Updated: Mar 8, 2022
Egypt, understandably, has its fair share of museums; 7,000+ years of civilization will do that to you. Cairo alone has over a dozen really interesting museums covering different aspects of Egyptian history, civilization and culture, so imagine how many the country as a whole has.
That being said, not all museums were created equal, and while they’re all most definitely worth a visit, some are crucial to truly understanding Egypt beyond just the Pyramids and the Sphinx.
Egyptian history is vast: you have prehistoric, Ancient Egypt, Greco-Roman (and the introduction of Christianity), medieval (and the introduction of Islam), Ottoman Egypt, the French occupation, the Muhammad Ali dynasty and Khedivate, the British occupation, the Sultanate of Egypt followed by the monarchy, the revolution in 1952 and its following republic and the revolution on January 25th, 2011. Whew!
Obviously visiting a few museums won’t be making you an Egyptian scholar but it’s a good place to start to try to wrap your head around Egypt’s mind-boggling history.
1. Karnak Open Air Museum
Type of museum: archaeological
Located in the Karnak temple complex in Luxor (former ancient Egyptian capital Thebes) near the Amon-Re Temple Enclosure is the oft-overlooked Open Air Museum. It’s a great addition to just seeing the temple complex; the museum has some beautiful and extremely well-preserved monuments: the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut, the Chapel of Senusret I (said to vie with the beauty of Nefterari’s tomb), the wall of Akhenaton, the Alabaster Chapel of Amenhotep I and other pharaonic chapels, shrines and temple fronts.
This museum is the largest open-air archeological museum in the world, and a great way to really immerse yourself in Ancient Egypt -- the artifacts are above, below and all around you, and not tucked away behind glass.
2. Cairo Museum (Egyptian Museum of Antiquities)
Type of museum: Ancient Egyptian antiquities
Before the long-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum opens its doors in late 2022, Cairo Museum is the best one-stop-shop for becoming acquainted with different aspects of Ancient Egyptian history. Home to over 120,000 ancient Egyptian artifacts, the Cairo Museum holds the world’s largest collection of pharaonic antiquities.
It’s here where you can see the infamous King Tutankhamun collection, complete with his sarcophagus and gold burial mask.
Local tip: it’s worth going with a guide (there are also relatively knowledgeable touts there who will offer to work as a guide for a negotiable fee), because many of the exhibits don’t have descriptions.
3. Alexandria National Museum
Type of museum: Alexandrian history
Alexandria, the ancient Mediterranean city and capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, is of paramount importance in Egyptian history. If you’re fuzzy about the story of Alexandria, its National Museum will help sort you out. The museum itself from an architectural standpoint isn’t that impressive, but don’t judge a book by its cover -- its contents definitely make up for what its facade lacks.
Its exhibits are divided chronologically into eras to help you flesh things out a bit: pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Christian, Islamic and modern. There’s also a section for underwater monuments (some monuments still exist till present day in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Alexandria!).
4. National Museum of Egyptian Civilization
Type of museum: historical
Location: Fustat, Old Cairo
This large museum hosts over 50,000 artefacts from all eras of Egyptian civilization, from prehistoric times, through the pharaonic era up until now - and good news, because it's been recently renovated, all displays have clearly stated information, so no guide needed!
The museum is divided into two sections: chronological and thematic. The chronological runs through Archaic, Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic, Medieval, Islamic, modern and contemporary Egyptian eras, and the thematic covers Dawn of Civilization, The Nile, Writing, State and Society, Material Culture, Beliefs and Thinking and the Gallery of Royal Mummies.
The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization is also touted as the first museum of civilization in the Arab world.
The gallery of the Royal Mummies is definitely one of the highlights of this museum - in this quiet, tomb-like space, you can see 20 royal mummies that are thousands of years old, including some of the most famous pharaohs of all time like Ramses II.
For more info, here's their website.
5. Museum of Islamic Art
Type of museum: Islamic heritage
This art museum holds over 100,000 pieces of Islamic heritage from not only Egypt but also Arab and non-Arab countries alike, and is important in understanding Egypt’s Islamic history.
Many of the pieces were gathered from the first Islamic capitals of Egypt (Fustat and Askar), prior to the rise of Cairo. Pieces were also selected from the Delta, Fayoum, Luxor and Aswan.
Other collections of note: their wooden collection, which has some of the most beautiful and intricate woodwork from the days of early Islam, as well as beautiful ceramics and lamps.
6. Coptic Museum
Type of museum: Coptic Christian heritage
Known as the best place to learn about Coptic history in Egypt, this museum hosts over 1,600 pieces, dating back to the early days of Coptic Christianity in the 3rd and 4th century AD.
This museum is known for its bibles written in the 11th and 13th centuries in both Arabic and the Coptic language on deerskin, as well as Christian writings on papyrus dating back to the 6th century.Other collections of note: its icon display, as well as pottery, glass, metal, wooden and textile collections.
Local tip: the museum is located in an area of Old Cairo called Coptic Cairo, walking distance from some very worth-seeing churches such as the Hanging Church and Mar Girgis church.
7. Nubian Museum
Type of museum: Nubian heritage
Nubians hail from southern Egypt and northern Sudan, and their history is as old as Ancient Egypt’s. The preservation of Nubian culture is extremely important, because the heartland of Nubia was destroyed due to the flooding of the Nile.
The museum tells the story of Nubia from its start as a prehistoric Nile Valley civilization, through the pharaonic era and introduction of Christianity and Islam to Egypt, up to the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s.
8. Bibliotheca Alexandrina Museums: Sadat Museum, Manuscripts Museum, Antiquities Museum and History of Science Museum
Type of museum: varied
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is the new Library of Alexandria, built in 2002 as a nod to the ancient library and its spirit of knowledge and learning. The original was an ancient wonder of the world, but was sadly destroyed in the Roman conquest of Alexandria around 2,000 years ago.
The library is home to four different and important museums: the Sadat Museum, dedicated to the former Egyptian president and also a look at modern Egyptian history; the Manuscripts Museum, which focuses on the conservation and restoration of ancient Egyptian manuscripts; the Antiquities Museum, with special focus given to Alexandrian and Hellenistic collections; and the History of Science Museum, which highlights the historical aspect of science in Egypt during three major periods: ancient Egypt, Hellenistic Alexandria, and the Arab-Muslim World.
You might also like: 7 Beautiful Palaces You Can Still Visit in Cairo Today