Looking Ahead 2023: How the Grand Egyptian Museum aims to reclaim the country’s ancient past

LONDON: Hit by endless delays, political upheaval and, most recently, the curse of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grand Egyptian Museum has been a long time coming.

But 2023 is the year when the modern complex billed as the world’s largest single-civilization museum is set to finally open its doors, just in time to help Egypt revive its much-needed tourism industry.

The opening of the building will be more than an opportunity to revive the country’s battered economy. It represents a symbolic cultural victory, not only for Egypt but also for an entire region whose ancient history has been plundered by generations of Western adventurers.

Nobody knows how the young pharaoh Tutankhamun died at the age of 18, around 3,344 years ago. The theories – none of which have been proven – include malaria, a tank wreck, a bone disorder and even murder.

One thing we do know, however, is that when the “little king” approached his untimely end, he would have had him comforted with the belief that he and the many possessions that would be buried with his mummified body would soon be on their way. . afterlife, and a glorious afterlife spent in the company of the god Osiris.

But this eternal journey was abruptly interrupted in 1922 when British archaeologist and part-time antiquities dealer Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb.

The only place to see the 5,400 artifacts in the Tutankhamun collection will now be the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (AFP)

Like all Western archaeologist-adventurers of his day, Carter’s plan was to ship most of the treasures to Europe and sell them to museums.

That this plan was normal during the heyday of heritage looting masquerading as scientific research is evidenced by the countless thousands of artifacts, statues, grave goods, coffins, sarcophagi and mummies from the Ancient Egypt found today scattered throughout the West. world, in museums large and small.

In Carter’s case, however, such was the significance of the discovery that, even though Egypt was a British protectorate at the time, Egyptian officials managed to foil his plans – more or less. In recent years, it has emerged that Carter and his colleagues have successfully smuggled various objects out of Egypt, which they have sold to a number of Western museums.

In 2010, Egypt hailed the return by the Metropolitan Museum in New York of 19 pieces taken from Tutankhamun’s tomb. “These objects,” said Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Met at the time, “were never supposed to have left Egypt and should therefore rightfully belong to the Egyptian government.”

Anyway, since the 1960s, it seems that the Tutankhamun collection has spent more time outside Egypt than in Egypt, touring the world in a series of endless tours.

The first traveling exhibit, “Treasure of Tutankhamun”, was seen in 24 cities across the United States and Canada between 1961 and 1966. Between 1961 and 2021, much of the treasure spent 30 years outside Egypt – three decades during which generations of young Egyptians were denied access to some of the most totemic elements of their heritage.

The long-awaited existence of the Grand Egyptian Museum will put an end to this shameful situation.

The 5,400 artifacts buried with the king over 3,300 years ago, including the iconic golden mask, have finally been reunited for the first time since they were unearthed by Carter in the Valley of the Kings.

Rosetta Stone in the British Museum.

From now on, the only place to see them will be in the right place, in Egypt, at the Grand Egyptian Museum.

This is a museum like no other. Covering a site of almost 500,000 square meters, the building offers visitors a spectacular panoramic view of the nearby pyramids of Giza.

Besides the headliner, Tutankhamun, the museum houses more than 100,000 artifacts from Egypt’s rich past, dating from prehistoric times through the Pharaonic era to the Greek and Roman periods. An 11-meter statue of Ramses the Great dominates the museum’s vast entrance atrium, which was built around the towering 83-ton granite figure.

In the West, museum curators mumble about the superior abilities of Western institutions to protect the heritage of other countries, which they inferably deem incapable of doing so.

Egypt, however, has undisputed, if not unrivaled, expertise in protecting and conserving artefacts from its past. A conservation center at the museum has been operational since 2010, having left its mark with Tutankhamun’s wooden outer coffin, which underwent eight months of careful conservation.

The British Museum claims it is a “museum for the world” – a place where the whole story of the evolution of world civilization can be seen by the whole world, in one place.

It’s good, as long as you live in London, or have the means and the desire to go there. But for most Egyptians, that’s not an option.

English Egyptologist Howard Carter (1873-1939) working on Tutankhamun’s golden sarcophagus in Egypt in 1922. (Apic/Getty Images)

In 2003, the last time Egypt made a determined but ultimately futile attempt to persuade Britain to part with the Rosetta Stone, one of the icons of Egyptian heritage, the British Daily Telegraph reported remarking contemptuously that “if the stone were to be moved” – at this point, to the Cairo Museum – “it would be seen by far fewer people than today, around 2.5 million visitors a year, compared to 5 .5 million who visit the British Museum each year”.

Again: how many of those 5.5 million are Egyptians, and how many other people from around the world could travel to Egypt to see the stone if it were in the Grand Egyptian Museum?

The opening of the museum comes a century after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and 200 years since the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone, the ancient stele that held the key to the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

In the past, Egypt made several attempts to recover the Rosetta Stone. Looted by Napoleon’s troops during his Egyptian campaign from 1798 to 1801, it was in turn seized from him by the British and shipped to the United Kingdom in 1802, where it was presented to the British Museum by King George III.

In 2003, Egyptologist Dr Zahi Hawass, then director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo and future minister of antiquities, told the British press that “if the British want to be remembered, if they want to restore their reputation, they should volunteer to return the Rosetta Stone as it is the icon of our Egyptian identity.

In 2020, Hawass renewed its campaign, expanding Egypt’s demands to include the return of the bust of Nefertiti from the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, and the Dendera Zodiac and several other pieces from the Louvre in Paris.

Pressure on international institutions to do the right thing increased in December when Germany returned 21 artefacts to Nigeria that were among the thousands looted by British troops from the West African kingdom of Benin there. is 125 years old. More than 100 of the so-called Benin Bronzes are also held by the University of Cambridge, which also agreed last month to return them to their country of origin.

Former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass, who campaigned for the return of Egyptian artifacts. (AFP)

However, the bulk of Benin’s artefacts are in the possession of the British Museum, which says it has “excellent long-term working relationships with Nigerian colleagues and institutions”, but has nevertheless so far refused to return the items.

The museum also shows no sign of wanting to part with its Egyptian artifacts. In addition to the 38 objects “found or acquired” by Howard Carter of Tutankhamun fame, it contains more than 45,000 other ancient Egyptian artifacts – less than 2,000 of which are on display.

In February 2020, Dr Khaled El-Anany, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, said Egypt was “in direct negotiations with the British Museum and other museums”, insisting that “all objects that left Egypt illegally will return to Egypt. ”

As always, the museum plays its “world museum” card.

“At the British Museum, visitors can view the Rosetta Stone alongside other pharaonic temple monuments, but also within the broader context of other ancient cultures, allowing a global audience to examine cultural identities and explore the intricate web of interconnected human history,” a spokesperson said. for the British Museum told Arab News.

An 11 meter statue of Ramses the Great at the Grand Egyptian Museum. (Provided)

The British Museum also highlights that it is one of four European museums to collaborate with the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities to refurbish the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square as part of a 3.1 million project. euros financed by the EU. But does this really make up for centuries of plunder?

Whether any of the world’s museums housing artifacts from imperialist-era Egypt will seize this golden opportunity to return them, bolstering their reputation, remains to be seen.

But if ever there was a good time for Egypt’s heritage to be restored to its rightful place, surely it is now, so that it can be exposed in the country’s vast new temple to its past. , for the benefit of all Egyptians and the many tourists from all over the world who will surely travel to see it.

Twitter: @JonathanGornall

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