Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 April - 2 May 2007
Issue No. 842
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The gates of history

Seven years after being given the go- ahead, the Al-Arish National Museum is ready to open. Nevine El-Aref toured the state-of-the-art complex

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Al-Arish National Museum

North Sinai's National Day celebration had a different flavour this year. Apart from the inauguration of new urban development projects that usually mark the event, the city's long-awaited LE50 million National Museum is at last finished.

The two-storey Al-Arish National Museum (ANM) will make a huge visual difference to North Sinai's capital city. The temple- shaped, honey-coloured edifice has finally been revealed after being hidden for almost a decade under ugly iron scaffolding, wooden panels and plastic sheets.

Although plans for the museum were drawn up in 1994 -- shortly after the return of Sinai's archaeological collection taken by Israel during their occupation -- the foundation stone was laid only in 1998. Lack of funds subsequently placed the project on hold for nearly four years. However in 2002 the Ministry of Culture put Egypt's museums at the top of its priority list in an attempt to preserve the country's priceless treasures, both stored and newly-discovered. The plan was to create the optimum environment to display the treasures, and thus release the pressure on overstuffed major museums. In line with the ministry's plan, steps were taken towards the museum's completion.

The 2,500-square-metre museum tells the history of Sinai from the pre-dynastic to the Islamic eras, displaying 1,500 objects carefully selected from eight museums in Egypt: the Egyptian, Coptic and Islamic museums in Cairo, the Recovered Antiquities Museum at the Citadel, the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, the Sinai Historical Museum in Taba, the Port Said Museum, and the Beni Sweif museological storehouses in Ashmounein. Artefacts unearthed at excavation sites in Sinai such as the Horus military road in Qantara East and Tel Basta in the Nile Delta are also on display.

The museum stands opposite the Al-Arish Ethnographic Centre at the town's eastern end, on the very spot where the Egyptian flag was raised after the Israeli withdrawal from this part of Sinai in 1979. It is set in an expansive 16,000-sq-m garden of trees and plants.

To reach the museum's entrance hall, visitors first traverse a long marble ramp lined with ancient Egyptian statues to be greeted by a gigantic replica statue of Ramses II. Stepping inside the museum's foyer the visitor can learn about Al-Arish's important military history via a model of the Horus Road, the vital commercial and military link between ancient Egypt and Asia, and its military fortresses. This road felt the marching feet of no fewer than 50 armies. From west to east, the Pharaohs Thutmose III and Ramses II crossed Sinai with their military forces. From east to west came the Hyksos, the Assyrian hordes, the Persian army of Cambyses, Alexander the Great with his mercenaries, Antiochus and the Roman legions, and the Arabs led by Amr Ibn Al-Aas.

There are also three-dimensional maps of ancient Sinai, panels illustrating scenes of battles that once took place on the road, and the Horus Road itself as shown on a wall painting at the Karnak Temple in Luxor.

The central hall opens on to four other halls displaying other eras in Sinai's history. "The ANM is unlike any other regional museum in Egypt," Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly. He said that Al-Arish, once Egypt's eastern gate to Asia on one side and the Nile Delta on the other, had witnessed important historical events through the ages. It was the stage for several military attacks by and against Egypt as well as an important artery for trade (see opposite story).

"The ANM's interior design and display scenario were drawn in such a way as to make visitors feel as if they are spanning Sinai's various ages through Egypt's many gates of history," Hosni said.

Supreme Council of Antiquities Secretary- General Zahi Hawass said the museum's plan would first guide the visitor to an introductory section showing Sinai during the pre-dynastic and Pharaonic eras. This part displays a collection of ancient weapons: wooden arrows, knives and boomerangs made of bone, as well as a collection of early Egyptian swords, military costumes and authentic models of fortresses and walls.

The second section, Hawass continued, was devoted to the Hyksos, enemies of Egypt who invaded the country from the east. This section shows paintings, cartouches and pots bearing the names of Hyksos kings, as well as the oldest mummy of a horse ever found. Gigantic statues of the pharaohs who played a major role in Egypt's military history to expel invaders or build up the country's strong army, such as Ramses II and Ramses III, Thutmoses III and Nektanebo, are also among the objects on display. A fine relief showing Ahmose Nefertari and his family, who made liberating Egypt from the hated Hyksos their lifelong aim, is also exhibited along with images of the ancient Egyptian deities -- such as Sekhmet and Osiris -- who protected their ruler in war time.

