Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1263, (17 - 30 September 2015)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1263, (17 - 30 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt through Italian eyes

Nevine El-Aref celebrates the 2015 Year of Egyptian Culture in Italy in the Tuscan city of Cortona

Egypt through Italian eyes
Egypt through Italian eyes
Al-Ahram Weekly

The ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra won the heart of not only the Roman general Julius Caesar but also Mark Antony. Her country went on to seduce Italy as well. In the seven centuries of the Roman Empire in Egypt, a strong relationship was built between the two countries. In the Middle Ages, Italians were present in Egypt as merchants.

After Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt at the end of the 18th century, the Italian community started to grow in Egypt and reached its peak during the late 19th century. Some of the first educational missions sent to Europe by Mohamed Ali at the beginning of the century headed to Italy to learn the art of printing.

He also engaged a number of Italian experts to assist in building a modern state, including the search for antiquities and minerals, the conquest of Sudan, the design of the city of Khartoum and the drawing up of the first survey map of the Nile Delta.

During the rule of the khedive Ismail, in the late 19th century, Italian architects were chosen to design palaces, suburbs and public buildings in Egypt. The most famous building connected to the Italian community was the Royal Opera House in Cairo, designed by the Italian architects Pietro Avoscani and Mario Rossi.
The Opera House was inaugurated in 1869 with the opera Aida by the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, but burned down in 1971. Avoscani also designed the Alexandria Corniche.

Nowadays, both Egypt and Italy continue their strong bilateral relations and both pay great attention to multilateral dialogue and culture. The two countries are members of the Union for the Mediterranean, a regional group, and Italy is

Egypt’s largest trading partner in the European Union and the third largest internationally.
Italy’s investments in Egypt are worth some $2.6 billion, mostly concentrated in transport and banking services, among other sectors, making it the fifth-largest European investor in the country. By the end of 2014, the volume of trade between the two countries had reportedly reached $6 billion.

To build on the strong ties between the two countries, the Italian Ministry of Heritage, Culture and Tourism has designated 2015 as “Year of Egyptian Culture in Italy.” It coincides with the tenth anniversary of the Etruscan Academy Museum in the city of Cortona in Italy, which displays a rich collection of ancient Egyptian and Roman artefacts collected by the Italian bishop Monsignor Guido Corbelli in the 19th century.

The year “is a great opportunity to help promote Egypt as a safe tourist destination and restore the number of Italian tourists visiting the country, which declined after the Arab Spring,” Emad Fathy, director of the Egyptian Tourism Authority (ETA) in Italy, told the Weekly. He added that dedicating 2015 to promoting Egypt’s culture in Italy came within the framework of celebrating the reopening of the world’s second largest collection of Egyptian artefacts after the Cairo Museum, the Turin Ancient Egyptian Museum. This followed five years of renovation that nearly doubled the building’s space.

Another event within the framework of the year came in August when the 11th International Congress of Egyptologists took place in Florence. The Congress included 700 delegates representing the broadest range and highest standards of Egyptology. Commenting on the two events, Fathy said Italy is one of the most important markets for Egypt’s tourism industry.

In 2010, more than one million Italians visited Egypt, making the country fourth in the world league of countries sending tourists to Egypt. Unfortunately, the instability following the 25 January Revolution had negative impacts on tourism to the region, and the number of Italian tourists coming to Egypt plummeted by 60 per cent and fell to only 400,000 in 2014.

“This number started to decrease more this year after the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdes (Supporters of Jerusalem) jihadist group in Sinai announced its affiliation to the Islamic State (IS) group,” Fathy said.
He added that the IS video of Egyptian Copts being killed in Libya and the IS threat to conquer Rome contributed to the decline in the number of Italian tourists coming to Egypt. Marsa Alam in Sinai and Marsa Matrouh on the northern coast had previously been main destinations for Italian visitors.

To revive Italian tourism to Egypt and to confirm that Egypt is a safe country for visitors, Fathy said the ETA bureau in Italy, in collaboration with the Italian Tour Operators Federation, has launched a 30-day promotional campaign with the slogan “Egypt, a dream that does not end.” The campaign has thus far proven a success, he said, as the 20 per cent decline in the number of tourists previously noted has decreased to just 12 per cent in August.

