Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 October - 5 November 2003
Issue No. 662
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'A philosophy of colours'

Alexandria's long-awaited National Museum is open. Nevine El-Aref tours the state-of-the-art complex


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Hosni and Hawass showing President and Mrs Mubarak Alexandria's ancient map at the museum; Greek mythological figure Medusa with snake hair; The family in Ancient Egyptian society represents unity and harmony; Alexander the Great; funerary mask of a woman
As the principal anchorage of the Hellenic Empire, the Ptolemaic capital and Egypt's second largest metropolis, the Mediterranean port of Alexandria has always been a centre of cultural significance. Celebration of this has been a big part of Alexandria's recent development. Last year, the inauguration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was an international event. Now, the opening of the Alexandria National Museum again draws attention to this Mediterranean gem.

Situated on Fouad Street, near the centre of the city, the resplendent white Italian-style museum sits in an expansive garden of rare trees and plants. Construction on the site was first undertaken in 1929 by well-known trader Bassili Pasha. His three-storey mansion became a beacon attracting the upper echelons of Egyptian society, including notables such as Egypt's former Prime Ministers Ismail Sedqi Pasha and Ali Maher Pasha. Sold first to the American Consulate in 1960, in 1997 the Ministry of Culture bought this prime slice of real estate for a mere LE12 million.

"The conversion of such a magnificent building to its current purpose is a revival of Alexandria's youth," says Mahmoud Mabrouk, head of the museum department in the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). The museum spans the numerous transformations of Alexandria from its humble beginnings in Pharaonic times, to its development by Alexander the Great, and through to the Mohamed Ali era. Italian designer Maurizzo De Paulo has created sophisticated hanging diagonal glass showcases in which the artefacts are suspended. De Paulo also painted the walls of each section in the museum a different colour in order to create an ethereal ambiance as on passes through Alexandria's various eras.

"The interior design is a philosophy of colours," said Ayman Abdel- Moneim, director of the conversion and restoration project. The Pharaonic section features a dark blue wall representing the journey to an eternal afterlife, while the Graeco-Roman objects are set against a sky-blue backdrop, reflecting romance and lust for life. As Copts and Muslims share beliefs concerning heaven, the sections reserved for artefacts from these religious traditions were painted green.

"Converting this exquisite early-20th-century-style building into a state-of-the-art antiquities museum was not an easy task," Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly. He said that constructing a museum from scratch at the project's 2001 inception would have been easier than transforming the classic building into a museum, given its required display areas and other facilities. Hosni explained that the main difficulty was creating a distinguished and attractive display without negatively impacting the building's magnificent architecture and interior design. The aim was to harmonise the museum's interior design and the artefacts on display. The briefest walk through the complex demonstrates the project's resounding success.

Passing through the main gate, one mounts an elegant semi-rounded staircase in view of a life-size Graeco-Roman marble statue of a toga- clad matron. Crossing a small but luxuriously decorated foyer with two rows of speckled grey marble columns, the tour of the interior begins. The museum's collection amounts to 1,800 pieces of art, none of which have ever been exhibited before. They were previously in storage in the Egyptian, Coptic and Islamic Museums in Cairo, as well as the Graeco-Roman and Jewellery Museums in Alexandria. That they see now the light of day is a great development for us all.

The artefacts are exhibited chronologically as one ascends from one floor to the next. The basement is devoted to Prehistoric and Pharaonic times, the first floor to the Graeco-Roman period, and the second to the Coptic and Islamic era. A section of the museum is also devoted to the jewellery of Mohamed Ali's family.

The Pharaonic section includes items from the critical periods of ancient history -- the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms. Among the masterpieces on display are the statue of King Menkaure, the builder of the third pyramid, a fine statue of a scribe and several statuettes of servants depicted in the midst of daily activities. There are also a number of offering tables, building tools and statues of deities. There is, in addition, a replica of a tomb, similar to those in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, with genuine funerary furniture. Canopic jars, anthropoid sarcophagi containing mummies, ushabti figures and the deceased's private possessions are all part of this mise-en-scène that offers a snapshot of the Ancient Egyptian world-view of burial and the afterlife.

Alexandria was a Graeco-Roman city of great splendour, and there is no scarcity of objects from this period of splendour. Among the most noteworthy are the beautifully painted terra-cotta Tanagra figurines of fashionably dressed Greek women. The figurines stand motionless with styled looks, wearing hats or veils, holding children, fans or pets. From the Roman era are busts of the Emperor Hadrian and a red granite statue of Caracala. The collection includes reports from pioneering scientific studies on the human body undertaken in Alexandria, complete with marble hands, legs and torsos.

A highlight of the museum is a display (on the Graeco-Roman floor) of artefacts raised during underwater excavations around Alexandria in recent years. To provide a comprehensive look at this new branch of archaeology, huge posters feature activities from various underwater sites over the last four years. Ibrahim Darwish, director of the Alexandria National Museum, said that the most important pieces raised from the sea bed on display are the black basalt statue of a high priest in a temple of the goddess Isis, lifted in 1998, a granite statue of Isis found in May 2001 and the granite stela of King Nakhtnebef, which is an identical copy of the Naucratis stela discovered in the sunken city of Heraklion offshore from Abuqir.

The floor devoted to Coptic and Islamic items have a variety of objects from Egypt's two most prominent religious traditions. Coptic items include icons of Jesus and the Virgin Mary and the Last Supper, as well as tombstones and clothes decorated with golden and silver crosses. Among the Islamic objects are a collection of 162 gold and silver coins minted in Alexandria, a number of metal incense burners, chandeliers, decorated pottery, doors and mashrabiya windows inset with geometrical ivory ornamentation.

The lives of Egypt's former royal family is revealed in a collection of magnificent jewellery, bejewelled gold and silver awards, watches, crystal glasses and vases, not to mention gold-plated handbags, rings, necklaces and bracelets.

No modern museum is complete without its high-tech restoration laboratory for antiquities and electronic security system to preserve them, and this museum is no exception. Also, a hall in the basement has been transformed into an audio-visual workshop in which visitors can tour the museum via computer programmes that display every item in the museum from a variety of angles. Use has been made of every available space. The old garage for the American Consulate's staff has been converted into a lecture hall and an open air theatre for evening performances.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, said this is the first of many national museums to be constructed around Egypt. Similar museums are planned for Aswan, Mansoura, Sohag and Damietta. It is also the first of two other new museums in Alexandria; the Naval and Mosaic museums. The city already prides itself on the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Graeco-Roman Museum and the Jewellery Museum.

"The Alexandria Museum, which has been officially inaugurated early last month by President Hosni Mubarak and Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, stands as a living memory of the diversity that has always been an overriding characteristic of a city that has preserved a distinctive trace of every epoch of its long history ... providing a splendid edifice and imparting the sublime meaning embedded in it to the soul," Hosni concluded.

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