"Egypt is the country of war and peace," says Mahmoud Mabrouk, the artist responsible for the museum's décor. The third section reflects this contradiction by displaying the busts of famous Pharaohs who signed peace treaties with their neighbours. Among these were Ramses II, who signed a treaty with the Hittites, Amenhotep III and Horemheb. To embody this idea are three statues featuring Hathor, goddess of war and peace, in various poses.

The Graeco-Roman section has a collection of gilded war masks, statues of black bulls and statuettes of warriors. The Coptic section shows icons and reliefs featuring the Holy Family on their journey through Egypt and the Virgin Mary cradling the child Jesus. Ivory and textile items can also be seen.

Al-Arish was on the pilgrimage road from Egypt to Mecca, and the Islamic section displays a black cover for the Holy Kaaba embroidered with gold and silver thread and sent by Egypt to Mecca in the reign of King Fouad. Pieces of mashrabiya (latticed woodwork), coloured glass lamps, silver and copper swords are also exhibited.

The second floor is devoted to Sinai trade and handicrafts and a number of pots and coins. The pottery collection is one of the most important collections in the exhibition. It features various development stages in the manufacture of clay pots and pans produced in Egypt, as well as similar items imported from Syria and Palestine.

"This collection highlights the strong trade relations between Egypt and its neighbours at that time," Mabrouk says.

The second floor includes a library and a 50-seat cinema, while the garden, according to Abdel-Hamid Qutub, head of the SCA's engineering department, will have an outdoor theatre with a seating capacity for 250, an open-air coffee shop and a parking area for cars and 15 tour coaches. A high-tech laboratory for restoring textiles, stone, metal and photographic development is also planned.

The museum basement contains a variety of Bedouin handicrafts such as traditional costumes, bamboo baskets and plates.

Al-Arish, 'City of Palms'

THE North Sinai capital of Al-Arish is often hailed by historians as Egypt's eastern gateway to the Delta. Its chequered history is a reminder of the many military clashes from Pharaonic times to the early 1970s.

Because of its immense strategic importance as a vital commercial and military stop between Egypt and Asia, Al-Arish was the starting point of the famous Horus military road which operated from ancient Egyptian times up to the Ottoman Period.

Al-Arish's rich natural resources have also placed it at the core of attraction for several foreign nations in both ancient and modern times.

During the Middle Kingdom the Hyksos invaded Egypt from this point, and through it they were able to reach the Nile Delta where they built their capital city of Avaris. The Hyksos occupation lasted for almost 106 years (from 1665 to 1569 BC) until the 18th- Dynasty Pharaoh Ahmose I (1569-1545 BC) took the throne and led Egypt's liberation war against the invaders.

Afterwards, the Pharaohs of the 18th and 19th dynasties recognised how important the strategic location of Al-Arish was, and sent several military units to the northeastern side of the town to expand and protect their empire from any further attacks. They also dug wells around the city and established several security and custom stops. These activities are carved on engravings from the reign of Pharaoh Seti I found on the northern wall of Karnak Temple's Hypostyle Hall in Luxor. It also shows scenes of several attacks made by the Pharaoh on the nations on Egypt's northeastern borders, as well as some of the 11 fortresses he built along the Horus Road.

The Babylonians made several failed attacks on Egypt, but when the Persian created their empire and colonised Iraq and Syria, King Cambyses II succeeded in conquering Egypt after waging a number of combats with local Al-Arish rulers.

In 332 BC, Alexander the Great won his campaign against the Persians and entered Egypt from Tel Al-Farama, then named Pelusion, from where he went on to Cairo and Alexandria. During the Ptolemaic era Al-Arish served as an outpost of the empire.

In peacetime the city was an important trading post, and in the Graeco-Roman period it became one of Egypt's busiest ports -- second only to Alexandria. Ships from the eastern Mediterranean and caravans from Syria and Palestine came to the port to trade such goods as wine, oil and honey, which were transported to Egypt and the Red Sea by Nile barge and overland roads.

Peace did not last forever in the city. During the spread of Islam, Arab Muslim military leader Amr Ibn Al-Aas entered Egypt from Al-Arish in 639 AD, winning his war against the Roman Byzantines. In the reign of Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi (1138-1193 AD), Al-Arish was the country's military base on the east. From Al-Arish Salaheddin's troops began their wars against the Crusaders, and when Al-Zaher Bebars became Egypt's sultan (1260-1277 AD) he also combated the Crusaders from Al-Arish, as did his successor Al-Khalil Qalawoun (1290-1294 AD).

