The Statues in Egypt Used to Have Eyeballs
Updated: Jan 19
This. Changes. Everything.
Mitri the Scribe was once the highest-paid servant of Pharaoh Unas in the 24th century BC. He was the guy you went to if you wanted a temple built, or a letter written, or if you needed a funny idea for a personalized license plate. Now he sits in the middle of a room at the Cairo Museum, unmoving, unblinking.
But very much alive.
Really, this is a story about a tour guide. I promise I’m going to get back to Mitri, our Lord and Savior whom I met in Egypt, but first I want one of my favorite scribes of all time to illustrate a point I want to make about the delicate relationship between a tour guide and their tourists.
Mark Twain once wrote a whole passage in The Innocents Abroad about how to piss off your tour guide and, as a former tour guide myself, I found it hilarious.
He notes that tour guides get off on the astonishment of tourists and this is true. The most delicious sound in the world to a tour guide is a gasp of admiration from a crowd. We know that gasp is for some marvelous spectacle we’re showing to you but we secretly take a cut of it for ourselves to buff up our own egos.
In one of the funniest travel passages I’ve ever read, Twain and his friend, “The Doctor” (Doctor Who?) decide to stop giving their tour guide the satisfaction.
“Ah, genteelmen, you come wis me! I show you beautiful, O, magnificent bust Christopher Colombo! — splendid, grand, magnificent!”
He brought us before the beautiful bust — for it was beautiful — and sprang back and struck an attitude:
“Ah, look, genteelmen! — beautiful, grand, — bust Christopher Colombo! — beautiful bust, beautiful pedestal!”
The doctor put up his eye-glass — procured for such occasions:
“Ah — what did you say this gentleman’s name was?”
“Christopher Colombo! — ze great Christopher Colombo!”
“Christopher Colombo — the great Christopher Colombo. Well, what did he do?”
“Discover America! — discover America, Oh, ze devil!”
“Discover America. No — that statement will hardly wash. We are just from America ourselves. We heard nothing about it. Christopher Colombo — pleasant name — is — is he dead?”
“Oh, corpo di Baccho! — three hundred year!”
“What did he die of?”
“I do not know! — I can not tell.”
“I do not know, genteelmen! — I do not know what he die of!”
“May be — may be — I do not know — I think he die of somethings.”
“Ah — which is the bust and which is the pedestal?”
“Santa Maria! — zis ze bust! — zis ze pedestal!”
“Ah, I see, I see — happy combination — very happy combination, indeed. Is — is this the first time this gentleman was ever on a bust?”
I‘ve been lucky enough to travel to Egypt twice now and I’ve never been able to pull off a Twain level of indifference there. I went once when I was 15 and again when I was 27. I had the same tour guide both times because I can’t imagine going with anyone else. No one would have the same energy, no one is as much of a lunatic (and I mean that in the most loving way)- as Egyptologist Emil Shaker.
Emil is well-known and well-loved throughout the tourism industry in Egypt. I know this because he somehow managed to get us into every ancient temple, every museum, every pyramid, every tomb -before or after operating hours when no one else was around.
Stoney-faced security guards light up when they see him and drop their giant machine guns to their sides. Egyptologists pull him in for a hug, slap him on the back, and then proceed to pull DO NOT ENTER signs aside for us.
It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
Let me tell you, there is nothing …nothing… like watching the sun come up over the Temple of Philae (aka Temple of Isis) in Aswan when you have the entire island to yourself and the call to prayer is echoing across the Nile. You run your fingers over hieroglyphs carved into the walls by someone thousands of years before Jesus or Muhammad were even born and you get to connect with the images and the energy without the distraction of the hundreds and thousands of tourists who will swarm the place in a couple of hours.
It’s pure magic …Even with Emil shouting,
The first time I went to Egypt, Emil brought us to the Cairo Museum after-hours and basically just set us loose. I get teary just thinking about it.
Back then, the museum was a mess in the best way. It was like climbing through your grandma’s attic if your grandma had raided a thousand Egyptian tombs. Hardly anything was labeled, statues leaned against walls, artifacts were piled on top of each other, dust everywhere. It was a treasure trove of actual ancient mysteries.
At one point, I turned a corner and a young employee poked his head out from behind a statue. I jumped and he smiled brightly. He asked if I wanted to see some mummies.
I followed him into a dark room filled with wrapped mummies under glass cases. I gasped (to the young employee’s delight) and crouched down to stare into the face of none other than King Ramses II. He wasn’t labeled but I recognized him. He’s got one of the best mummy faces out there. Peak mummy face.
I have zero chill when it comes to Egypt. Here’s how Mark Twain would have handled the situation:
“See, genteelmen! — Mummy! Mummy!”
The eye-glass came up as calmly, as deliberately as ever.
“Ah, just so. Frenchman, I presume?”
“No! — not Frenchman, not Roman! — born in Egypta!”
“Born in Egypta. Never heard of Egypta before. Foreign locality, likely. Mummy — mummy. How calm he is — how self-possessed. Is, ah — is he dead?”
“Oh, sacre bleu, been dead three thousan’ year!”
The doctor turned on him savagely:
“Here, now, what do you mean by such conduct as this! Playing us for fools because we are strangers and trying to learn! Trying to impose your vile second-hand carcasses on us! — thunder and lightning, I’ve a notion to — to — if you’ve got a nice fresh corpse, fetch him out! — or by George we’ll brain you!”
The second time Emil took us to the Cairo Museum, it had changed drastically. Someone had tidied up. Gone were the piles and the dust and the ambiguity. Everything had a place and a label. Cairo itself had grown significantly in the last 12 years (the current population is 19.5 mil), and tourism is doing better than ever. So it shouldn’t have surprised me that the museum had gotten a spruce-up, but it was still a little disappointing. Especially when we discovered that Emil couldn’t get us in after-hours this time around.
Damn, he’d spoiled us rotten.
As we waded through the heavy crowds, Emil chose key statues and artifacts to point out. One woman in our group began to cry at the sight of King Akhenaten’s uniquely personal temple art and Emil wrapped an arm around her to share in her emotion. But, as much as I was excited to be back, I still felt like I was missing some of the old magic of this place.
…Until we stumbled onto this guy: