Overlooking the Ain Al-Sira Lake in the heart of Egypt’s first Islamic capital of Al-Fustat stands the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) with its pyramid-shaped roof.
After six years of delay due to budgetary constraints in the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution, the NMEC was partially inaugurated this week with the opening of a temporary exhibition relating the history and development of Egyptian crafts through the ages.
As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press Prime Minister Sherif Ismail was scheduled to officially inaugurate the exhibition along with UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany.
Although the work at the NMEC has been proceeding according to the schedule drawn up with UNESCO in 2002 when the foundation stone was laid, construction was put on hold after the revolution.
The museum was originally to be opened in July 2011. Owing to the revolution and funding problems, the opening was delayed.
Over the past six years work proceeded slowly, but by 2014 all the construction work had been completed, including the galleries, corridors and exhibition sections as well as labs and storage galleries. Despite still showing some concrete underlay, the building’s floors and staircases are now encased in grey marble and the lighting and security systems all installed.
However, budgetary issues have still prevented the total completion of the museum and its opening to the public.
To overcome such obstacles, El-Enany suggested creating a temporary exhibition hall to put on show some of the museum’s planned exhibits to encourage tourism to the NMEC and provide the required funds to open the whole museum.
Over the last six months work on the two levels hosting the temporary exhibition “Egypt’s Crafts through the Ages” has been at full swing to meet the opening deadline. Workers have been organising artefacts inside showcases, while others have been inserting graphics on the theme of the exhibition design. Curators have been fixing labels on each display.
“I am very happy and proud to say that a part of my dream has now come true,” El-Enany told the Weekly, referring to this week’s partial opening. He added that between 2014 and 2016 he had been honoured to have been the supervisor of the NMEC project.
“In this capacity, I have seen first-hand the hard work and dedication of the museum staff and the ministry employees in making the museum’s debut exhibition a reality and a successful one at that. I take this opportunity to thank them for all their hard work,” El-Enany said, explaining that the newly opened exhibition was only a sampler of many more exciting endeavours to come.
“I hope every visitor will enjoy the exhibition and stay tuned to all of the NMEC’s future projects,” he said.
The exhibition, El-Enany added, embodied what the NMEC as a museum and an institution aims to highlight: the material culture of a long-standing, diverse and advanced civilisation. It reflects both the continuity of traditions and the innovation of technologies in Egypt.
El-Enany said that the chosen crafts for the new exhibition were particularly relevant to the museum’s surrounding area, which has long been a hub of woodworking, textile production, jewellery making and pottery manufacturing.
“Although the inauguration marks the opening of a single temporary exhibition to the public, the NMEC is a much larger entity than that, with rich galleries covering a plethora of themes in addition to being an extensive scientific research centre and cultural hub,” El-Enany said.
He announced that in order to celebrate the NMEC’s soft opening, the museum would offer admission to visitors free of charge beginning on 16 February and continuing through the end of the month. Photographs and videos for TV channels would be free of charge in the same period, he said.
“Craft production in Egypt has a long and rich history that over time has been continuously refined, incorporating new techniques and raw materials to create a treasure trove of exquisite masterpieces, many of which survive to this day,” Mahmoud Mabrouk, the exhibition designer, told the Weekly.
He said that the choice of crafts for the first temporary exhibition held at the NMEC boded well, with the location of the museum in Al-Fustat being known for its rich tradition of crafts. The area around the museum hosts a centuries-old pottery production community, and pottery producers and vendors line the main streets leading to the Museum.
A crescent necklace
AREA CRAFTS: Textile production has also been a part of the area’s economy.
During construction work at the NMEC, a dye factory dating to the Fatimid era was discovered, bearing witness to Al-Fustat’s textile heritage. Many leather tanneries continue to operate in the area to this day. Jewellery production flourishes in neighbouring Khan Al-Khalili, and woodworking is still thriving in Old Cairo where many fine examples of the craft survive in the area’s churches and mosques.
“These four crafts were at the core of ancient Egypt’s sophisticated economy, and each craft continues to evolve, taking advantage of the latest technologies and materials with its basis remaining the same and many tools and methods originating from the earliest days of Egyptian history,” Mabrouk told the Weekly.
The exhibition aims to highlight the innovation and artistry of Egyptian craftsmen throughout the country’s history, he said, bringing together artefacts from every major period of Egyptian history in a continuous narrative of innovation, ingenuity and excellence.
