Egypt's fourth pyramid
The second phase of the Grand Egyptian Museum overlooking the Giza plateau has been completed, says Nevine El-Aref
Braving the heat waves that hit Egypt last week, Culture Minister Farouk Hosni embarked on his first field tour of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) to inspect the progress on building the most ambitious archaeological museum ever planned.
At the western edge of the GEM, on a plot overlooking the Al-Rimayah residential complex, a huge high-tech building complex is planned lying 10 metres below street level. The layout is for four main museological facilities; an archaeological conservation centre, archaeological storehouses, a firefighting unit and an energy production station which will provide the power needed to operate equipment for restoring the estimated 150,000 objects of the museum's display.
The conservation centre will contain separate laboratories for stone, wood, ceramics, papyri, metal, textile and leather, as well as an organic laboratory -- designed for running tests on ancient textiles, papyri, dried plants, and species of insects found on excavated items.
To guarantee tight security and complete isolation of the complex from the surrounding neighbourhood, an iron surround fence has been erected and is monitored by CCTV cameras. A buffer zone of trees conceals the complex and provides privacy and security for the transfer of artifacts, while the roof has been covered with the natural sand of the main bedrock. Over the forthcoming six months any required equipment will be fitted in each section.
"It is really a great achievement and has astonished everyone," Hosni said. From dawn to dusk a 2,700-strong force of engineers and workmen are working in shifts to complete the phase, which will be followed by a third phase of constructing the main building beginning at the beginning of 2008.
After the inspection tour, Hosni headed towards a press conference tent where dozens of journalists, photographers and top officials were watching a 15-minute virtual documentary showing different galleries and zones of the GEM.
Yasser Mansour, the project coordinator, described the GEM as a building "sitting like a paradox" in the vicinity of the Pyramids.
"It will create a new experience for Cairo and a new type of museum for the world, one which will become a main node in a global network of museums of Egyptology and will relocate the cultural and intellectual issues of ancient Egypt to the land of their origin," Mansour said.
The monumentality of the architecture is not visible, but it is still present through the formal configuration of the past, present and future. The museum sinks into the earth and the history of the country by an incision and an inversion into the landscape. The massive halls below the museum plateau will enter into a new relation with the Pyramids, one that recalls their scale and power and respects their primacy as the monuments of the site. By inverting the sectional qualities of the Pyramids, the GEM will present Cairo with a new concept: a large, flexible, educational museum which is hybridised within the landscape.
The form of the museum results from the juxtaposition of three elements: the sunken museum matrix and crater roof, the landscape, and the black stone roof. Within this hybrid, the landscape and the sunken museum by their monumental and archaeological references conjure up the past, while the black stone roof points to the future and the continuous cataloguing of historical artefacts.
Visitors will approach the GEM from the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road, approaching the entrance gallery through the plaza. The display in the intermediate zone will link the collections within and the desert without, and vice versa. The entrance gallery will flow into the museum interface, which will be both a massive and welcoming open public area through which visitors pass up to the surface of the roof or down to the exhibition halls. Moving upwards through the interface will bring visitors to the level of the roof crater, where the expanse of the building can be perceived for the first time... Circulating the crater rim visitors can walk to the park access ramp, a large incision in the landscape blocking out the surrounding urban development. The park access ramp leads to the pyramid view point, where the Pyramids are the main, if not the only, subject of contemplation. This sequence of framed views will tie the new museum to its present and historical site, and will allow visitors to step out of the contemporary experience and reflect on the magnitude of history represented in the museum. Descending through the interface will bring visitors into the main body of the museum. Here the interior halls will open up to a view similar to that of a city. The "city zones" of the exhibitions will help define and organise the space and reconcile the massive interior with the scale of the exhibits. Light and air will be filtered and cooled through the black stone roof, which will become an artificial sky floating above the city. In the foreground of this perspective, the double cone will reach down from the roof, opening the oasis to the sky.
The main exhibition hall is organised around two parallel ideas, that of the linear progression and the interwoven thematic fields. By superimposing a chronological gallery with the thematic display zones below, both layers will be connected by a multitude of vertical switches positioned at crucial points. These "hyper-textual nodes" will house famous works of art and the "complete collections", and will form a network of significant visual signs guiding the visitors through the vast and complex collection of the GEM and offering easy access to its treasures. The Temporary Exhibition is proposed as a highly flexible "black box", whereas the special exhibition area will be an array of multiple playful units or "houses". The main archaeological storage of the museum is conceived as a large, visually accessible shelf-structure enveloping the exhibition hall along its outer walls. It functions as a manifesto of one of the museum's basic tasks, which is housing and protecting the memory of Egypt's past.
