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January 8, 2008

Egyptian Agricultural Museum—متحف الزراعي المصري

Filed under: Masr —مصر,Nile—النيل — Tags: , , , , — admin @ 7:19 pm


Museums are interesting creatures in general, but they seem to become even more so with a constrained budget. The lack of polish tends to bring the building blocks and construction methods—material and ideological—into relief. It’s difficult to focus on the other world into which one is being transported when the vehicle is backfiring and the transmission sounds like it’s about to drop.

Our second field-trip for the Nile River class took us to the Egyptian Agricultural Museum. This is actually a complex of somewhat separate museums in Dokki, just across the Nile from downtown Cairo. Our first stop was the Museum of Ancient Egyptian Agriculture, the centerpiece of the museum and the main focus of the webpage liked above. A man I take to be the curator led us on a tour of the place. It was at times difficult to follow his broken English, but we managed. We began at a small pond in front of the building where he pointed out the papyrus in the middle and the lotus in the water itself, symbols of upper and lower Egypt, respectively. The papyrus was looking a bit anemic and I didn’t actually see any lotus at all. He also pointed out the landscaping around the pond with plants like rosemary and geraniums found in ancient Egypt. He also made note of the statues in the garden, which had at some point in the none-too-recent past been painted black, perhaps to simulate the dark dolerite out of which some of the finer Egyptian statues were carved. He told us of how the ancient Egyptians were the first to make use of such garden statuary.

Next, he provided a translation of the hieroglyphs on the doorway to the museum, with a brief introduction to the notion of Egypt as a land of the Nile flood.

Inside, my nostrils were immediately assaulted with the smell of mothballs. The smell is quite common in Cairo, including in my own apartment building, but nowhere has the effect been quite so overpowering as here.


In the foyer were a couple reproductions of hieroglyphic representations of animal husbandry in ancient Egypt. The odd way in which they had been colored detracted from the images. One panel showed the force-feeding of a dog in order to domesticate it, and another showed representations of early veterinary science.

After this point, I have to say that I found it increasingly difficult to focus on our tour guide between his mediocre English (at least in terms of pronunciation) and my tenuous interest in what he was talking about. It takes either a charming presentation or a more sophisticated analysis than one finds with the usual crop of State-trained and -sanctioned tour guides to hold my attention. In this case, the presentation was more goofy than charming (perhaps owing to the age of his usual visitors) and he spoke with that authoritative tone that has inspired in me a combination of distrust and boredom since high school.

So, I wandered around, returning occasionally to the tour guide so as not to offend. It was in this way that I caught a few choice moments in his presentation. At one point, he described a display of ancient Egyptian perfumes, using the same line as a hundred perfume vendors in downtown Cairo: these perfumes were made from essential oils, not from alcohol. One gets the impression sometimes that such marketing ploys come by decree from the government or something: “This season you will grow sugarcane and Egyptian perfumes contain no alcohol”. Why on earth is a museum curator and tour guide concerned with selling Egyptian perfumes? Perhaps I missed the gift shop where he was selling Egyptian perfumes manufactured through ancient recipes from the temple at Kom Ombo. Maybe he moonlights as a perfume vendor (there are so many perfumeries in Cairo that I can’t imagine any of their proprietors farther than 500 meters from the Nile Hilton can make enough money to live without either a State job or State subsidies).


Again, perhaps owing to the fact that many of the people who visit the museum are schoolchildren (or to the tendency of tour guides to infantalize their flocks—see my post on transporting tourists here), our guide and/or curator had a particular liking for ancient Egyptian cartoons or caricatures. Even more strangely, he consistently used Mickey Mouse as the cultural referent by which to explain the caricatures.

[singlepic=660,240,180,,right]Relatedly, there was one display case devoted to ancient festival baked-goods—with singularly unappetizing examples apparently extracted from tombs—many of which were shaped into the forms of animals or people. The curator, in an apparent effort to drive the point home, also included some modern-day animal crackers for comparison. In the midst of these dessicated, dirt-colored, crumbly (not in a Betty-Crocker-Cake-Mix-commercial kind of way) “cookies” and the stale P.T. Barnum modern equivalent, I would be remiss if I were to neglect to mention the dessert bowl of mothballs in a corner of the display. I have a pretty strong stomach, but only a concerted effort to make myself laugh prevented me from vomiting.

There were also numerous displays of ancient agricultural implements and even quite a few examples of remarkably well-preserved grains, fruits and vegetables. In each was at least 1/4 kilo of mothballs, left in their original packaging, with the bags sliced open.

Three different dioramas attempted to illustrate the process by which ancient Egyptians hunted game, harvested wheat and made wine, respectively.


In a nook in the wall, in a rather prominent part of the museum, the curator had placed a map of the Nile in Egypt, including also some of the desert oases. Our guide explained the map, describing the evolution of hydrology on the Nile and in the various desert depressions, ending with the common refrain of the need for the country to encourage desert development in order to feed its exploding population. He had written a book on Egypt’s agricultural methods through the ages, a copy of which he gave to Rick Tutwiler. He ended our tour with the same lecture about agricultural development.

By that time, I was pretty burnt out on the place, having at last succumbed to what some of us refer to as museum-itis (closely related to a similar condition: mall-itis), the state of dysphoric lethargy reached through sustained browsing. Symptoms include slouched shoulders, wobbly knees, mouth uncontrollably held slightly agape, either dry mouth or drooling, shallow breathing, an inability to focus the eyes or respond to simple commands and an irresistible urge to eat, drink, smoke, snort or otherwise consume something, ANYTHING to punctuate the undifferentiated phantasmagoria of browsing. Temporary relief can be found in the gift shop (or the food court in the event of mall-itis). A particularly pernicious variant of the condition is found in the form of “casino-itis”. Thankfully, the condition is not considered contagious and is easily remedied by sunshine and/or birdsong.

