The Cairo Museum is just around the corner from my daughter’s apartment. En route, we pass many men with guns, a response to the recent Luxor massacre. I spend most of my first visit downstairs amongst porphyry, marble and granite … statues, sarcophagi and goblets … white and grey and brown and huge. My liking for smaller things asserts itself: flint knives; pots and beads; cuneiform tablets with the delicacy of their massed script, the clay envelopes, and the matter-of-factness of their inscriptions: “My daughter is now old enough to marry. Before, you sent my servant back with a pretty good present fast. Now it’s time to claim my daughter.” These things are more manageable than statues and columns.
I leave the basement and walk up an immense flight of marble stairs, past framed papyrus, to the golden beds of Tutankhamen. There are Carter’s photos at the opening of the tomb, and I am in the presence of the treasures he unearthed, familiar from my adolescent interest: the gold shrines, the inlaid box for clothes, the box of canopic jars, the gold and jewelled throne.
It’s Ramadan and museum closes at early. No polite requests to leave or bells ringing here: guards herd people out by clapping their hands.
When I return to the museum, daringly alone, I begin my explorations in a dingy gallery of mummiform coffins, space shared with electric fans on shopping trolleys. My eye is caught by clothing – sandals; linen robes belonging to a priestess; and food – bread and biscuits. I take in the dioramas of life in the 16th Dynasty: women weaving linen; men counting cattle; soldiers; boatmen. I revisit the Tutankhamen gallery where all the small stuff is luxuriantly displayed. The mummy jewellery is laid out as it would be in the layers of wrappings. There is a helpful guard who hurtles me from exhibit to exhibit, until I sit on the floor stubbornly and begin copying hieroglyphics from a wooden sarcophagus. It works and I’m left in peace to wander. I stand for a long time in front of my favourite item: Tutankhamen’s ecclesiastical chair, with its duck legs and subtle richness of design and colour.
We spend the afternoon in the market. There is mania in the air: men dance on tables, turning prices into rap, accompanied by rhythmic banging on a 44 gallon drum; sellers rip T-shirts out of plastic wrap and hurl them towards the crowd. We buy macaroni out of a big hessian sack and finally reach the street of tentmakers where carpets are unrolled and spread out for us. We don’t buy.
After pasta and packing we catch a taxi to the station en route to Luxor. I almost guillotine my daughter, knock the mirror on another car askew and squash my hot sweet potato between my fingers. My daughter swears none of this would happen if I travelled light.