found my position and now I waited. Karen was waiting, too.

Then, there it was - our chance. Noone around the mask, and we both went to work. Click, click. One from this angle, and one from that. The image of the God-king imprinted on our films. To be reduced to a two-dimensional memory on a piece of paper, but yet: they were snaps out of respect and maybe worship, a modern way of fulfilling a prayer. We had kneeled by the altar. For a moment we just stood and looked at his face, maybe in an attempt to grasp a forth or fifth dimension for private consumption only.

We admired the golden sarcophagi - the ones that actually look and function like Babushka dolls, all portraying the resting Tut-ankh Amen - before we strode into the room where his mask was placed in the very center, enclosed by glass and probably triggered with every thinkable alarm. The mask, the very one: the mask that his mummy wore inside all the other cases; the mask that is pictured in every book about Egypt; the ten kilos of gold. Even though you knew it was coming, it leaves you dumbstruck and almost bewildered - the gold, the blue, the red; the harmony of lines, the beauty of his face, and his look. His gaze. Determined, but yet tranquil and serene. Into timelessness.

"Beautiful." Yes, I couldn't help thinking of beauty again. After so much of it, this was still to strike me as some ray from above. If I'd ever had sympathies for the Protestant idea of barren church walls they would have been lost at this moment: this piece of art is divine, capable of grasping your very self, beyond the material - a piece of heaven.
"He really was a God, wasn't he?" Her words were sincere.

Taking a picture demanded patience. Although the museum was far from crowded there were a few people walking around the glass shrine at all times - everyone had to pause a minute by the mask, to feel it's power, to admire it's massiveness and serenity, or just to be able to say: I've seen it. I couldn't snap my camera with someone standing behind the case, and there were also reflections in the glass to consider. I had found my position and now I waited. Karen was waiting, too.

Then, there it was - our chance. Noone around the mask, and we both went to work. Click, click. One from this angle, and one from that. The image of the God-king imprinted on our films. To be reduced to a two-dimensional memory on a piece of paper, but yet: they were snaps out of respect and maybe worship, a modern way of fulfilling a prayer. We had kneeled by the altar. For a moment we just stood and looked at his face, maybe in an attempt to grasp a fifth or sixth dimension for private consumption only.

A short while later we were sitting at a small table at Abu Tarek's in Champollion's Street. The visit to the museum had lifted my heart and spirit so when walking down to the restaurant the noise of the traffic was muffled to a rumbling murmur and the chaos of street life was reduced to the absurdity it is. I poured some hot sauce on the rice, noodles and vegetables in my bowl and then looked up at Karen. She was moving on the same evening - my bad luck. Well, well, her company had given a fantastic, deep plunging experience that little bit extra, so how can I complain. Maybe I'll write to her some day.
"Great day," she said.
"Yeah, a great day."

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