The plan is that the museum will take advantage of the temperature-regulating effects of the mass of the earth and turn the hot desert air into a pleasantly conditioned environment, by its position in the ground and the use of the energy roof. The energy roof will contain a thermal air polonium that will make use of the solar radiation's intense energy and the principle of adiabatic cooling to modulate the temperature and humidity of the interior space. The black stone energy roof will also act as a giant filter, turning bright desert light into a diffused, evenly distributed light flowing into the exhibition halls. Additional mechanical systems will be organised around a flexible Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning spine which will serve the exhibition halls and the museum support and service areas.
By means of both the physical and virtual connection with other centres around the world, the GEM will, for the first time, create a database which will allow all known artefacts to be virtually displayed and catalogued. The database will allow visitors and scholars to access extensive information at a much faster pace than is currently possible; this would establish the cultural impact of the GEM. The position of the museum in the ground is meant to evoke the history of the land and the site. By making such an inversion of the Pyramids, the GEM simultaneously poses itself as supremely contemporary and as an instrument of the past. History is to be reflected and interpreted in the inversion. Here, the future of history will be written in its historical space beneath the contemporary landscape.
Addressing the reporters, Hosni said the museum was designed to withstand all possible dangers, whether natural such as earthquake, or manmade such as wars.
"The museum project synchronises with another giant project set up to facilitate the way to the museum, which is located on the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road, along with works on other roads leading to the location to relieve the traffic jam," the minister said. He added that studies are ongoing to expand the desert road.
Hosni said that according to the museum's master plan the GEM wood be served by a number of transport alternatives. The area is close to the intersection of two major highways at Al-Remayah Square, which is a junction between the roads out of the city, the Pyramids Road and Faysal Street. This intersection, Hosni said, was of strategic importance to the entire road system in the area, carrying considerable traffic volumes in and out of the city. Through the Alexandria and Fayoum desert roads, the site is linked to the principal highways of the country. The Alexandria Desert Road permits the connection to and from Alexandria, and also provides a link to Cairo city centre via the 26 July Corridor. The recently constructed ring road exits directly from the Alexandria Desert Road and provides an important link to the greater Cairo region.
The underground system running from Cairo city centre to Giza is expected to alleviate the congestion of the road network, and will indirectly benefit the museum site. It opens up the possibility for combined underground and surface road journeys from the metro stations to the museum. "This flexibility is likely to benefit both the museum staff members and a percentage of the local visitors," Hosni said.
GEM executive authority head Mohamed Ghoneim said the General Organisation for Urban Planning has completed the comprehensive master plan for the larger district extended from Al-Remayah Square to the toll station on the Cairo Alexandria Desert Road. The master plan calls all rules and regulations that facilitate investment opportunities. The larger Pyramids district is designated for a variety of activities such as housing, hotels, commercial facilities, tourism related services, health functions, sporting clubs and recreation areas.
According to the GEM feasibility study, five million tourists will visit the museum and the Giza plateau after the museum opens. However, by the year 2020 this number will increase to about eight million tourists. Hence a great demand for establishing new hotels, tourist services and facilities will be required.
"Egypt has directly invested over $550 million to realise the GEM mega cultural project," Ghoneim said, adding that such an investment would impact the social and economic structures of the country as a whole and would increase investment opportunities during the construction and operation of the museum. Initial indicators highlight these main investment portfolios. The first investment will be inside the museum where a conference centre with an auditorium for 1,000 will be offer theatrical performances, concerts, conferences, banquets and business meetings. The main auditorium is completed by several seminar rooms, meeting halls, a multi-purpose hall suitable for a variety of events along with an open space gallery for accompanying exhibitions.
A 7,000-square-metres commercial area with retail shops, cafeterias, restaurants, leisure and recreational activities will also be provided. This zone is located at the ground floor level as an attraction point for all visitors entering or leaving the museum galleries. A wide-screen 3D cinema with approximately 250 seats is another attraction; it will use the latest IT to accompany the visitors in a unique journey with the ancient Egyptian artefacts and civilisation as a complementary visit to the permanent galleries.
"The virtual gallery is intended to attract the younger, less orthodox visitor groups who are eager to venture into a different exhibition experience," Ghoneim said.
Hosni says the GEM will constitute a historic site to function as an innovative park for Cairo. He adds that the museum and its surrounding park are conceived as an archaeological worksite introducing people to the discovery of the land where the ancient culture of the Pharaohs flourished.
The collections themselves will be organised thematically, beginning with the physical environment of the Nile Valley and the surrounding desert and oases. Other displays will focus on kingship and the state, religious practices during the Amarna period and on the daily lives of the Ancient Egyptians, their sports, games, music, arts and crafts as well as their cultural and social practices. A separate building will house the conservatory, library, medical collection and other resources.
Farouk Abdel-Salam, first undersecretary at the Ministry of Culture, said that Japan has contributed in building the museum through a $300 million soft loan to be paid after 20 years and with a 1.5 per cent interest rate. Egypt has already started receiving contributions from banks and institutions to build the museum. According to the feasibility study, the GEM will have covered its costs after 12 years of operation.