Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 December 2003
Issue No. 670
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A bountiful year

Retrieving some of Egypt's illegally smuggled antiquities, celebrating the Cairo Museum's centennial, opening Alexandria's National Museum and finally choosing the winner of the Grand Museum of Egypt design are the year's major achievements, writes Nevine El-Aref


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Hosni and Hawass checking a number of newly retrieved artefacts. The exquisite facade of the Alexandria National Museum. The mummy of Ramses IAn unidentified painted Ancient Egyptian bust
photos: EL-Sayed Abdel-Qader, Hussein Fathi and Mohamed Wassim
The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square was packed with journalists, photographers, high-ranking governmental officials, artists and archaeologists several times over the past year, but the most significant events were those marking the recovery of archaeological treasure from abroad.

The latest crop was a horde of 300 artefacts retrieved early in November from Geneva after a crackdown on a massive antiquities smuggling ring involving the former head of Egypt's National Democratic Party's Giza office. Tarek El- Sweissi, along with 30 others of different nationalities, were involved. The recovered items span the whole spectrum of ancient history, from predynastic to Pharaonic, through Hellenic, Ptolemaic and Roman eras, and included two mummies, several sarcophagi, statues of deities, mummy masks and many other items.

The case began six months ago when the state security police raided El-Sweissi's villa in Al-Mansouriya on the outskirts of Giza, having been tipped off regarding alleged illegal activities taking place there. They found a number of genuine artefacts and ended up arresting El-Sweissi. Two months later, in a related incident but as part of separate investigations into a suspected theft, Swiss police raided a duty-free warehouse in Geneva and seized the 300 artefacts. Investigations revealed a clear connection between El-Sweissi and the objects in Switzerland. It appears that Egyptians who took part in illegal excavations at several archaeological sites proceeded to export the antiquities by passing them off as replicas purchased from the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar. This case provided the first practical implementation of the 2002 security accord signed between Egypt and Switzerland to prevent illegal trafficking in historical objects.

The return to Egypt by Michael C Carlos Museum (MCCM) in Atlanta of a 3000-year-old royal mummy believed to be that of Ramses I, the founder of the 19th dynasty, was described by culture minister Farouk Hosni as a celebration for "the star of all retrieved objects". According to Peter Lacovara, MCCM's curator of ancient art, this initiative by the museum was due to their belief that the royal mummy should be returned to where it belongs. "There is no doubt that it was simply the right thing to do," he said. For his part, Secretary- General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Zahi Hawass described the action as a remarkable achievement that "serves as a lesson for museums all over the world".

In fact, the mummy of the great Pharaoh roamed around several US museums and archaeological laboratories for over a century after it left Egypt in 1871 as part of a large-scale sell-off of treasures looted from Luxor's Valley of the Kings. At the MCCM, the mummy was subjected to three years of intensive study. According to museum director Bonnie Speed, CT scan, X-rays, radiocarbon dating, computer imaging and other techniques were used to identify the mummy and ensure that it was actually a royal mummy. MCCM is 95 per cent certain that it belongs to Ramses I -- the father of Seti I and grandfather of Ramses II.

MCCM also handed over four fragments of a limestone relief hacked off the walls of Seti I's tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1860. They came into the museum's possession as part of a lot of 145 ancient objects purchased from the Niagara Falls Museum in 1999. The pieces make up a beautiful painted relief featuring standing figures of the deceased in front of deities along with a horizontal hieroglyphic text. The oval molding of the fragments suggests that the pieces came from the innermost part of the tomb.

There were two other retrieved items this year. One was a 350 kilogramme limestone relief of Pashen-Khunsu, a high- ranking official during the reign of 26th dynasty pharaoh Psamtiak It was handed over to Egypt by the FBI following the investigation of New York art dealer Frederick Schultz, recently convicted of receiving and possessing stolen antiquities. The relief is divided into two sections: one filled with hieroglyphic inscriptions, the other featuring a group of three men and a woman standing in front of the god Osiris.

The second item recovered is a 1.5-metre-high limestone statue of Hathor, the goddess of love and motherhood which dates back to 1550 BC. It was in the possession of an unidentified Canadian woman who gave it to the Ontario Museum in Canada after she was convinced that her home was being subjected to the pharaohs' curse.

Alexandria National Museum

The opening of the Alexandria National Museum was a dream come true for all Alexandrines. Inside the splendid white Italian-style palace of the late Egyptian lumber trader Bassili Pasha, a collection of 1,800 objects is now on display. The objects span the numerous transformations of Alexandria from its humble beginnings in Pharaonic times to its development by Alexander the Great and through to the Islamic period under Mohamed Ali.

To harmonise the museum's interior design and the artefacts on display, Italian designer Maurizzo De Paulo created sophisticated hanging diagonal showcases in which the artefacts are suspended. He painted the walls in each section of the museum in a different colour in order to create a suitable ethereal ambiance for each. According to the director of the conservation and restoration Aymen Abdel Moneim, the museum's collection has never been exhibited before. The pieces were previously in storage in various museums, the Egyptian, Coptic and Islamic in Cairo, and the Graeco-Roman and Jewellery museums in Alexandria.

The artefacts are exhibited chronologically as one ascends from one floor to the next, and a hall in the basement has been transformed into an audio-visual workshop where visitors can tour the museum via computer programmes that display each item from a variety of angles along with appropriate identification. The old garage of the building has been converted into a lecture hall and there is an open air theatre for evening performances.

