History in geological time
On the occasion of the centenary of the Egyptian Geological Museum, Jill Kamil meets one of its most faithful companions
Click to view caption|
Student interest in their most ancient past; the Aegyptopithcus is one of the most important specimens in the collection of the Geological Museum. This extraordinary fossilised creature was more advanced than the proconsul Africanus of the Rift Valley; fossilised shark tooth (Late Eocene) with recent shark teeth in the background; an artistic rendition of a large rhino-like creature, of which there are no descendants, that lived some 34 million years ago. Its fossilised remains were found in the Qatrani formation of Fayoum
The official opening of the Egyptian Geological Museum 100 years ago was not just a big day for Egypt, but a major international event. The museum was the first of its kind not only in the Middle East, but on the whole continent of Africa. Its inauguration came barely eight years after the establishment of the Egyptian Geological Survey (EGS) by the Khedive Ismail in 1896. The aim from the outset was to display unique and monumental rocks and fossils brought back by the different expeditions that were then being sent out into the remotest parts of the country's deserts.
One person who knows the museum's history intimately is former EGS president, Rushdi Said. After studying at Zurich and Harvard, Said now lives in the US. He is an infectious and articulate proponent of geology, to which he has dedicated his life's work.
When I asked him about the early years of the museum, he singled out the expedition sent to survey the Fayoum desert under the leadership of Hugh Beadnell in 1898. "This expedition brought back a throve of unique vertebrate fossils that were extracted from the bone beds of Qasr Al-Sagha to the north of Birqet Qarun," Said explained.
The Fayoum bone beds form part of an ancient deltaic complex belonging to the late Eocene-Oligocene age, dating from between 34 and 42 million years ago. Said told me that the delta must have been fed by a major river or rivers whose course or courses cannot be traced today. "All evidence of them has eroded away. But the deltaic deposits of these rivers were preserved, because they were covered by a hard basalt sheet that was spewed out during the period of volcanic activity that followed their formation."
Fossil vertebrates were first located in the Fayoum by the German naturalist and explorer George Schweinfurth who lived in Helwan, to the south of Cairo. In 1879, he reported the discovery of shark teeth and whale bones in the Eocene beds of Gezirit Al-Qurn, an island near the centre of Lake Qarun. "Schweinfurth sent these to a German paleontologist for identification and study, and it was confirmed that the fossils dated to 40 million years ago," said Said. "This generated great interest in Fayoum, and many individual scientists came to collect fossil vertebrates which they then deposited in European universities and museums. Among them were Baron Nopsca and Richard Markgraf. The latter had considerable luck in uncovering mammal fossils, both large and small."
One of the most important discoveries was made by vertebrate paleontologist Elwin Simons in 1906, who unearthed the jaw of a primate that had lived in Egypt between 28 and 30 million years ago. "It was identified by Henry Osborne as a sort of dawn ape," commented Said. It had a short tail and low brow. The celebrated paleontologists of Kenya, the Leakeys, compared it to Afropithecus, observing that it had similar facial cranium and mandibles. But Said prefers another interpretation: "Simons suggested that it was our Aegyptopithecus that evolved into what eventually turned into orangutans and chimpanzees. Successive excavations have produced a virtually unbroken chain illustrating the evolution of that genus from monkeys into the higher apes, and then man."
Thanks to this find, Fayoum became one of the most important centres in the world for the study of paleontology, and its enormous potential attracted specialists from far afield. As a result of their endeavours a large numbers of fossils found their way abroad, to the British Museum, the Natural History Museum in Munich, and the Museum of Natural History in New York, among others.
The Egyptian Geological Museum (EGM) was originally housed in a building in the gardens of the Ministry of Public Works in Sheikh Al-Rayan Street. The premises were designed in Graeco-Roman style by Dourgnon, the French architect who built the Egyptian Museum in Al-Tahrir Square. Once founded, its collection grew rapidly. "It had to have a special hall with a four-metre high ceiling to accommodate the skeletons of enormous creatures such as the three-metre high ancestor elephant, as well as spacious display areas," Said explained.
The first curator appointed was William Andrews, a paleontologist from the Museum of Natural History in London. He was succeeded in 1906 by Henry Osborne, by which time, in addition to its enormous fossil collection, the museum was also exhibiting rocks and ores of different ages collected from Egypt's different deserts.
Among the unique objects in the museum's collections, Said cited the Nekhlite meteorite. "This was a Martian meteorite that fell over Nekhl village in Beheira Province in 1908." This is a rare object indeed. "Out of close to 30,000 recorded meteorites, only 33 are known to have their origin in the planet Mars," Said explained.
