The angular steel and concrete skeleton of Egypt’s huge new museum rises up on the Giza plains, in sight of the pyramids that inspired it. When it opens next year, visitors to the Grand Egyptian Museum will be able to see the Great Pyramid of Khufu and the Pyramid of Menkaure through the glass wall that fronts the galleries. The back wall will be made partly of alabaster, meant to glow like a jewel in the setting sun.
Like the pyramids on the horizon, there is nothing modest about this museum. At almost 650,000 square feet, the complex on the outskirts of Cairo will be the largest museum in the world dedicated to a single civilization – ancient Egypt, which, for almost 3,000 years starting at about 3,000 B.C., produced some of the world’s richest treasures.
More than 3,000 Egyptian laborers are working in shifts, 24 hours a day, ahead of a planned partial opening late next year, showcasing the mummy of King Tutankhamun and the treasures of his tomb. The young pharaoh – more commonly known as King Tut – died at the age of 19 in the year 1323 B.C. His tomb, filled with objects including an elaborate funeral mask and a coffin made of more than 240 pounds of solid gold, was discovered essentially intact in 1922.
“It will open with a fantastic bang, because for the first time, we will be presenting the complete Tutankhamun,” says Tarek Tawfik, director of the new museum. “Imagine being able to see this remarkable collection and the pyramids of Giza in the same place.”
Tawfik says the new museum is designed to make visitors feel as if they are actually at the pharaoh’s funeral procession. The museum hopes to attract more than 10,000 people a day — five times as many as those currently visiting the iconic, neoclassical Egyptian Museum in central Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Construction began four years ago, a decade after the project was first envisioned. The museum’s cost has doubled since then, to almost $1 billion. Japan is lending Egypt most of the money.
The country is suffering a severe economic crisis, caused partly by a collapse in tourism, one of its main foreign exchange earners. Before the revolution five years ago, up to 14 million tourists a year visited the country, pumping in as much as $12 billion a year into the economy.
Egypt last month launched a new campaign aimed at persuading foreign tourists that the country is safe – and fun – to visit. Videos feature boat rides down the Nile and diving near coral reefs. But although the weak Egyptian currency makes travel here a bargain, officials don’t expect tourism to pick up dramatically while the Middle East is still viewed as a risky holiday destination.
The bombing of a Russian plane, killing 224 people on board in the Sinai last year, halted the important Russian market. Egypt earned just $500 million in tourism revenue in the first quarter of this year, one-third as much as a year ago. The country has improved security measures and is negotiating a resumption of Russian flights.
‘Masterpieces in the basement’
The entire contents of King Tut’s tomb are being moved from the Tahrir Square museum in Cairo, which will be turned into a museum of ancient Egyptian art.
The young king’s gold death mask and other objects have toured the world since the tomb was discovered. But their permanent home has been the Egyptian Museum, which after 114 years and hundreds of different archaeological excavations, is bursting at the seams.
“We have masterpieces in the basement,” says Sabah Abdul Razaq, director of the Egyptian Museum. She says while 160,000 of the best pieces — including mummies, royal furniture and statues of the builders of the pyramids — are on display, another 100,000, including magnificent statues, remain in storage.
Some of the more fragile pieces have been deteriorating in the basement since they were excavated almost a century ago.
King Tutankhamun’s mummy itself was moved from Cairo, where it was being damaged by humidity, to the Valley of the Kings in southern Egypt, where he was originally entombed. There the mummy is displayed in an airtight glass case.
Two tiny mummies found in his tomb, and believed to be his stillborn daughters, will be displayed with him at the new Egyptian museum.
Tutankhamun ascended the throne at the age of 9 and died a decade later.
“He will be beside his great ancestors like Khufu, which means he will be here beside the biggest construction in Egyptian history,” says Islam Mustafa, the museum’s technical director, referring to Giza’s Great Pyramid – more than 4,000 years old and the only surviving wonder of the ancient world.
Leather sandals and linen loincloths
In labs near the new museum, staff are restoring thousands of objects that have deteriorated during decades of storage.
At one table, a restorer painstakingly removes cheap cardboard backing that threatens to damage 3,000-year-old sheets of papyrus inscribed with the Book of the Dead for an ancient queen.
Another, working from a black-and-white photograph from the original 1922 excavation, is busy restoring a pair of King Tutankhamun’s sandals.
His entire shoe collection — roughly size 8 — will be displayed in the new museum. Some are casual sandals made of woven papyrus fiber. Others, like the pair being restored, are leather embellished with solid gold.
The sandals and even more intimate items of clothing the young king wore are a powerful reminder that the mummy, an object of so much fascination, was, 3,000 years ago, a living, breathing human being.
“It was the idea of the ancient Egyptians that he would be buried with his favorite things and finery,” says Mustafa. “Because he was thinking this was not the end of his life, because he would be resurrected again and he will live another life after this and he would need all of this.”
At another table in the textile lab, conservator Negmadeen Morched leans over linen loincloths — triangular-shaped undergarments laundered before being carefully folded into wooden caskets for the king’s afterlife.
Of the roughly 5,000 objects from the tomb to be displayed, museum officials say two-thirds, including these undergarments, have never before been exhibited. Replicas of his loincloths will even be on sale in the gift shop.
Asked what he thought King Tutankhamun would make of that, Tawfik points out that the king, in his brief reign, changed both the capital and the religion of ancient Egypt. He says he believes Tutankhamun would be happy about anything that brings his legacy to light again.
Tawfik says the new museum will also aim at teaching Egyptians more about their own precious heritage. During Egypt’s 2011 revolution, looters broke into the museum in Tahrir Square and damaged and stole dozens of objects. Another regional museum was almost entirely looted in 2013. At Egypt’s archaeological sites, looting has spiked in recent years.
“We hope that by raising the awareness of ancient Egypt in the minds and hearts of the young generation,” he says, “they will be the real shield to protect the Egyptian antiquities.”