Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 July 2008
Issue No. 906
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Power behind the throne

The queens of ancient Egypt are spending the summer in Monte Carlo. Nevine El-Aref joins them

Cleopatra, Nefertiti and Hatshepsut are a few of the names of ancient Egyptian queens that echo through the mind to evoke the legendary Egypt, for which these queens embodied power, wealth and seduction.

There are other female rulers, however, who have played an important role in Egypt's history but are less well known, even almost forgotten. One of these is Queen Hetepheres, the mother of King Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid. Without dispelling the myth, the exhibition "Queens of Egypt", opened early this week by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak and Monaco's head of state Prince Albert II, draws on the latest scientific discoveries to bring some exceptional and fascinating ancient Egyptian women out of the shadows.

This wonderful display of 250 artefacts, carefully selected from 40 museums around the world, reveals the many different facets of some of the mothers, wives and daughters who epitomised the grandeur of their people, played a predominant role in religion, social and political life, and inspired the artists of their times.

Over this summer the Mediterranean city-state of Monaco will fall under the magic charm of the ancient Egyptian queens as it plays host to the "Queens of Egypt" exhibition. This week, the exhibition poster featuring a marble bust of a beautiful ancient Egyptian queen was everywhere on display, dominating the city's beaches, bus stations, the façades of Casinos, cinemas and luxury hotels, shops and restaurants.

While walking along the Monegasque seafront and its downtown area, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer density of the images of Cleopatra, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Nefertari, displayed along with other images to show some of the queens' golden ornaments.

As for the Grimaldi Forum, where the exhibition is held, this was turned into a large ancient Egyptian ceremonial arena. To the tune of fine harps, beautiful young women wearing black wigs and white linen dresses in the ancient Egyptian style, with colourful bead collars and belts, greet the exhibition's visitors, while others in Pharaonic dance costumes dance to the rhythm.

Further inside the exhibition the atmosphere becomes more dramatic, providing an impressive setting for the 250 granite, limestone, marble, wooden, golden and faience objects on display.

Stepping into the exhibition, the visitor will be taken into a truly epic experience to explore and immerse the life and history of the queens by providing a succession of poetic and figurative dramatisations. Architect François Payet, the designer of the spectacular display, said that the atmosphere was implemented by providing an ambiance bathed in bright light and contrast plunged into semi-darkness, as well as employing soft-hued, then shimmering colours in the exhibition's various sections.

Christiane Zigler, the commissar of the exhibition, spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about the design, of which 26 objects were selected from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo while the rest were loaned by the world's most important museums in New York, Berlin, Paris, Munich, London, Turin, Moscow and others. He said that they were carefully chosen not only for their artistic beauty or because they portrayed the beauty and wealth of the ancient Egyptian royal families, but also because they showed the magic and mystery of the civilisation as well as describing ancient Egypt, a source of fascination and admiration that never ceases to offer up secret treasures buried and hidden beneath several thousand years of history. "These objects are a testimony to the life of those queens, as they reveal details of clothing, hairstyle and fashion as well as tradition, power and influence," Zigler said.

Sylvie Biancheri, director-general of the Grimaldi Forum, told the Weekly that the idea of organising an exhibition showing the magnificent ancient Egyptian civilisation was born a several years ago. She said that the only obstacle was how to represent ancient Egypt differently from the way in which it was shown in previous or other current exhibitions.

After almost three years, Biancheri said, the idea of the "Queens of Egypt" exhibition focuses on the role of the female members of the royal families, and most generally on women in antiquity.

The exhibition, which consists of seven sections, is displayed theme by theme. It starts with the most stunning ancient Egyptian queen, Cleopatra VII, well-known among foreigners and who for a long time has stirred the imaginations of novelists, and inspired artists and filmmakers. The queen is at first represented as shown in myth, arts, films and novels through a display of a collection of 19th-century objects. These include a life-size bronze statue featuring Queen Cleopatra lying semi-naked, carved by Henri Du Commven Du Locle in 1852, and a 1863 painting by French artist Eugène- Ernest Hillemacher showing the corpse of Mark Anthony brought back to Cleopatra. Golden and silver jewellery used by actor Elizabeth Taylor in the film by Joseph L Mankiweicz is also on display. Scenes from the film showing Cleopatra in various settings are also projected on a fringed curtain which is used as a screen.

The exhibition takes visitors in a magical voyage back three millennium in history on the deck of an ancient Egyptian barge where a magnificent black basalt statue of Queen Cleopatra stands in the centre gazing at a limestone bust of Julius Caesar who is seen in profile. Coins stamped with the faces of Cleopatra and her son Caesarean are also exhibited.