He also mentioned a number of other unique acquisitions, including the collection of fossil fish that was extracted from a quarry face at Tura, in the Helwan area, and "the golden nugget" that was found in the Baramiya gold mine at the beginning of the 20th century. More recently, the museum has added the restored dinosaur whose bones were extracted from the Bahariya oasis rocks.
After WW I the activities of the Geological Survey were greatly reduced, and the Geological Museum building served as home to the entire staff of the survey, who occupied four rooms off the main halls. The two rooms on the top floor were earmarked for the director-general and the technical staff, while the two on the lower floor were for the library and the administrative staff. "Our aim was to conduct, sponsor, finance and supervise geological research in Egypt, the Sudan and the African continent generally," Said explained. "That situation continued until 1956, when the work of the survey expanded and new premises were sought, first in the Doqqi district, and then in Abbasiya."
Once the survey had vacated the museum, the building could revert to its original purpose, under Hassan Sadeq, its first Egyptian curator.
In 1968, the Geological Museum was expanded by the addition of an annex to house the paleontological and petrologic laboratories attached to it. Its 75th anniversary in 1979 was marked by the issue of a special postal stamp. However, only five years later, in 1982, the building was torn down to make way for the Cairo underground metro, in the process destroying a landmark of Cairo cultural life that had stood since early in the 19th century. Its vast and valuable contents were transferred to what was intended at the time as a temporary building on the Nile Corniche south of Old Cairo, near Al- Zahraa metro station. And there it has remained ever since. True, its displays are well organised, and its staff continue to play an important role in advancing research through collaboration with other scientists from Egypt and abroad. But the collections themselves are now far off the beaten track, and are seldom visited.
When I asked Said what he thought about the present location of the EGM, he gave a wry smile, and promptly changed the subject. Instead, he embarked on a description of the great strides that are being made by the museum's staff. The EGM can today boast a well-trained cadre of competent geologists who are capable of meeting any challenges which may arise in their field. The standard of the scientific papers they publish is correspondingly high.
"The Geological Museum played an important role in the training of our scientists," Said recalls. "It was the first place I used to send newly-appointed geologists to the survey to get their first course in professional geological practice. There they would get a glimpse of the history of the organisation, its different departments and its traditions. They would be sent out from the museum to join expeditions in the field, where they learnt how to pitch camp, raise maps, use aerial photographs and space images, collect samples, record their observations and write their reports."
In Said's view; the EGS has proved to be one of the most successful scientific ventures in modern Egypt. "We explored the desert, collected and studied minerals and rocks, learned about the physical environment and searched for vertebrate fossils," he remembers proudly. Research in cartography, irrigation and the water problems of the Nile were also carried out. "We refined the tradition that had earlier been set in motion by the British. We were an inspired generation, and we were lucky, because we had the opportunity to study under the most brilliant scholars. Britain sent the best brains to Egypt, and our minds were opened."
Said is visibly proud of that heritage. "My generation made a positive contribution to an emerging field, and we left a legacy that survives till today among the younger generation of Egyptian geologists, who were our students."
Warming to his subject, Said went on to regret the contemporary tendency to see Egypt simply in terms of a few grand monuments such as the Pyramids and the Citadel, the sculpted and painted tombs of the Pharaonic period, the mediaeval mosques, and perhaps a few Neolithic and Paleolithic artefacts. "Few people know about the much older Egypt, the most Ancient Egypt of all," Said sighed, "or about the minerals and rocks it has passed down to us, not to mention a rich and unique collection of well-preserved fossils of pre-historic creatures."
It is these millions of years of history that are still preserved in the escarpments around Fayoum, and which efforts are urgently needed to conserve. The Ministry of Environment has declared parts of Fayoum and Wadi Al-Rayan natural reserves, but unfortunately these decrees are not backed up by adequate control. "While we have set in motion a process of liberating the natural and geographical wealth of our country, more and more is vanishing every day before our eyes," Said told me. "Some of its most unique spots are being transformed into tourist villages to serve as playgrounds for people. This is one of the tragedies of our times."
The Geological Museum is open to the public from 8.30am to 2.30pm daily, except on Thursdays, Fridays and official holidays.
For further reading see Rushdi Said's publications:
The River Nile: Geology, hydrology and utilisation (1993), Oxford University Press.
The Geology of Egypt (revised 1990), Elsevier.
The Geological Evolution of the River Nile (1981), Springer Verlag.