But enough of this silliness.
Fascinating as the Ancient Egyptian Agriculture Museum was, it left us little time to visit the other museum Rick intended to take us to. I’m not sure what the technical name of this museum was, but it was likewise something of a freakish experience, even from the moment we walked into the poorly-lit building, apparently the former residence of Egyptian royalty (which is to say Turkish royalty, more exactly). We entered and looked around a bit and Rick headed toward a figure seated near one wall. The guy seemed unperturbed by our presence and remained there, motionless. We were only a few feet away before we realized it was a mannequin. [singlepic=663,240,180,,right]A living person, not dressed much differently from the many mannequins representing residents of Upper Egypt on display, finally approached and briefly greeted us, then fetched a woman from the office who tried to explain a few things about the displays. We quickly walked past the weird, life-sized dioramas of a wedding party, an ‘ahua (cafe), a spice vendor, etc., eventually reaching the models of various regulators (dams, barrages, and so forth) on the Nile. Most of the models were quite impressive, and some even had working moving parts. Side rooms held displays, clearly aimed at Egyptian schoolchildren, detailing various agricultural practices, most of which revolved around problems and solutions in the control and regulation of the water of the Nile. [singlepic=673,240,180,,left]Within the inner sanctum of this temple in honor of Egyptian irrigation projects we found the room devoted to the Aswan High Dam. On the left was a diagram in cross-section of the dam, the same one probably already firmly implanted in the minds of the young visitors through their textbooks, now reinforced and cemented there until such time as their bodies too can finally be colonized by the image through a field trip to the dam itself. The diagram shows various layers of materials used in the construction of this monument to the triumph of man over “silent nature,” to quote from the version of the diagram in Aswan. [singlepic=672,240,180,,right]At the very back of this room, behind some very opaque glass, is a scale model of the High Diggety Dam with lights in the powerhouse and everything, constructed before the dam itself was (the frequent need to refer back to “the dam itself” is testament to the prevalence and ubiquity of its image). Having already visited the dam on the ALI Nile cruise, I have to say that the model reminds me more of the model train landscapes of the Adams Family (upon which the father, Gomez Adams, in every episode orchestrates a massive train wreck, complete with model explosives) than the dam itself, and it’s not just because the Soviet-Egyptian Friendship monument is in the wrong place. The clean, straight lines and flat textures tend to erase and obscure the utter messiness of the endeavor, from the murky political waters of the day to the simple brutality of massive forced relocation drowned under a sea of good intentions. It is perhaps not by mistake that the water of the Nile as represented in both the diagram and the scale model has no waves.


After visiting the High Dam room, we went upstairs to the second level of the museum, which consisted primarily of taxidermy animals, many of which were apparently trophies of the members of the royal family who lived in the palace that presently houses the museum. This theory is lent credence by the display of a moose head (my camera ran out of batteries before I could get a shot). I’m fairly certain (quite positive, in fact) that there are no moose in Egypt.

While many of the animals had been carefully stuffed and posed and placed in simulations of their natural environment, the majority—especially birds—were simply arranged in series on boards or in display cases, packed one against the other, with multiple specimens of the same few species in a sort of gruesome atrocity exhibition—a kind of holocaust museum of the animal kingdom. One fellow, apparently desperate for baksheesh, led us into a locked room to see the stuffed big cats. There were a few lions, each of which was in bad shape in one way or another. They were all bandaged up, with limbs broken and askew and stuffing spilling out. The leopard conveyed a look not so much menacing, which is the usual intended effect, but simply scared and mournful, as if he were aware of the dusty room and mangled company that would be his eternal fate.

Between the stench of naphthalene, the mummified, dessicated and taxidermied displays, the fading and yellowed pictures and posters and the accumulation of plain-ol dust, my experience in both museums gave me the impression of an only half-successful battle to ward off death and decay, resuscitate extinct cultures and shore up moribund ideologies. This is not, I suppose, much different from the way museums function in general, but as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this struggle becomes more evident for what it is—and less successful—in the absence of sufficient funding.


  1. After reading Wikipedia’s entry on Napthalene, I’m concerned about your health! Stay away from these stinky haunts in the future. Are moths really that much of a problem there?

    Comment by michael — January 21, 2008 @ 4:40 am

  2. You did a whole course on the Nile and you still refer to the “Aswan High Dam”? Your professor did a lousy job of teaching you if you don’t know the difference between the two.

    Comment by klsdf — May 10, 2010 @ 9:43 am

  3. Hey “klsdf”, I’m guessing that since you didn’t even bother to take your fingers off of your keyboard’s home keys to type your name that you similarly won’t bother to answer this follow-up question: What the fuck are you talking about? It’s called the “Aswan High Dam.” I’ve never heard it called anything else, other than, occasionally, simply the “Aswan Dam”, usually in the media where they don’t care to be terribly specific about which one they’re talking about, or the “High Dam”, when you’re in Egypt and it’s understood to what is being referred.

    Comment by admin — May 10, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

  4. An enjoyable read, fascinating country. How ever your little piece on museum-itis is so true, there’s so much history in Egypt it’s tempting to try to see it all. The problem with this is you can easily forget to enjoy yourself and what should be an exceptional experience can become sort of mundane.

    Comment by Nile Cruises — September 20, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

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