We have lived through difficult times during which we witnessed general disrespect and poor appreciation for Egypt’s antiquities inside their own home, Egypt. Some pieces of antiquity were trifled with, others were stolen, and still others were smuggled out of the country. Those that remained were not given the care or honour which their historical and civilisations value commanded. We used to learn with pride that Egypt possessed some two-thirds of the antiquities in the world, but we would be heartbroken at the lack of care accorded them; some used to explain this off by claiming it owed to having so much of them. It was painful to hear the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities [commonly known as the Egyptian Museum] in Tahrir Square, Cairo, sarcastically referred to as the “Warehouse of Egyptian Antiquities”, in view of its overcrowded, dim display of antiquities.
For a long time, we used to ask ourselves whether it was better for our antiquities to remain in various sites and museums the world over, or to be retrieved by Egypt? The answer was invariably shocking, because the pieces taken out of Egypt were displayed brilliantly as centrepieces in the world’s capital squares and most prominent museums, but those that remained in the country more often than not languished in negligent obscurity.
I remember well the comment by Egyptian writer Anis Mansour (1924 – 2011) in response to a wave of public distress at Egypt gifting the US in 1965 with the small, first-century BC Egyptian temple and gateway of Dendur in recognition of American contribution to the monumental UNESCO-led effort to rescue Nubia monuments from drowning under Lake Nasser, the huge water reservoir upstream the Aswan High Dam which was being constructed in the 1960s. The vast lake would have submerged ancient temples, settlements, fortresses, churches and shrines. UNESCO’s ambitious International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia resulted in 50 countries around the world contributing expertise, equipment, and funds to record data on the monuments, and to reinstall on safe ground 22 temples. Mr Mansour said: “We have many temples that far surpass in size and historical value the one gifted to the US. I ask those who criticise the move to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where it is shown, and see for themselves the meticulous care and splendour with which it is displayed. The temple is placed in a spacious area surrounded by water which, together with the expert lighting used, serves to endow it with an aura of beauty and awe that borders on sanctity.” Words along the same line have been used in relation to Nefertiti’s bust in Berlin, and to other pieces of Egyptian antiquities in London, Paris, Rome, and other places in the world.
I also recall a remark by a tour guide when my wife and I visited the Acropolis in Athens. Upon learning that we came from Egypt, she could not help remarking: “And you’ve come to see this!”, indicating that, no matter how beautiful and grand the Greek temple is, how our monuments in Egypt are incomparable to any other in the world.
That was decades ago, however. Today, we are living the best of times as regards reinstating due interest in our Egyptian monuments, and spotlighting them resplendently in situ or in museums. It is no exaggeration to say that the building and expert development of Egypt’s museums throughout the last few years represent remarkable achievements that impress Egyptians and non-Egyptians alike, surpassed only by the achievements of the era of great Egyptian archaeological discoveries in the early twentieth century.
Who can contest the wonderful design and presentation of the newly opened Egyptian museums? Chief among these is the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) in Fustat in Old Cairo, which includes exhibits that span Egypt’s history since the first settlers in the Nile Valley, through the ancient Egyptian kingdoms and the Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Coptic, and Islamic eras, until the outset of modern Egypt in the 19th century. One can still remember with pride the magnificent Pharaohs Golden Parade last April when 22 royal mummies were moved in an impressive procession from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir to their new location in the NMEC.
Now, we all hold our breaths in anticipation of the opening in the near future of the Grand Egyptian Museum GEM on the Pyramids Plateau in Giza, an architectural and museological wonder built to adequately house Egypt’s resplendent treasure of antiquities that had been so crammed in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir. Egypt never gave up on the Tahrir museum, however, and is working with international partners to present it to visitors in a new, brilliant cloak.
In this issue of Watani, we print an extensive report on Egypt’s successful efforts to bring home Egyptian antiquities smuggled outside Egypt to 12 countries: Germany, Denmark, France, The Netherlands, UK, US, Switzerland, Italy, UAE, Kuwait, Mexico, and Cyprus. The good news is that they will be welcomed with open arms in a warm home that honours them as is their due.
26 November 2021