“An archaeological exhibition is totally different from what we see in civilisation museums,” Mabrouk pointed out, explaining that the former depends on excavating a site and putting what is found on display. By contrast, a civilisation museum like the NMEC explained to visitors how and why these objects were used and their interaction with the community, he said.
Visitors to the exhibition will explore the four crafts on display through a special route distributed between the two levels of the hall. The route starts with pottery manufacturing, woodwork and textiles on the first level, while the second level shows jewellery.
The exhibition puts on show a collection of 400 artefacts carefully selected from museums in Cairo including the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, the Museum of Islamic Art in Bab Al-Khalq, the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo, and the Textiles Museum in Al-Muizz Street in Islamic Cairo as well as the NMEC store galleries.
“We hoped that the Ministry of Culture would give us loans of objects from the collection of renowned modern Egyptian artists such as Said Al-Sadr, Mohamed Mandour and Nabil Darwish to show to visitors the development of the pottery industry in Egypt, but regretfully all attempts have failed,” Mabrouk said.
Egypt has one of the longest continuous pottery traditions in the world. Evidence of pottery-making in Egypt goes back to 8000 BCE and can be found in areas such as Nabta Playa and the oases in the Western Desert. During the Neolithic and Pre-dynastic periods, the craft continued to spread to other population centres such as Merimda Beni Salama, Fayoum, Deir Tasa and Maadi.
“Among the most important and distinguished pottery items are those from the Pre-dynastic era,” Mabrouk said, adding that although they had simple shapes they were professionally and skilfully produced, fired, coloured and decorated. “A red painted, buff clay pot with Nilotic scenes from the Naqqada II period that was discovered in the Al-Mahasna area in Upper Egypt is one such pot,” he said.
The textiles section focuses on linen and its production as linen made from the flax plant was at the core of the early days of textile production in Egypt, with intricately stitched linen garments being found in tombs dating as far back as the fifth millennium BCE. During the ancient Egyptian period, Mabrouk told the Weekly, the pharaohs wove very distinguished linen plied garbs and skirts.
Textile production flourished during the Roman period when the emperors established weaving centres in Alexandria. The Byzantine period then saw the production of a great number of richly decorated tapestries using multiple coloured threads which were coveted even beyond the borders of Egypt.
The Islamic era, especially the Fatimid period, saw textiles with flamboyant ornamentation on rich linens and delicate silks. These used intricate embroidery in kufi script on plain backgrounds or a combination of red letters on a cream background.
Mabrouk said that among the most important artefacts in this section of the exhibition was a fragment of a linen robe with the cartouche of the Pharaoh Amenhotep II of the 18th Dynasty, a model of a wooden model of a 12th Dynasty workshop discovered in the tomb of Meketre at Deir Al-Bahari at Luxor, Byzantine textiles, and an Abbasid period linen fragment with silk embroidered text.
The woodwork section highlights furniture through the display of a collection of funerary beds, chairs, stools, tables and chests found in ancient Egyptian tombs to the intricate marquetry and inlaid objects of the Coptic, Mameluke and Ottoman eras.
Among the items on show is the chair of queen Hetep-Heres, mother of the Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Khufu. “This is the first ever royal chair found in Egypt,” said Mabrouk, adding that the ancient Egyptians were the first community in the world to fabricate and sit on chairs.
He explained that they even produced chairs for every stage of a person’s life. There were chairs for children, others for toddlers as well as youths and older people. Chairs were also made for royalty, nobles and ordinary people.
“A simple small stool carved of pomegranate wood is among the collection on display,” Mabrouk said. He added that it showed the professional talent of ancient Egyptian carpenters as it is fabricated of 120 small pieces of wood but still keeps its lightweight and strong body.
Painted wooden boxes to preserve canopic jars from the tomb of Sennedjem at Deir Al-Medina at Luxor are also on display, as well as war chariots, furniture, toys, statues, ushabti figurines, musical instruments and tools. The doors of churches in inlaid wood and of mosques and wakalat carved with floral motifs and ivory geometric designs are also on show along with mashrabiya woodwork (latticework).
To show how the ancient Egyptians made their wooden items, boats and furniture, Mabrouk said a wooden model of a carpentry workshop from the 12th Dynasty tomb of Meketre at Deir Al-Bahari was on show. There is a painted chair made for Youya ang Tuya, grandparent of the monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten.
The jewellery on show displays the different types of jewellery and techniques used by the Egyptians over the ages, varying from ancient Egyptian times to the modern period. Mabrouk said the most stunning style was the folkloric-style jewellery of the 20th century because it echoed all the previous eras.
