“This will be the biggest museum dedicated to a single civilisation anywhere in the world.”
My ebullient guide, Egyptologist Yomna Salama, proudly ran through a set of impressive stats as we cleared security into the Grand Egyptian Museum’s Conservation Centre, winding though long, strip-lit corridors with shiny floors. There were guards everywhere, but if the place had the hallmarks of a maximum-security bunker it was for good reason. There are 19 laboratories here dedicated to the restoration and conservation of thousands of Egypt’s most precious antiquities.
They’re being brought back to best ahead of going on display in the museum itself, which is scheduled to open in October 2020. While its foundation stone was laid in 2002, the Arab Spring put the brakes on things. But with Cairo finding its feet again, workers are here around the clock. When it opens, the $1bn, 500,000 sq m megastructure – ‘The Fourth Pyramid of Giza’ – will display 50,000 artefacts, with thousands more in rotation. In the unlikely event that visitors get bored of looking at the greatest collection of Ancient Egyptian exhibits ever assembled, they can check out the view instead: the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) will overlook the wonders of the Giza Plateau, including the Great Pyramids.
Until then, limited pre-opening tours have been giving sneak previews ahead of the grand opening. The guests got to see the exhibits as they were being worked on; the closest anyone without a PhD in Egyptology will get to the likes of a 2,500-year-old Greco-Roman amphora with wine still in it – among other things. I was one of the lucky few to find myself behind that security line, to see what awaits visitors in October.
The first of my three stop-offs was in the Stone Lab. Before me, a colourful set of reliefs depicted the story of heretic King Akhenaten, who introduced monotheism (the belief that there is only one God) to Egypt in an attempt to wrest power from the religious elite. The inbred, malarial, alien-headed Akhenaten was the first pharaoh to use religion for his political gains. When he died, aggrieved priests of the old order hid this limestone propaganda between the outer walls of a vast temple gateway near Aswan in â€‹Upper (Southern) Egypt, thus preserving it for us to enjoy some 3,000 years later.
It was then onto a set of enchanting murals, whose story betrayed the ancients’ penchant for pleasure. “Look at these high officials, they were party people!” declared Yomna, as she pointed to musicians playing the flute, harp and clarinet. Indeed, the fun folks of the Fifth Dynasty (2450- 2300 BC) enjoyed a calendar of more than 100 parties and celebrations.
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