Tutankhamun to lead exodus from faded glory of old Cairo to slick new suburbs

Letter from Cairo: Irish architects to design museum close to pyramids at Giza

 Archaeologist Howard Carter opening the coffin of Tutankhamen which he discovered in 1922: when a museum worker broke his beard moving the mask, a conservationist simply stuck it back on. Photograph: Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Archaeologist Howard Carter opening the coffin of Tutankhamen which he discovered in 1922: when a museum worker broke his beard moving the mask, a conservationist simply stuck it back on. Photograph: Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

 

Earlier this year there were reports of a botched conservation job to one of the world’s most famous artefacts of the ancient world, the magnificent gold death mask of Tutankhamun.

After a museum worker at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum broke Tutankhamun’s beard when moving the mask, a conservationist simply stuck it back on.

Today visitors peer at the magnificent mask to see the break, and it is easy to see – a superglue job, and not a very skilled one at that. The incident seemed symptomatic of the state of the museum, one of Cairo’s major attractions.

The Egyptian Museum houses the world’s most extensive collection of Egyptian pharaonic artefacts in a museum whose 107 halls are dark, dusty and chaotic.

While little explanation might be necessary for Tutankhamen’s mummy, his queen, or their magnificent jewellery, thousands of exhibits are displayed with nothing to indicate what they are.

Some are hanging on nails in old-fashioned display cases while visitors try to guess their significance. This is such a pity, for the museum is a magnificent building, and has a proud history. In 1902 it was one of the world’s first purpose-built museums, of huge archaeological and patriotic importance, situated right in the centre of Cairo.

Apart from the obvious treasures, the more humble artefacts are also wonderful. Presumably due to the dry desert air, archaeologists have excavated not only metal and stone objects, but also wooden and fabric remains. But what they need is context and lighting.

Many museums these days appear to be little more than appendages to a shop. The Egyptian Museum is certainly different: it sells two postcards, one of the Rosetta Stone, which is actually in the British Museum, the other of Tutankhamun’s mummy.

Today, due to four years of political turmoil and revolution, much of it taking place just outside the museum in Tahrir Square, there are few visitors.

Burnt out shell

Democratic PartyHosni Mubarak

Around the museum are military vehicles filled with soldiers. Casually leaning against the museum railings are riot shields. All around the square are barbed wire barriers, pushed to one side as if waiting for the next phase in Egypt’s turmoil.

Meanwhile, an hour away, if you are lucky, through Cairo’s appalling traffic, are the Pyramids of Giza. This is high season for tourism in Egypt; the summer months are just too hot. At the car park at Giza one morning last week was one tour bus. A guide, whose income, like all the other tourism workers, has fallen considerably, had a novel analysis of recent events. Mubarak was wonderful. His only error was not to deal more harshly with the Muslim Brotherhood. Of course Mubarak was in the presidential palace when tourists last visited Giza in large numbers.

The pyramids are spectacular. The sphinx even more so, but there is nothing to help you understand the landscape of this city of the dead bathed in heat haze and pollution, upon which Cairo and its satellites are encroaching.

That is about to change. A new museum is being built near the pyramids: the Grand Egyptian Museum. An Irish firm of architects, Heneghan Peng, won the prestigious international competition to design it. The museum was to be opened this year, but has been delayed.

New capital

But it is not only Tutankhamun who is leaving the centre of the city. More and more Cairenes have moved to new cities that surround Cairo, and President Sisi has announced the building of a new capital.

The new cities are rather odd places. One such is October 6th City – the name commemorates the start of the Yom Kippur War. With 14 universities, seven hospitals, with plans for eight shopping malls and eventually three million people living behind walls and gates in compounds, it’s a far cry from the crowded streets and shisha smoking coffee shops of old Cairo.

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