An iconic kirdan hilalat (crescent necklace) on display, he said, combined the shiftishi work made popular by the Fatimids with a large, central crescent-shaped pendant which, although commonly known as an Islamic symbol, can be found adorning gold necklaces painted on mummy masks from the Graeco-Roman era.
“Traditional jewellery from Sinai, Nubia and Siwa also forms an integral part of Egypt’s jewellery heritage,” Mabrouk told the Weekly. He said that in Sinai, face veils laden with ornaments, amulets, coins and beads were the most iconic form of personal adornment, while Siwan silver jewellery is believed to have had healing and protective powers.
Graphic designs, posters, and newly made models illustrating the tools and instruments used in the production of these four crafts are also exhibited, as well as models depicting the costumes and manners of their workers. There are carpenters carving a table, farmers drying linen leaves, and weavers putting threads on looms.
The exhibition is accompanied by large electronic screens displaying documentaries showing the development of each craft through the ages as well as how the ancient and modern workers produced these magnificent artefacts.
Mabrouk and El-Enany inspecting the latest work at the exhibition hall before the opening
THE NMEC: The plans for the NMEC were originally drawn up in 1990, but its original location is now the parking area of the Cairo Opera House in Gezira.
Since this area proved too small for the planned museum, the idea remained dormant until 2000 when 33 feddans on the edge of the Ain Al-Sira Lake in Fustat were selected to be a suitable location for the new museum.
In 2002, the pyramid-shaped foundation stone of the building was laid, and in 2004 the first phase of the project was completed. An up-to-date storage space, similar to that at the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London, was built on the site.
“This is the first time that such a storage facility has been built in Egypt and includes a high-tech security system that is directly connected to the police commissariat,” said Mahrous Said, the NMEC’s supervisor-general. He added that to access the storage space, magnetic cards from two inspectors are required.
To tighten security measures further and prevent theft, each showcase has its own code connected to a special device, which in turn registers the time and the ID code of the curator who opened it. A laboratory to restore pieces in the museum’s collection is also among the achievements of the first phase.
The second phase started in 2007, Said said. Although the work at the museum has been slow, the team completed the building’s commercial and cultural section, including a cafeteria, restaurants, cinema, theatre and 42 souvenir and handicrafts shops in 2015. The museum’s glass pyramid-shaped roof will display a multimedia show of the different Egyptian civilisations. Escalators and elevators have been installed, as have the offices of the administrative staff.
Elham Salah, head of the Museums Department at the Ministry of Culture, told the Weekly that the new museum will display 150,000 artefacts from the principal museums in Egypt: the Egyptian, Islamic and Coptic Museums in Cairo; the Graeco-Roman and Alexandria National Museums in Alexandria; and the Luxor Museum. Items will also come from major archaeological storehouses, including those on the Giza Plateau and at Saqqara.
She continued that the River Nile, handwriting, handicrafts, society and faith are the five main themes of the new museum. Visitors will be able to traverse the various epochs of Egyptian history, beginning with pre-history and continuing to the Pharaonic, Coptic, Islamic and modern periods.
“One of the most important components will be the section providing a history of Lake Nasser,” said Salah, explaining that this would show its creation and role in changing Egypt’s irrigation system and agricultural methods.
The permanent exhibition will start with the reign of the Pharaoh Mena, founder of the First Dynasty, and continue until the time of Senusert III of the Middle Kingdom. In this pavilion, a section will be dedicated to Egypt’s flora and fauna. In the handwriting section, visitors will see the scientific aspects of the nation’s evolution in science through astronomy, mathematics and medicine.
Various kinds of handicrafts relating to copper and other metals will be on display, as well as sculpture, carving and architecture. Egyptian society and its system of rule will be explained in the ethnographical section, along with the different faiths.
Elham said that there will also be outdoor exhibits, which will include several of the discoveries made on the site before the museum’s foundation stone was laid. Among these were a Fatimid laundry found in the 1960s by a French team; the oldest existing plan of an Islamic house, dating back to the seventh century CE; and blocks bearing hieroglyphic inscriptions. These blocks were eventually used in the construction buildings on the site.
The oldest dyeing factory ever discovered, with more than 100 clay dyeing pots, will be displayed in the outdoor exhibition. Ancient Egyptian artefacts found in the debris, including the udjet (eye of Horus) and scarab amulets, will be placed in a special showcase displaying objects recovered from the area.