The Egypt of romance is not to be found in Cairo. As the visiting tourist soon realises, Cairo is a huge, sprawling modern metropolis of endless blocks of flats, dust, cars, noise and energy. However, before fleeing to the Pyramids - standing on the very fringe of Cairo, like majestic ancient sandcastles before an engulfing sea of ugly concrete - or even further afield to the Elysian peace and beauty of Luxor, the tourist should spend at least one day in the capital itself. For Cairo has at its heart a treasure store greater than that amassed by any pharaoh.
That treasure house is the Egyptian Museum. Within its rather unprepossessing walls is contained the greatest collection of Egyptian artefacts in the world. More than 100,000 of them: spending only one minute on each of them, it would still take more than sixty days of non-stop sightseeing to cover the entire holdings. Clearly, then, even the keenest tourist must necessarily be extremely selective.
Fortunately, this crown of Egypt's national treasures does have its jewel which provides, in a microcosm, a cross-section of the rest of the collection: the finds from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Moreover, because of the happy circumstances of their discovery, the condition of these treasures is second to none.
The story of the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb is well-known. Backed by the Earl of Caernarfon, the American archaeologist Howard Carter found, after years of fruitless searches, the missing tomb of the young king Tutankhamun who died when he was only 19. Even more exciting than simply finding the chambers was the fact that the tomb was undisturbed: it had not been opened since the day the mummified pharaoh was sent on his journey to the Land of the Dead three thousand years before. It was as if a time capsule from the height of the Ancient Egyptian civilisation had been discovered. When the tomb was finally fully revealed, it was so crammed with treasures for the king to use in the next life that it took fully ten years to remove everything and catalogue it.
The treasures of Tutankhamun reveal the Egyptian empire at its height; other exhibits elsewhere in the museum show the artistic achievements building up to that climax, and leading away from it. If the tourist has the time - and energy - after admiring the wonders of Tutankhamun on the first floor to see more of the incredible wealth of this museum, there are several other important items which can be easily accommodated on the way out.
Passing down the stairs at the back of the Museum leads into the main atrium. Looking like some fabulous lumber-room of the gods, this displays some of the larger finds. For example there is the imposing double statue of Amenhotep III and his queen, Tiy - surely the quintessence of imperial power and nobility. Just behind it is the famous 'Israel' stela. The stelae were inscribed stones used as official proclamations, or boundaries. They were the equivalent to our noticeboards outside the village hall. 'Hear ye, hear ye' they seem to say. What is remarkable about this unremarkable-looking piece of incised stone is a tiny patch down on the right-hand side. After listing various nations and tribes he had conquered, the pharaoh Amenhotep III mentions another unruly lot he subjugated, a minor group called the Israelites. It is the first mention of them in history - a tiny footnote at the time, and with no hint of their later worldwide influence.
Finally, if at all possible, the visitor should seek out another insignificant-looking piece of black stone, at the centre of the front of the atrium. There can be found a small, thin triangular object, with bas-reliefs on both sides, called the Narmer Palette.
Its survival is something of a miracle, for its shows no less than the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by the first pharaoh of all, King Narmer. We know his name because next to him is the sign for a fish (nar) and a chisel (mer). It is therefore not only a historic depiction of the creation of Egypt as the southerners from the banks of the Nile swept down and conquered the northern dwellers among the lands of the Nile delta, but it also stands as one of the first examples of hieroglyphs, the use of pictures to represent the sounds of words rather than the individual objects they depict. It is hard to think of a relic more charged with significance in the history of mankind.
Finally, on the way out, visitors from England may recognise on the wall opposite the entrance a plaster copy of the famous Rosetta stone. The original is now in the British Museum, and is notable for its threefold inscription: once in the priestly hieroglyphs - 'hieroglyph' means 'sacred writing' - once in a form called Demotic, a kind of workaday derivative, and once in ancient Greek, the language of the latest wave of conquerors when the inscription was carved in 200 BC. By comparing the three versions scholars were able to decipher the mysterious hieroglyphs which had tantalised the world for centuries. Their decoding unlocked the hundreds of thousands of Ancient Egyptian inscriptions which have come down to us, and with them, the tongues of those who wrote them, and who speak to us to this day.
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