The Grand Museum of Egypt

The site to the north of the Giza pyramids for a grand museum of Egyptian heritage was chosen long ago, and its foundation stone laid by President Mubarak. For many years following, architects around the world, in response to an international competition, have been preparing their designs for the 117 feddan site (1 feddan = about one acre). The thousands of designs submitted were carefully considered, pared down to shortlists of 100 then 20, until only three remained. The final choice was difficult, but the winner was architect Shih-Fu Peng of the Dublin firm Heneghan. He created a partially submerged, desert-hugging design with a terraced roof line reflecting the three pyramids of Giza. Peng's design will cover an area of approximately 500,000 square metres of land and will include an exhibition space of 38,000 square metres.

Described by the first lady Suzanne Mubarak as the apex of Egypt's efforts to protect its heritage through the ages, the museum's 130,000 artefacts will span from predynastic times to the early Roman period. The design will create a luxurious complex that will expand the visitors' knowledge and enrich their museum experience through interactive techniques and technologies. The most important objects to be housed in the new museum will be funerary treasures of the boy-king Tutankhamun and Hetep-Heres, mother of Khufu the builder of the Great Pyramid, as well as the marvellous collection of Yuya and Thuya, the grandparents of Akhenaten, the pharaoh who worshipped one god, Aten, and has consequently been called the first monotheist. Objects from the tomb of Sennedjem, the principal artist during the reign of Ramses II, have also been chosen for display, as well as the royal mummies and treasures from the royal cemetery of Tanis.

Mohamed Ghoneim, head of the executive authority of the project, described the museum's thematic displays, beginning with one of the physical environment depicting the River Nile and Valley, swamps, deserts and oases. The second theme will be kingship and the state, featuring traditions, building activities and wars in various dynasties. The third will feature Pharaonic religion as practiced under the pharaoh Akhenaten and, finally, a display will feature the daily lives of the people, their sports, music, arts and crafts as well as their cultural and social norms.

There will be a training centre where short courses will be given to aspiring Egyptologists, museum curators and conservationists, with courses for IT specialists, a special section for children to encourage them to know their heritage, and extensive restaurant and shopping facilities. The estimated time of completion is five years.

The Egyptian Museum

The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir square will remain a major landmark. This year the ministry of culture, in collaboration with the SCA, carried the historical building into the 21st century as they celebrated its centenary. A number of innovations were introduced to mark the 100-year milestone.

Visitors now enter the neo-classical building through a white marble gate and the building itself has been restored to its original deep-rose colour. The most dramatic and important change, however, has been the clearance of the basement and its transformation into a display area. There an exhibition entitled "The Hidden Treasures of the Egyptian Museum" features 250 objects which have lain lost and forgotten for years in dusty storerooms or vaults. Among those items are 40 artefacts from the Tutankhamun's collection including gold amulets and small pieces of jewellery, a well-preserved mummified foot with a wooden artificial toe which reveals the world's oldest prosthesis surgery, and painted limestone statues of Kai, high priest of Khufu, as well as other Old Kingdom statues discovered at Giza featuring a seated scribe and servant baking bread in front of an oven.

The structure is both a living museum and an archaeological institution. Two schools for children and adults have been established. Both aim to provide a direct link between people and the monuments representing their history, allowing more people to become acquainted with their heritage by learning about it in an appropriate environment.

Ali Radwan, professor of Ancient Egyptian civilization at Cairo University, says the schools are important for a country with so many antiquities; they foster an understanding of how important it is to protect their ancient treasure from being lost or smuggled illegally out of the country.

Egyptian treasures abroad

For the first time ever, two exhibitions of Pharaonic antiquities were staged in China; in Shanghai and Beijing. The 142 objects on display were chosen to exemplify different periods of ancient history. In North America, another exhibition of funerary monuments highlighting the Pharaohs' quest for immortality will be on tour for the next five years, taking in 14 American states and Canada. In Britain, Egyptian antiquities were the toast of the town in London as the British Museum celebrated its 250th birthday with an entire week devoted to its ancient Egyptian collection.

The most controversial of all exhibitions this year was that of the painted bust of the beautiful Queen Nefertiti, which has been on display in solitary, stunningly dramatic surroundings in the Egyptian National Museum in Berlin since it was out of Egypt in 1924. The outcry was caused by the decision to allow the bust to be fused to a contemporary bronze body created by two Hungarian artists. The result was an outpouring of Egyptian and international anger. The deed was described by Egypt's culture minister Farouk Hosni as an act of sabotage and a reckless, irresponsible and unethical action. Dietrich Wildung, the Berlin museum's director, on the other hand, claimed that the placement of Nefertiti's bust atop a bronze torso was but a temporary promotional exercise and that the two Hungarian artists who sculpted the body meant it as an imaginative model of Nefertiti's physical body, which, by itself, would be exhibited temporarily at the Venice Biennale.

Hosni called for the removal of the masterpiece of Egyptian art from the newly fabricated body because it provided a threat to the ancient artefact: it could, he said, fall and break, or the erosion process could be accelerated through contact with the materials used to make the body. A couple of days later the beautiful bust returned back to its serenity.

All in all it has been a bountiful year on all counts, interspersed with not a few surprises.

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