The Ministry of Tourism has also signed an agreement with a top international media organisation to launch media campaigns to promote Egypt as a safe tourist destination abroad, Fathy said. These campaigns are to start in October and last for three years in 27 markets that export tourists to Egypt, including Germany, Italy, Russia, India, Latin America, the United States and the Arab countries.

CORTONA CELEBRATIONS: Meanwhile, the city of Cortona in the Tuscany region of Italy has been celebrating the 2015 Year. Under the title, “Egypt … Live the Magic” an Egyptian Day was organised in the city in collaboration with the Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca e della Città di Cortona (MAEC), the city council, and the cultural association Atrapos.

The president of Atrapos, Leonardo Lovari, told the Weekly that the Egypt Day has highlighted the ancient Egyptian influence on Cortona’s history from the Etruscan civilisation in the region onwards. He described the day as an opportunity to highlight the strong ties between Egypt and Italy, which have left their mark on a long tradition of culture and art, as well as tourism.

Lovari said that the day will raise awareness of the country and show Egypt in different cultural and historic lights, drawing attention to its colossal monuments, deserts, the turquoise waters of the Red Sea, the Nile and the people’s warm welcome to their country’s visitors.

“Our goal is to inform more people about the culture of Egypt in all eras because our speciality is to study human beings. We also believe that our Western culture evolved from ancient Egyptian culture,” Lovari said.

He added that relations between Italy and Egypt go back at least to the time when Italy was made up of largely of maritime republics in the Middle Ages, with merchants from these states going to Egypt to sell their products.
Some Venetian merchants used to go all the way to Luxor in Upper Egypt and stay in small inns behind the Luxor Temple. Lovari said there is a long line of Italian travellers who have explored Egypt, along with many distinguished Italian Egyptologists who have worked at its different archaeological sites and are still working in Egypt at the present time.

Italian-Egyptian relations were so strong and deemed so important that in 1867 Italian King Victor Emmanuel II presented Egypt’s then ruler, the khedive Mohamed Tawfik Pasha, with the Italian Higher Class Medal. In 1946, after Italy’s defeat in World War II King Victor Emmanuel III abdicated, and Egypt’s King Farouk invited him to live in Alexandria.

Victor Emmanuel III died in the city in December 1947 and is buried there behind the altar of St Catherine’s Cathedral. In 1961, over 60,000 Italians still lived in Alexandria.

To highlight the ancient Egyptian influences on Cortona, Lovari said an archaeological exhibition entitled “Traces of Ancient Egypt in Cortona” has been organised at the MAEC.
The exhibition runs until December and includes artefacts collected by Monsignor Corbelli, a native of Cortona, who once served as the Roman Catholic apostolic delegate to Syria and Egypt.

Among the collection is a valuable small boat showing the deceased on his journey to the afterlife, along with two well-preserved mummies and two richly decorated sarcophagi. A collection of scarabs, amulets, canopic jars, small stelae and ushabti figurines are also on display. The MAEC houses around 400 ancient Egyptian and Roman artefacts in its permanent collections.

THE MAEC: Established inside the 13th-century historic Palazzzo Casali in 1727 and bringing together the Museum of the City of Cortona and the Museum of the Etruscan Academy, the MAEC museum is laid out over four floors of the building, two below the ground level and one of which was once used as a prison.
Guided by the president of the institution, Eleonora Sandrelli, the Weekly spent an hour at the museum, examining the first two rooms, introducing visitors to the prehistoric period in the Chiana Valley and the remains of prehistoric animals unearthed in 1960. Numerous artefacts from the Paleolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages are also on display.

Objects unearthed at sites near Cortona are also exhibited, showing the architectural design of a royal Etruscan tomb as well as objects from the tomb’s funerary collection. Books, manuscripts, art and handicraft objects, including those of the museum’s founders and donators, are also on show.
Paintings by Tuscan artists from the 13th to the 19th centuries are on display, including an oval painting by Cortona artist Luca Signorelli of the Virgin Mary with Child surrounded by Saints, one of the most interesting in the collection.

Strolling up the steep, mediaeval streets of Cortona, visitors have also been able to explore the 53rd round of the oldest antiques fair in Italy, the Cortonantiquaria at the Palazzo Vagnotti and Palazzo Casali buildings. The exhibition puts on show a large collection of rare and valuable antiques, including Italian furniture, silver and bronze items and oriental pieces and jewellery.

