A new home for Tutankhamun – World Meanderings n°14
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Ever since the 18th century Western Europe is fascinated by Ancient Egypt. This Egyptomania got so “trendy” at the beginning of the 19th century that countless outfits, furniture or jewels were made with an Egyptian design. But most of all each country had to have its own Egyptian museum: the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, the Neues Museum in Berlin or the Museo Egizio in Turin all have huge exhibition rooms filled with thousands of Egyptian artefacts brought to Europe by the first Egyptologists or mere adventurers.
Among them Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter who discovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 might well be the most famous ones. This tomb of a minor king who reigned for 10 years and died at 19 in 1327 BC from an infected broken leg was not exceptional but had the rare privilege of escaping looting through 3300 years to unveil its wonders to their unbelieving eyes.
Today Egypt is willing more than ever to promote and highlight its ancient heritage. The famous Egyptian Museum built during the 19th century by Auguste Mariette and Gaston Maspero two pre-eminent French Egyptologists is not big enough to exhibit all the artefacts deserving to be seen by its visitors. Over 160 000 objects sleep in its storerooms and most of them are not even catalogued! That’s why no less than two gigantic museums, the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) and the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC) are under construction in Cairo and should open in 2018. And the figures are mind-blowing!
The GEM is being built on a 50 hA (125 ac) site located at the edge of the first desert plateau 2km away from the pyramids and the sphinx. Its enthusiastic director Tarek Sayed Tawfik was proud to show us this huge building designed by Heneghan Peng Architects, an Irish firm from Dublin. There will be a 24,000 square meters of permanent exhibition space (almost 4 football fields in size), a children’s museum, conference and education facilities and extensive gardens. A grand staircase will ascend to the upper levels from witch the visitors will have a spectacular view over the pyramids through 25 meters high windows in the shade of an amazing 70 meters long flying roof! The 3rd floor will be entirely dedicated to Tutankhamun: all of the 5,000 artefacts discovered in his tomb will be on display (only one third of them can presently be seen in the old Egyptian Museum), including 3 golden coffins, a granite sarcophagus, 4 gilded wooden shrines, furniture, chariots, clothes, weapons, 130 of the lame king’s walking sticks and of course the famous 24-pound solid gold and lapis lazuli funeral mask…
Even if the museum is not yet open to visitors, Egyptian Egyptologists and restorers along with foreign specialists are already very busy working in 17 specialized laboratories. Out of the 100,000 objects that will be on display in the museum (of which 30,000 have never been on display before) 25,000 have already been restored and are kept in a clean and sterile conservation centre. Each lab has its own field of expertise using the latest and best techniques to carefully restore wooden artefacts, stone artefacts, jewels, mummies, clothes…
In near future two 5-star hotels will be built next to the museum giving their guests the opportunity to be close to the museum and to the pyramids, an area where more hotels are desperately needed.
The NMEC is the second colossal building site in Cairo. Located in the historical Coptic district close to the only natural lake of the city it will shelter objects not only from Ancient Egypt but also from the Roman and Greek periods as well as Coptic and Islamic times. All the mummies from the Egyptian Museum and its storerooms will be transfer to the NMEC including the famous mummies of Kings Ramses II, Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep III… Works for this 135,000 square meters project began in 2004 but were interrupted for 4 years in 2011 when the Egyptian Revolution began. Khaled El Anani, its new director, spares no effort and the building is almost complete but is still an empty shell waiting for its future treasures. Hopefully a small intoducing opening will take place next year when the very first exhibition room will be ready. Next to the museum a 500 seats theatre, a 3D cinema, 42 shops, several restaurants will be part of a huge cultural centre surrounded by gardens overlooking the lake. It will be a true peaceful oasis in the middle of busy Cairo!
Khaled EL Anani is also in charge of the old Egyptian Museum that is not forgotten in these times of change. It is to be restored to its original state and will look the way it did when built in 1902 and will mostly be dedicated to Ancient Egyptian statuary.
The amazing thing about Egyptian archaeology is its never-ending evolution and new discoveries are made almost every day in the digs that are jointly carried out by Egyptian and foreign teams. Underwater digs close to Alexandria led by Frank Goddio for several years have disclosed only 2% of all that could be found in this area. The prospects are almost unimaginable! A great exhibition showing his more significant finds is presently held in a Parisian museum (the Institut du Monde Arabe) and will soon move to London.
Last year while working on the doubling of the Suez Canal workers made unexpected discoveries such as steles of Ramses II and Sesostris III and a new excavation site has been created. Recently Nicholas Reeves, a renowned British Egyptologist, propound a new theory about the whereabouts of Queen Nefertiti’s long-lost tomb. He believes that there are two hidden doorways in Tutankhamun’s burial chamber that could lead to Nefertiti’s mummy. He may have been her son and hastily buried in an outer chamber of her tomb when he suddenly died. Non-invasive radar equipment will soon be used in the tomb to confirm or invalidate this theory. This would be the most extraordinary discovery of all times. Lets cross our fingers!
Even if you’re planning to go to Egypt before the opening of these two new museums you can easily contribute to their achievement: as a tourist you pay 25 dollars for your visa and for each visa Egypt’s Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou guarantees that 2 dollars will be used for the benefits of the GEM and the NMEC: a beautiful initiative in those difficult financial times. During his press conference set in the unique site of Abu Simbel temples, Hisham Zaazou told us again how important the tourists’ security is to the Egyptian authorities that have set up high security means. Everything is done so that travelling in Egypt is safe in Cairo as well as cruising on the Nile or diving in the Red Sea. So, do as your ancestors did and give in to Egyptomania.
More Egypt info at: http://en.egypt.travel/
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny