Nevine El-Aref finds out what went on in the daily private life of Tutankhamun, the ultimate golden boy king
If you want to sleep on King Tutankhamun’s bed, rest on his painted royal chair, drink your morning coffee from his gold cup and wear his bracelets encrusted with semi-precious stones; or if you want to decorate your house with painted ceramic Mamluk and Ottoman vases, then all these dreams can come true.
The Replica Production Unit (RPU) opened recently at Salaheddin Citadel in the two-storey-building of the Military School known as the Red Palace. It will provide you with all the objects you need to enter the mysterious world of the ancient Egyptians. You will even be able to experience the personal life of the Pharaohs and live among their protective deities.
The Red Palace was constructed in 1815 by Khedive Mohamed Ali Pasha following the massacre of the remaining Mamluks. The aim was to establish Egypt’s first military academy. Although the building is only partially restored — all work having stopped because of the budget shortage in the aftermath of the January 2011 Revolution — the palace on my visit was a hive of activity with workmen, artisans and archaeologists in every one of the small workshops, all occupied in carving, drawing, painting, modelling and decorating replicas of Egypt’s ancient, Graeco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic artefacts, or else hammering pieces of bronze in an attempt to transform them into necklaces, earrings or bracelets embellished with semi-precious stones.
Along the corridors and in some of the galleries are exhibited some objects from Tutankhamun’s funerary collection. Here is his gold bed with its lioness-headed legs, and the closet and head rest; the Pharaoh’s military chariot and his throne decorated with painted scenes depicting him with his wife; and his funerary regalia including canopic jars and boats for the celestial afterlife.
A number of colourful Islamic clay vessels in various shapes and sizes are also on display, as well as jewellery and the beautifully-painted head of Queen Nefertiti.
Each artisan, painter and workman stands face to face with an illustration of an object in hand and studying its features and size so as to produce an exact replica.
“We must respect the nuances of each object,” Archaeologist Wael Mohamed explains.
To do this, turquoise and lapis lazuli are embedded in copper plate to recreate a Pharaonic motif. According to RPU Executive Director Amr Al-Tibi, all the stones used are the same semi-precious varieties used by the ancient Egyptians, which explains why these replicas are more expensive than those sold in the Khan Al-Khalili and Kerdasa bazaars.
A similar scenario is enacted in the drawing and painting department. Men and women hold small busts carefully in their hands. All the busts represent Nefertiti, and the artists are patiently colouring her blue crown.
“We try to reproduce the same level of blue,” says Reem Mokhtar, one of the young painters. Indeed, the RPU’s Technical Director Osama Al-Gherbawi told Al-Ahram Weekly, recent productions must meet the proportions of the artefact, as well as the different degrees of colour, any cracks that have appeared on the ancient objects, and the methods and techniques used in the fabrication of the original piece. To do this, Al-Gherbawi said, the reproductions must be based on two essential poles: the personnel and materials. With this in view, 50 people were selected for the range of workshops and ateliers, not to mention painters and sculptors from the Faculty of Fine Arts. “The average length of experience of most of the staff recruited was more than 20 years, and there were also new graduates,” Al-Gherbawi said. “These artisans are very clever, and they want to improve their careers and their incomes.” That is why, he said, they kept so strictly to the illustrations and colours in the archaeology books.
The RPU was created a year ago as an implementation of the new antiquities Law 117/1983 and its 2010 amendments. Article 36 of the law establishes the intellectual property rights and trademark of the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) in the production of replicas. According to the law, the MSA is the only foundation with permission to produce exact replicas on a 1:1 scale. Small sizes of every piece are also fabricated in order to meet all tastes of clients, who will obtain official MSA certification of its production.
According to the law, the RPU was intended to create a photo bank that would then sell the rights to images. Professional photography inside museums and archaeological sites is now completely prohibited. Use of photographs for educational purposes will be free of charge, although the intellectual property will remain with the authority.
The RPU also plans to pursue intellectual property rights on its own logos and trademarks. Every museum will be provided with an outlet where the company’s products will be made available to the public, including replicas, t-shirts, tea sets and plates.
Owing to the revolution, however, all the activities of the RPU have been put on hold except the reproduction of replicas. Despite its brief age, since its inception the RPU has fabricated a batch of 130 replica statues worth LE2.3 million from the unique collection of King Tutankhamun for tourists and hotels in Sharm El-Sheikh. It has also sold replicas through gift shops in museums and archaeological sites to a value of LE256,754, as well as taking part in a replica exhibition in Berlin.
“We are providing efficient services to complete restoration and development work,” Al-Tibi told the Weekly. Reproducing good quality replicas and sharing in internal and external exhibitions, as well as filling the Egyptian market, was a very important step to reviving Egypt’s ancient art and history and protecting them from the inferior Chinese products that have recently flooded the market worldwide.
In Khan Al-Khalili for example, Al-Tibi says, replicas of authentic ancient Egyptian pieces are on sale with shapes that are alien to this great civilisation. Regrettably, although the goods are of poor quality they are on sale around the world, giving a bad impression of Egypt’s great monuments and artefacts. This view is shared by artist Ahmed Said, head of the RPU’s pottery section. He says it is common to find on the US market the face of a dog wearing a nemes, a Pharaoh’s head dress, as if it were Tutankhamun. “These copies distort Egyptian history,” Said adds furiously.
Al-Tibi pointed out that the RPU also aimed to increase the public awareness of Egyptian culture and heritage establishing exhibition of replicas in schools and universities for better assimilation of Egyptian history. The RPU is also a good means of developing the MSA budget by sending touring replica exhibitions around the world, as well as temporary displays in hotels and resorts in Egypt — especially in popular tourist destinations such as Luxor, Aswan, Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh.
Unfortunately the MSA is trying to deal with a low budget resulting from the withdrawal of tourism, caused by the breakdown in security following the turmoil of the last two years. The MSA budget is dependent on the revenue it receives from ticket sales to archaeological sites and fees for the professional services provided.
Al-Tibi suggests that a touring exhibition to include items that are prohibited from leaving the country, such as the gold throne and mask of Tutankhamun and the funerary collection of King Khufu’s mother, Queen Hetepheres, would be a good way to earn more money and to promote Egypt as a safe tourist destination.
“These ideas could easily come true, but my hands are tied with all bureaucratic governmental regulations,” Al-Tibi says. “If I had a free hand I would have purchased special equipment to spruce up and develop the mechanism of replica production in order to provide more goods in shorter time.” Then, he says, the RPU would strike a deal with the Khan Al-Khalili merchants to provide them with replicas to replace “those ugly, dull Chinese ones” as well as rent booths in museums abroad.
Developing existing outlets and gift shops in museums as well as developing the administrative skills of its managers and staff are another way of increasing the MSA budget.
Al-Tibi says the current gift shops are not up to standard, and this explains why they provide the ministry with such a low income.
Spreading the RPU means of communication is another goal, Al-Tibi says. A well-organised website to acquaint people with the aim and activities of the RPU and to sell the products online should be available.
Al-Tibi has not left children out of his overall plan. On the contrary, he suggests marketing wooden and textile bags in the shape of Tutankhamun’s toy, Dama. Each bag would contain organic ancient Egyptian colours; papyri; paint brushes decorated with pictures of ancient Egyptian deities and a puzzle featuring a scene shown on a temple or a tomb.
The Red Palace is now the permanent home of the RPU, and there are hopes of a larger, well-equipped building in Fustat within the visiting path of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation overlooking the Ain Al-Sira Lake. However, the lack of budget first needs to be overcome.