The Horus military road also witnessed the attacks of the Ottoman Sultan Selim I against Egypt after he won the war against the Mamelukes at Marg Dabeq in 1516 AD.

In February 1799, the city was conquered by French troops under the command of Napoleon as a first step on their progression towards Acre. After the 1956 War, Al-Arish fell temporarily under Israeli control and in 1967, as a consequence of the Six-Day War, Al-Arish was totally occupied by Israel. The Israelis destroyed the railway line from Al-Arish to the Suez Canal, allegedly for security reasons. In 1979, after signing a peace treaty with Israel, Al-Arish's possession returned to Egypt.

The Horus Road today

THE Horus Road was the vital commercial and military link between Egypt and Asia, and the forts along its route played a vital role in the nation's security. The first fort on the road was the mud- brick fortress of Habuwa, which dates from the time of the Hyksos, the hated invaders of Egypt who came from the direction of Syria and swept into the Delta with horses and chariots. In those distant days, there was no Suez Canal to hinder their progress, and they were able to conquer Egypt in the 17th century BC and ruled for more than 100 years. Habuwa is a small mud brick fort with three entrances and the remains of military fortifications.

An ancient barrage, an impressive two-kilometre dyke near Pelusium (Greek Pelusion), is another historical attraction in the city. Walking through the columns of what was obviously once a great amphitheater, one can see skeletons of crocodiles and Roman baths with exquisite mosaics. It appears that Pelusium was a pleasure resort in Graeco-Roman times, and high-ranking officials went there for "time out". It is hard to visualise it as such today, but of course the land then was extremely fertile, watered annually by the floods of the Pelusiac branch of the Nile. This enabled large tracts of land to be cultivated with orchards and vineyards. In fact, Pelusium produced the finest wines in the world, distributed throughout the Graeco-Roman world. A project to reconstruct such an amphitheater is now under execution.

The historical wealth of northern Sinai has long been known. The earliest archaeological activity was carried out by the French scholar J Cledat between 1909 and 1914, but it was only when plans were drawn up to build the Salam Canal -- designed to put 400,000 feddans under cultivation -- went ahead that it became clear that the archaeological resources in northern Sinai would be lost unless they were given immediate attention.

The then Egyptian Antiquities Organisation (EAO), in collaboration with French scholars, began in 1980 to excavate sites at Qantara East, Habuwa, Pelusium, Tel Al-Makhzan, Qasserout and Qalat Al-Tina. The joint EAO- University of Lille project started in the 1990/91 season, and then, following an invitation from the newly-formed Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), various foreign missions undertook the mission of excavating the area. So far more than 50 archaeological sites have been identified and excavated.

As the teams worked in the difficult conditions of northern Sinai, fortresses, citadels, churches, amphitheaters and baths came to light, and slowly the idea of developing the Horus Road as a tourist attraction gained momentum.

The citadel, for example, is remarkable -- one of the most impressive monuments to be seen. This huge structure, built in the reign of Ptolemy IV with seven-foot- thick walls, three gates and 36 military towers, encloses an area 600 metres long and 300 wide.

Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, head of the central administration for ancient Egyptian monuments told Al-Ahram Weekly that underneath the citadel a cache of 500 bronze coins was unearthed, along with precious stones, weapons and pottery shards. Grain silos, stables, store rooms, a dormitory for soldiers and houses were also discovered around the citadel. "It suggests this citadel was used as a customs and excise station," Maqsoud said.

It must, indeed, have been a heavily populated area, if the ruins of houses excavated around the citadel are any indication.

"Tel Al-Farama [Pelusium] and the neighbouring sites at Tel Al-Makhzan and Kanais probably formed parts of 'Greater Pelusium,'" Maqsoud said. When the salvage project began in 1991, these areas were divided into concessions and allocated to archaeological teams from Egypt, Canada, Switzerland and Britain. Egyptian archaeologists excavated in and around the ancient port, the amphitheater and the Byzantine church.

At Tel Al-Makhzan, a 20-minute drive away, are the ruins of three churches dating from the fourth and fifth centuries. The Horus Road was, of course, also the highway along which Christian pilgrims travelled, and there were churches from Rafah to Pelusium. The largest church was dedicated to Aba Maques, a martyr of the Diocletian persecutions in the fourth century.

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