Before the curtain draws on 2014, it is fitting for us to mark 110 years on the opening of one of Egypt’s most brilliant museums, the Geological Museum
On mention of a science museum one might immediately envision a dreary gallery with boring displays of interest only to academics. Contrary to expectations, however, visiting the Egyptian Geological Museum is as much fun as watching a science fiction film. It takes one on a journey to the world of dinosaurs and other extinct animals, and deep in earth to discover hidden metals, rocks and precious stones. It even displays the Nekhlite meteorite, a rare Martian meteorite that fell on Egyptian soil in 1908.
Buried in the sand
The Egyptian Geological Museum was founded in 1901 as one of the administrations of the Egyptian Geological Survey, and was inaugurated in 1904. It was first located in the garden of the Ministry of Public Works (now the Ministry of Irrigation) in Tahrir Square. The first museum of its kind in the Arab world and the Middle East and the fourth worldwide, it was established to house the specimens of rocks, minerals and fossils that had been collected by foreign geological expeditions to many parts of Egypt and previously published in the British Geological Journal. Most of the discoveries currently on display in the museum were discovered in 1879; they were first sent to England for identification and study and later returned to Egypt for display. During WWII, most of the major exhibits were buried in the sand to protect them from damage in case of air raids. They were returned to the museum display after the war ended.
The first curator of the museum was Charles William Andrews, a British palaeontologist, while the first Egyptian curator was Hassan Sadeq Pasha. Housed in a building that was considered an architectural gem, the Geological Museum was often visited by researchers and scientists from the four corners of the world to study its unique acquisitions.
The museum remained in the same location until 1979 when it celebrated its diamond jubilee; a commemorative postal stamp and coin were issued to celebrate the occasion. In 1980 the construction of the underground station in Tahrir Square required the demolition of a number of landmarks in Cairo’s Downtown area, including the Geological Museum. It was not until 1985 that it reopened in what was intended as a temporary home in the grounds of the Regional Institute for River Transportation in Old Cairo. The museum still stands in this location. Owing to its invaluable exhibits, experts from the US volunteered to help in the moving process. Because of the restricted space in the new museum, many of the pieces had to be confined to closed drawers and some laboratories had to be relocated to the Egyptian Geological Survey, despite their importance for the museum.
The remaining exhibits are displayed in an interesting and scientific manner. Interactive maps pinpoint the locations of the various rocks and minerals in Egypt, gypsum and acrylic models replicate the fossils, and miniature obelisks and columns are made to show the different types of rocks.
The museum’s acquisitions fall under the two categories of geology: the science that studies the solid earth, the rocks of which it is composed and the processes by which they change; and palaeontology: the study of prehistoric life, including fossils.
The exhibits are displayed in two main areas: the outdoor garden and the main indoor gallery. The outdoor area gives visitors the opportunity to inspect the exhibits closely and even touch them without the restriction of showcases.
The open display area includes various rocks classified according to their method of formation. The igneous rocks displayed include pieces of granite and basalt, sedimentary rocks include sandstone and limestone and metamorphic rocks include gneiss, schist and marble. These rocks have been extracted from quarries in the Egyptian desert since antiquity. Used in the construction of ancient buildings and temples as well as the building of obelisks, sarcophagi and statues, they include serpentine, green and red breccia, granite, diorite and porphyry, a purplish-red granite extracted in the Eastern Desert and much valued in imperial Rome.
Next to a porphyry column stands an obelisk fashioned for Ramesses II in pink granite, the rock favoured for such monuments. These needle-like constructions that witnessed the grandeur of our ancient Egyptian civilisation still stand today in Egypt and abroad. Obelisks were mostly made of granite, extracted near the city of Aswan, renowned for its hardness and durability. Thirteen granite obelisks were transported to Rome while the Romans ruled Egypt, hence its name: the city of obelisks. Many obelisks were also given as gifts by Egyptian monarchs in the nineteenth century to their counterparts in Europe; other than Rome, Egyptian obelisks adorn the cities of Paris, London and New York.
Several ancient granite mills are displayed at the museum. These were once used to crush gold extracted from mines in the Eastern Desert.
The ancient Egyptians have been extracting minerals from sites in Egypt since prehistoric times. The museum displays specimens of minerals that were and still are of great economic importance, such as chromite, magnetite, talc, manganese and kaolinite.
The most important minerals used by ancient Egyptians were gold and copper. The latter was extracted from the Sinai Peninsula and used to make tools used in everyday life; nowadays, uranium is extracted for use in the generation of nuclear power. The minerals on display include quartz, jasper, and feldspar, but one of the largest and most impressive exhibits in the museum is a huge quartz crystal extracted from the Eastern Desert.
Inside the main hall, precious metals are displayed both in raw and in manufactured form. Metals are classified either according to their known chemical nature, to their molecular geometry or to their economic use.
Given the economic importance of gold, the museum has an impressive display of this precious metal in many forms. A gold bar, gold fragments embedded inside quartz rocks and ancient Egyptian gold jewellery all show the everlasting economic importance of this metal.