The exhibition follows a clear pattern, with the explanation that an Egyptian queen ranked above the king's mother. The second section, therefore, is about the status of Egypt's queens where replicas of queen mothers' rooms are arranged as a succession of three alcoves representing the interior of a queen's apartment, with stone walls painted in red ochre and some niches painted turquoise. Each of these rooms has a window looking onto the landscape of Giza and the Pyramids. A dazzling reconstruction of Hetepheres's room is on display, along with other objects alluding to motherhood such as the alabaster statue of King Pepi II as a child seated on his mother's knee. The wives' room represents an exterior with, in the background, the frontage of a large temple with imposing corner stones and an entrance portico. In front of this lie blocks of stone, drenched in the fierce light of the Egyptian sun, on which are displayed a variety of items of jewellery, ushabtis, silver vases, mirrors and colossi.

Entering the daughters' room visitors are immediately stunned by the pattern of a series of light wells. The rays fall on tulle drapery that the light caresses and illuminates from the top down to the floor. These falling rays seem to flood the display cases with their light, while the half-pyramid bases appear to rise out of the floor and reach towards the sky. The room of the secondary wives, the harem and the concubines is then followed and prolongs visitors' astonishment by plunging them into the dense, cocooned atmosphere of a room in a palace. Visitors find themselves among Champaign tall columns arranged in a peristyle. The impression is heavy and powerful, the space between the columns seems compressed and the columns' dimensions seem to have something supernatural about them.

The objects exhibited set out in the centre of this composition are like intense points of light that focus all attention, jewellery, statuettes, scribes' stelae, papyri, crafted items. "All the accouterments of busy life are in the harem, that maze-like self-contained city in miniature," Zigler said. She added that many other aspects of life were also shown, such as the education of princes, diplomatic weddings, court intrigues and, in a tulle-draped alcove, discreet love scenes such as Akhenaten and Nefertiti kissing in the presence of their daughters and a relief showing King Montuhotep II with a queen in his arms. The femininity and beauty of the queens are also represented, as well as their religious role and political power. The exhibition ends with a reconstruction of Queen Tausert's burial chamber lit by the flickering light of torches. The atmosphere and the presentation of the burial chamber take visitors into the magic world of French novelist Théophile Gautier's novel Romance of the Mummy. Zigler called this a novel dreamed up by Gautier based on ancient Egyptian personalities. Visitors are then taken into Gautier's own library, where several of his books and paintings are on display.

Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told the Weekly that this exhibition was a remarkable event and strengthened relations between Monaco and Egypt, as well as highlighting the ancient Egyptian civilisation and the role of women at that time, not only as mothers, wives and daughters of the king but also as rulers. The power of the queen extended the king's power by reason of her marriage to him.

Among the most impressive objects provided by Egypt are a painted limestone bust of Queen Hatshepsut, a statue of Queen Ayshet of the Middle Kingdom, a monumental statue of Queen Tiye, a head of King Ramses II and a collection of queens' jewellery.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), described the exhibition as one of the best ways to promote Egypt as a unique cultural and tourist destination. He said Europeans were fascinated by the "King Tut" collection now on display at the British Museum, and he believed this exhibition would attract not only the Monegasque but also other visitors from neighbouring towns such as Nice and Cannes, as well as Italy. The Grimaldi Forum is anticipating about half a million visitors to the exhibition, which has been insured for $245 millions. Hawass said that the 250,000 euros in revenue of the exhibition was small in comparison, but it was a great promotion to Egypt abroad.

"The attendance of Mrs Suzanne Mubarak at this exhibition reflects Egypt's insistence on strengthening its relations with Monaco," Hawass added.

On the fringe of the exhibition was a charity gala dinner organised in the exquisite 19th-century Hotel de Paris to support Egypt's Children Cancer hospital. The gala was attended by Mrs Mubarak and Prince Albert. During the ceremony, Mrs Mubarak said that her visit to Monaco had two objectives. The first was to open the "Queens of Egypt" exhibition, which highlighted the role of women in antiquity as well as showing the glamour of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. "I appreciate such an exhibition so much, as it reflects Egypt's ancient civilisation, policy, arts and philosophy," she said.

The second aim of Mrs Mubarak's visit was to help children who had cancer by collecting grants to enhance their hospital in Cairo, as cancer is a disease that requires huge resources. "All that we have done for them can never be enough," Mrs Mubarak pointed out.

For his part, Prince Albert described Monaco's participation in the gala to support children with cancer as an honour. He said the an exhibition was an opportunity for all Monegasques to admire the ancient Egyptian civilization, which he called "a civilisation that benefited the whole world."

During the ceremony the sums of $500,000 and 800,000 euros were offered by Egyptian and Monegasque businessmen to support the Children's Cancer Hospital. Revenue from ticket sales will be also offered to the hospital.

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