There is much in Cairo that cannot be seen in a few days or a week, not because you run out of time, but because the people who manage time seemingly try to trick you. Museums open and close with the whims of whomever is in charge. At one, you can’t take pictures. At another, it costs double the ticket to take pictures. A friend arrived at the Museum of Islamic Art a half hour before closing time. The workers turned her away because they wanted to go home early. At the 6th of October War Panorama, I went back three times before I got in.
If you’re diligent, you’ll unearth wonders. I went to two museums during my last week in Cairo, both of which we’re closed more than once when I tried to go in the past. They are dust-saturated mausoleums for old objects and old ways of seeing the world. At the Postal Museum, housed in the modern-day central post office, you pay roughly thirty cents to see displays of Ancient Egyptian “postal technology” (hollowed out coconuts and pigeon straps), stamps from around the world and hundreds of old signing seals for wax. There is a mosaic made of 15,000 stamps. There are old uniforms of Ottoman postal workers and their leather bags and hundreds of letters and models of trains, boats, and airplanes.
The Ethnological Museum is even more obscure. You can’t take pictures because it’s housed in the Wes Anderson-esque Egypt Geographic Society, on the same property as the national Shura Council, the upper house of parliament. The museum was founded in 1895 by Khedive Ismail, whose bust is proudly displayed next to his successors, to display objects collected by the Egyptian army as they roamed below the Sahara The old colonial museums of this sort in Europe were likely closed down out of new definitions of distastefulness. In Cairo, they expanded to include an even bigger crowd of objects reflecting, “the habits and customs of the Egyptian countryside.” It’s like the Agriculture Museum, but more colonial: elephant feet, turtle-shell shields, all manner of spears, crusty plate photographs of central-African ‘natives.’
The true gem of this house of dust is a machine designed by French engineers that mimics a trip through the Suez Canal. The old man leading us through the museum had us stand in front of a giant piece of glass. Behind it we saw a diorama depicting a cruise ship circa 1920, with men and women in starched Victorian outfits. He disappeared behind a dwarf-sized door and flipped a switch. The great machine started up into a whir, and the background , which had depicted the opening of the canal, began to move, slowly, evenly, through a painting that must have been 40 feet long and depicted the entirety of the Canal’s East and West banks, from Port Said down through Qantara to Ismailia to Port Tawfiq. “The machine has been here for eighty years,” the guide said, “and it’s never once broken.”