Fossils and fossilastion
On display are also specimens of precious and semi-precious stones in both raw and polished forms. These include peridot, a green gemstone and the Egyptian equivalent of emerald, which is often found embedded in igneous rocks especially granite and pegmatite. There is also the semi-precious, greenish-blue turquoise which has been extracted from the Sinai Peninsula since ancient times, and a large collection of amber which is a stone of organic origin resulting from the solidification of the secreted resin of certain trees. The museum has a piece of amber with an insect trapped inside, the perfect fossilisation of an organism without any trace of decay.
Speaking of fossilisation, it could be useful at this stage to give readers a quick overview of fossils and their types. A fossil is the remains of animals or plants preserved inside the crust of the earth in an environment that prevented its decay. For fossilisation to occur, three conditions must be fulfilled. First is the existence of a strong skeleton of the dead creature. The fossil is usually the vertebral column or the hard bones of a vertebrate; in the case of invertebrates, the animal must be encased in a shell to give it a solid shape. For other invertebrates, a mineral which exists in the limestone where the fossil is buried sometimes diffuses inside the animal to replace its soft tissues and give it a solidified shape as it is the case with fossilised corals. Second is the rapid burial of the dead animal or plant to prevent its exposition to oxygen and other environmental factors that can cause decay. Third is the existence of a proper environment to preserve the fossils, such as the sedimentary rocks which have helped the conservation of many fossils throughout millions of years.
One of the most obvious exhibits of the museum is a model of the ancient Fayoum animal, the Arsinoitherium, which is used as the museum logo. The Arsinoitherium was an animal that lived in prehistoric times; a 35 million-year-old fossil of this animal was discovered in Fayoum Oasis in Egypt, which made it possible for scientists to make a reconstruction of this extinct animal.
The Fayoum region is one of the richest areas in the world for vertebrate fossils, including the Arsinoitherium. The fossils of this extinct animal were discovered by palaeontologists Charles Williams Andrews and Hugh John Llewellyn Beadnell, who published information about their discovery in a series of articles in 1904. The name Arsinoitherium is derived from Arsinoe, one of the Ptolemaic queens of that name, whose palace was located beside Lake Moeris not far from the site where the first fossil was discovered, whereas the second part, thorium is an ancient Greek word meaning beast or animal. Its most distinctive feature is the two large horns on its snout. Andrews and Beadnell described the Arsinoitherium as a strange animal, a combination of an elephant’s feet and a rhinoceros’s body with the enlarged teeth of a rock hydrax and a large skull. The paleontologists took great pains trying to classify this newly discovered species, and finally created a new order for it. As well as the Arsinoitherium fossil on display in the Egyptian Geological Museum, some remains were sold to the Natural History Museum in London, the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart and the Natural History Museum in the United States.
The fossil section in the main hall also displays a model of the Moeritherium, an ancestor of the elephant with a small body and no trunk and with eyes and ears placed high on the head, suggesting that this animal spent much time in water.
In 1879, German botanist Georg August Schweinfurth first discovered the bones of a whale in an area not far from Lake Qarun in Fayoum. A complete skeleton of one of these whales is on display in the museum, as well as the skull and the lower jaw of a Basilosaurus, an early whale with short legs much like a seal’s belonging to the suborder of Archaeoceti. This was discovered in 1901 by Beadnell, who resumed the work that Schweinfurth had begun. The whales discovered in this area were found in groups, confirming the theory that these giant mammals have been victims of group beaching since prehistoric times. In 2005, the paleontological site of Wadi al-Hitan (Valley of the Whales) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site after a nomination file was presented to the international organisation. The file was prepared by the geologists of the Egyptian Geological Survey and experts of the Egyptian Geological Museum.
The museum boasts a large collection of fossils of primates, mainly of two species of creatures that resemble apes, the Biretia fayumensis and Biretia megalopsis. Both species belonged to the lesser ape family and lived in the late Eocene age about 41 million years ago. The fossils were discovered between 2002 and 2003 by a joint excavation project between Egypt and Duke University of the US.
In the period between 1911 and 1934, German Paleontologist Ernst Stromer discovered the fossilised remains of dinosaurs in Bahariya Oasis in the Western Desert. Four different species were discovered, three of which were carnivorous and one herbivorous (Spinosaurus and Aegyptosaurus). This much was learnt from the animal’s anatomy: length of the neck, shape of the teeth and features of front and back legs. The specimens were sent to Munich for identification and study and were kept there in a local museum. Unfortunately, the entire museum was destroyed in an air raid by Allied Forces on Munich in 1944.
In 2000/2001, a joint expedition was formed combining experts from the Egyptian Geological Museum and the University of Pennsylvania to dig for dinosaur remains in the west of Bahariya Oasis. This expedition unearthed about 25 per cent of fossilised remains of a Paralitian dinosaur, also known as ‘Stromer’s tidal giant’. This is the second largest dinosaur to have ever existed. The Egyptian kGeological Museum now displays 28 pieces of the dinosaur after they were studied and restored in Pennsylvania. The pieces include the left shoulder flank, a phalanx, the right humerus and fragments of the pelvic and tail bones.