Dr Campbell Price is Curator of Egypt and Sudan at The Manchester Museum, home to one of the UK’s largest Egyptology collections. He first became interested in ancient Egypt when he visited Kelvingrove Museum in his native Glasgow as a child and today, he is an expert on everything that is Ancient Egypt. Let’s step back in time and rediscover the magic of this wonderful land and the glamorous, gilded, ravishing and mysterious people that created it.
Few civilisations have left more tangible and magnificent evidence of their existence than the ancient Egyptians. This is not by chance. Most items now prized by archaeologists were deliberately and carefully sealed in tombs, in the hope of utility to the deceased for eternity. Temples were constructed and embellished in the earnest belief that they would act as homes for the gods for ‘millions of years’. These lofty intentions set the foundation for our modern enthusiasm for all things ancient Egyptian – that world, in all its glory and its tragedy, seems so immediate, thanks to the permanence of its artistic and architectural wonders.
I became interested in ancient Egypt as a shy but curious child visiting a museum in my native Glasgow. I grew besotted with what was on display there – animal gods, hieroglyphs, angular stone carvings, mummies – all pervaded with the dusty, tantalisingly exotic aroma of antiquity. The Egyptians were glamorous, gilded, ravishing and mysterious. They made the Greeks, Romans and Hebrews look drab, uninspired and uninteresting in comparison. To see their mighty works in situ though is a true privilege. Approaching the Pyramids of Giza never fails to inspire awe. Indeed, the experience has captivated visitors to Egypt since antique times, and graffiti exists attesting to visits by the ancient Egyptians themselves, centuries after their national wonders were built. In addition to the interiors of the three big pyramids themselves (usually opened in rotation) and the famous Sphinx colossus, modern day visitors can spend hours exploring the honeycomb of elite tombs that surround the pyramids.
The Giza Plateau will soon be welcoming guests at a modern marvel – the Grand Egyptian Museum. Over a decade in development, it promises to be architecturally spectacular and one of the leading museums of the world, with the largest archaeological collection. All in all, a fitting setting for the most impressive objects to survive from the time of the pharaohs. The new museum will house the funerary effects of King Tutankhamun – including his famous golden mask, coffins and jewellery – as well as sublime statues of the major pharaonic figures. I’ve seen for myself the ongoing conservation efforts in basement laboratories to regain and retain the original splendour of ancient objects. It is hoped that this spectacular new museum will encourage millions more travellers to choose Egypt. A soft-opening is currently planned for late 2018.
The current home of Tutankhamun’s ‘treasure’, Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, is one of my favourite places in the world. I spent a lot of time there as a doctoral student, watching armies of tourists being marched around the galleries by their guides. Now, the museum is much quieter, but also fresher and better-labelled, so a visit is much more enjoyable and enlightening than it once was. Its exhibits are mind-boggling in quantity and quality – but, with the help of an Egyptologist, these artefacts can tell the story of a great civilisation and its magnificent cities, not least Luxor, 450 miles south of the capital along the timeless Nile.
Luxor is famous for tombs and temples. Perhaps the most famous burial chambers in the world are in the Valley of the Kings. The first time I set foot there, I was overwhelmed by the silence, of a sort I’d never before experienced. The ancient Egyptians believed the valley, stretching out beneath the natural pyramid of the so called ‘Peak’, was sacred to Meretseger, the snake goddess whose name means ‘she who loves silence’. It was here that the pharaohs of the New Kingdom (c. 1500-1100 BC) elected to spend eternity, favouring hidden, rock-cut tombs rather than the awe-inspiring superstructures of their forebears. The Valley of the Kings and Queens also benefit from smaller numbers of tourists than in their heyday, further enhanced by access to a broader range of tombs, and with improved signage and lighting. The now-visitable tombs of Seti I and Nefertari, with their breath-taking decoration, are genuine highlights of world travel. Conservation of smaller – though still vividly decorated – nobles’ tombs, the other side of the high barren hills, has helped present a fascinating insight into non-royal expectations of the afterlife.
The vast, monumental temples of Karnak and Luxor are best experienced early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the raking sunlight most effectively picks out their carved reliefs. These astonishing religious complexes must have spent centuries as building sites, with constant works of expansion, adding obelisks, gateways and statues. Luxor Temple perfectly illustrates continuity of use ancient and modern, having been a pharaonic shrine, a Christian church and now a mosque. Karnak’s ancient name means ‘most sacred of places’ and the courtyards that are such a pleasure for all to explore now would have been accessible to few other than the temple workers of antiquity. With newly accessible ‘open-air museum’ elements at both sites, there’s now more to see than ever before – including the active work of archaeologists piecing together their gigantic jigsaw puzzles. The temples, tombs, pyramids and museums of Luxor and Cairo deliver a peerlessly immersive visitor experience and rich insights into the lives and beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. As such, few ‘voyages to antiquity’ will be as vivid – or as memorable – as those to Egypt.
Dr Campbell Price will be joining Aegean Odyssey’s epic 37-day Passage to Ancient Egypt & India cruise, departing 6 December 2018 and visiting Athens, Suez (for Cairo, Giza, Memphis, Sakkara and the monasteries of St Anthony and St Paul), Aqaba (for Petra), Safaga (for Luxor and Karnak), Salalah, Muscat, Porbandar, Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.