|My 1999 copy of Lonely Planet is a dog-eared, much annotated book that guided me through my early years in Egypt. While I never realistically thought I would check off every single entry in the book, I definitely tried and it was all without a fixer — just me relying on a map and a couple of paragraphs about my destination of the day. It often took more than one visit and a lot of questions before I successfully got to the site.My beloved guidebook hasn’t left the bookshelf since 2003, when I started running a travel magazine and found better, more up-to-date sources of touristy things to see and do in Egypt. But as I have come to discover through my field experiments, the Ministry of State for Antiquities Affairs (MSAA) website, however, is not one of them.
On its website, the MSAA lists 49 museums across the country; I’ve been to about half of them.
Now unlike the Lonely Planet, there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the MSAA list. Some museums have listed directions and other useful information; some do not. Some museums are open, while others have been closed for years. The Grand Egyptian Museum is still under construction, but it's on the list anyway.
So, tired of reading media reports of street crime and xenophobia, I decided to get out of the office and relive my early years chasing rumors of obscure museums and historic sites.
Lest you think I deliberately try to do things the hard way, I did attempt to get an updated list of museums from the actual ministry itself. Unfortunately, the media liaison was unresponsive. Sometimes the hard way is the only way to get things done.
Royal Carriage Museum in Bulaq: This is one of those ‘no one will ever find it’ museums, located amid the street market that is 26 July Street behind the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The horse heads on the building facade are the giveaway, but that’s about as close as you’ll get to seeing any form of royal transport. The building is completely gutted, and the workers and doorman claim it will open in about five years.
Manial Palace: This is one of my favorite sites in Cairo, and I’d heard from insiders that the restoration project would create a new carpet museum. I’d also heard rumors that the palace was now open for visitors. It’s not. The guard claims it will open in six months.
The Aquaduct: Though this restoration project in the Malek Al-Saleh area has long been completed, the site remains closed to visitors. Exuding an air of confidence and an odor of marijuana, a young man in civilian clothes offered to lead me behind the aquaduct to what he said was the site manager’s office. I politely declined. Meanwhile, the extremely elderly guard behind the gate cheerfully assured me the aquaduct would open “tomorrow.” There’s no signage and no ticket booth, so I suspect “tomorrow” never comes for the Aquaduct.
Egyptian National Railway Museum: This was my favorite failure of the day. I hadn’t been to the Cairo Train Station since September, when it was still under renovation wraps. The wraps are off now, revealing a bright, promising facade. The promise faded, however, amid the blindingly gaudy gilded lotus columns and faux pyramids inside the station.
In English, I asked the man at the brand new customer service desk where the train museum was; he told me — apparently in French — “No musée.”
So I switched to Arabic: “Mathaf Al-Qatr?”
“Ohhh, al-mathaf,” he nodded knowingly and pointed. “Platform one.”
The museum only exists in Arabic?
There is indeed a sign for the Egyptian National Railway Museum toward the end of platform one. It is, like every other space in that wing of the train station, completely gutted. Clearly, the Cairo Railway Station renovation thus far is only cosmetic surgery — both in content and customer service.
Bab Al-Futuh: Off to Islamic Cairo to see if the MSAA has implemented its proposed pricing plan of LE 100 for foriegners for the monuments of Al Moez Li Din Allah Street. The northernmost gate of the Fatimid City has stairs to the ramparts and at 4pm, a locked gate to keep people off them. No sign of a ticket booth, but the neighbors swear it’s open for tourists. The police conscripts sitting outside the gate claim it closes at 2pm.
Sabil-Kuttab of Sulaiman Agha Al-Silahdar: Finally, success! Down the street from the gate, the 19th-century public fountain and school was open. Price for foreigners, only LE 10. Safi Sultan Hussein, MSAA director for Al Moez Street monuments, tells me Bab Al-Futuh is free but only open for sightseeing from 9am to 3pm. The ministry guide for the sabil says the Al-Moez Street ticket plan is expected to be LE 100 for the whole street, not per monument.
A lack of results is still data. After four and a half hours, I learned more than I would have in a week of phone calls to government offices. Not so much about when these museums might actually open, since site guards are about as informed as the ministry’s website, only more willing to help.
I learned the MSAA has a gift shop with Arabic children’s books about mummies. From a tailor in Boulaq, I learned how a foreigner can buy a sewing machine without getting overcharged. In Islamic Cairo, I found an area that sells all types of scales and another area of metal workers making vats and shisha pipes.
It’s easy to keep yourself insulated these days amid protests and stories of crime. But putting it all in context, Cairo’s security problems, while of a scale not seen in the former President Hosni Mubarak’s police state, are not considerably different from crime in other big cities around the world. But if you set out with caution and common sense, you can have an interesting and productive day — even if it seems like you don't accomplish anything.