Walking through the scenic corridors of the palazzos, representations of the god Eros in art throughout the ages can be seen on the walls, including paintings by the great masters and oils, etchings, engravings, and lithographs by artists ranging from Pablo Picasso to Salvatore Fiume.The Cortonantiquaria also includes thematic exhibitions and important smaller shows.

The Palazzo Casali hosts Cortona Design dedicated to Egypt from ancient times to the present day. The main focus, Lovari said, was to draw attention to the 2015 Year of Egyptian Culture in Italy. The exhibition “Ancient Traces of Egypt in Cortona” highlights the centuries-old interest in ancient Egypt in the country and the ways that Egypt has inspired Italian artists, artisans and designers for centuries.

One artist featured in the exhibition is designer Karim Rashid, an Egyptian-Canadian, who has found success making industrial designs that use signs and symbols that lead back to his native culture, what he calls “contemporary hieroglyphics.”

MAGIC OF THE PYRAMIDS: The star of the Cortona event was renowned Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, who was honoured by Cortona mayor Francesca Basanieri with the 2015 Cortonantiquaria Award for his efforts to promote and preserve Egypt’s heritage.

During the celebrations, Ibrahim Darwish, head of the Archaeological Society of Alexandria (ASA), asked the attendees to support Hawass for the post of UNESCO director-general after the end of the mandate of the present director-general, Irina Bokova.

Darwish told the Weekly that the ASA sees Hawass as the most suitable person to direct the UN organisation due to his contributions to the world of heritage and his indefatigable defence of the freedom of thought and expression and remarkable contributions to the community at large.

“Hawass’s open mindedness, his cosmopolitan spirit, his care for dialogue and defence of the humanistic tradition in a troubled era have enabled him to become the model of an archaeologist and a man of culture inspired by ideals of which the world is most in need at present,” Darwish said.

In Cortona, Hawass delivered a lecture on the condition of Egypt’s antiquities and archaeological sites since the 2011 Revolution and previewed his latest book, entitled Magic of the Pyramids … My Adventures in Archaeology.
The book illustrates the discoveries Hawass has made over the last 20 years on the Giza Plateau, at the Saqqara Necropolis and in the Valley of the Golden Mummies in the Bahariya Oasis.

“Egypt is a safe country,” Hawass told Italian reporters during a press conference held on the fringes of the Egypt Day celebrations. “Egypt and its sites are protected and safeguarded by the police and army.”

He stressed that Islamic State (IS) group could not enter Egypt, as it had Iraq and Syria, because Egypt was well protected by its strong army forces. He particularly asked the press not to refer to IS as ISIS, an acronym that is sometimes seen, since this is the name of an ancient Egyptian deity of nature, magic, life and myth and not of death and killing as practiced by the Islamic State group. “I prefer to call them by their Arabic name of Daesh,” he said.
As someone who aims to do everything in his power to revive the country’s tourism industry, Hawass will embark on a promotional campaign all over the world in collaboration with Egypt’s Tourism Ministry to promote tourism to Egypt.

“Money is needed to maintain our cultural heritage,” Hawass said, although media attention, such as over Egyptologist Nicholas Reeve’s theory that there may be a secret passage in Tutankhamun’s tomb leading to queen Nefertiti’s tomb, also did not do any harm.

‘”Despite not being accepted as a theory, it has managed to attract international media attention to Egypt,” Hawass said.

“We need funds to complete several suspended archaeological projects, such as the completion of the Grand Egyptian Museum which was scheduled to open in 2015,” Hawass said, adding that the issue must be internationalised and visibility given to patrons willing to make donations through such things as naming a room or wing in their honour in the museum, or engraving their names on the front of the building.
But Hawass said he was not being listened to on this matter. When he was director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), he said, there were 22 plans for new museum spaces, but none of them have come into being. Everything has been put on hold, including the 10 million euros that Italy had allocated for the makeover of Alexandria’s Graeco-Roman Museum.

“Our collaboration in the cultural field with Italy does a lot and has done a lot for Egypt,” Hawass said. He intends to continue raising awareness in Italy about the world of the Egyptian pharaohs by taking his book to even smaller towns throughout the country. ‘”I will be making about a dozen presentations from now until May 2016,” he said.

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