Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Egypt’s Museums Chart Rich History of Art and Culture

King Tutankhamun
A picture taken on November 28, 2017, shows Golden Mask of King Tutankhamun, on display at the Egyptian Museum in the capital Cairo. Photo: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / AFP

The ancient Egyptians were one of the earliest people to understand the concept of ‘museums’ and the first to create them by placing statues and works of art in front of their temples and palaces. Many artefacts also show that the ancient Egyptians knew the art of restoration. King Ramses II (1130 BC) recorded the restoration of the works of his ancestors and his own works at the base of the Temple of the Sun. To this day, Egypt is known for its museums, which can be found throughout the country.

According to a report by the Central Authority for Public Mobilization and Statistics, Egypt has 72 museums in 19 governorates. The National Museum of Alexandria is the oldest, created by Ptolemy I in 280 BC. The design of the building is Italianate and contains 1,800 pieces of art from four periods: Greek, Roman, Coptic and Islamic. Over the centuries, ownership of the museum was passed to several kings and ruling families until it was taken over by the Egyptian state and inaugurated by former President Hosni Mubarak in 2003.

Some of the museum’s most famous artefacts are the statue of Serapis, the god of healing for the ancient Egyptians, and the mural of Sultan Qaitbay.

In the modern era, the first decree concerned with museums was issued by Muhammad Ali Pasha in 1835 to protect antiquities after their smuggling out of Egypt became widespread. This was followed by a decree by his grandson, Khedive Mohammed Tawfiq Pasha in 1881 to establish and form a committee for the preservation, inventory and maintenance of antiquities. Based on that decision, the Greek and Roman Museum was established in Alexandria in 1895 by Khedive Abbas Helmi II. It initially had 11 halls, which were expanded to 25 galleries for the artefacts discovered later. Most of the museum’s contents are from the Ptolemaic and Roman eras, the most famous of which are the statues of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

There are six other museums in Alexandria:

The Underwater Museum is one of Alexandria’s most prominent landmarks. It is a Pharaonic Greek city that was flooded by the Mediterranean and now lies at the bottom of the East Port. Visitors have to dive underwater to see the museum’s antiquities.

The Park Palace is one of Egypt’s royal palaces, built in 1892 by Khedive Abbas Helmi II within the park gardens.

The Aquarium contains fish and (aquatic) animals from the Mediterranean Sea and Nile River, mummified fish and marine items. The aquarium was established in 1930 in the era of King Fouad I. It is also home to an aquaculture research institute.

The Royal Jewelry Museum, known as the ‘Palace of Jewels’, is a palace built in 1919 for Princess Fatima al-Zahra of the Alawite dynasty. It was converted into a museum in 1986, featuring 11,500 pieces of jewellery, gold artefacts, diamonds and other items belonging to the Alawite family that ruled from the era of Muhammad Ali Pasha in 1805 until the era of Farouk I, which ended in 1952.

The Mahmoud Saeed Museum Complex comprises three museums housed in the Palace of Mahmoud Saeed, one of the pioneers of modern fine art. The first museum holds collections and works by Saeed, the second museum features works by the artist brothers Adham and Saif Wanli, while the third museum, the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, contains works by pioneers of contemporary art.

The Library of Alexandria Museum is part of the Library of Alexandria. It was established in 2001 and is dedicated to antiquities, manuscripts and rare books, numbering nearly 50,000 manuscripts and 50,000 documents. Also featured are the collections of the late President Anwar Sadat as well as a panorama of his life.

Cairo museum
An item is displayed at Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art after it reopened to the public on January 19, 2017, in Cairo. Photo: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / AFP

Egyptian Museum

The Egyptian Museum is considered one of the largest and most important museums in the world and the most important museum in the country, both for its cultural value and its many priceless collections. The building was designed by French architect Marcel Dornon and its foundation stone was laid on 1 April 1897 in the presence of Khedive Abbas Helmi II in the northern part of Tahrir Square in central Cairo.

The museum contains more than 180,000 antiquities gathered mostly from archaeological collections found inside the prehistoric royal tombs, the Foundation Era, the ancient, middle and modern states and later eras. The most prominent of the museum’s collections are statues and collectibles of kings, queens and royal families including Tutankhamun, Hatshepsut, Thutmose III and Ramses II, as well as war wheels, papyrus, ornaments, the Akhenaten Collection, the statues of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiye, a collection of amulets, writing and agriculture tools and royal mummies displayed in a special hall.

Besides the Egyptian Museum, the Governorate of Cairo has 34 other museums, the most important of which is the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.

Grand Egyptian Museum

After the Egyptian Museum ran out of space, the government decided to build a new museum on a huge plot of nearly 50 hectares near the Giza pyramids to accommodate new archaeological discoveries and some of the pieces from the Egyptian Museum. The foundation stone of the Grand Egyptian Museum was laid in 2002 and construction is scheduled for completion in mid-2020. The collection will feature approximately 150,000 antiquities and 17 archaeological restoration plants. The museum was established with Egyptian-Japanese cooperation, in which Japan provided financial support in the form of facilitated loans amounting to $800 million, in addition to technical cooperation in the preservation, restoration, packaging and transportation of the antiquities.

Celebrity Museums

Umm Kulthum Museum

Umm Kulthum museum
A collection of Umm Kulthum’s personal belongings at Um Kalthoum museum in Cairo. Photo: ANDREW BLACK / AFP

Due to the artistic and historical importance of the late Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, nicknamed the ‘Star of the East’, a museum was dedicated to her in one of the buildings attached to the historic Manasterly Palace overlooking the Nile. Built in 1998, the Umm Kulthum Museum includes the singer’s belongings and highlights her role in enriching Egyptian and Arab art.

Against a soundtrack of her songs, five halls tell the story of her life and achievements. Besides the main hall, there is a cinema, audiovisual library, panorama hall and a documentary hall. These halls also display the dresses she wore for some of her most iconic performances.

Other items include rare manuscripts of the most important poems sung by Umm Kulthum, which were composed by her poet friends, in addition to her gramophone, her copy of the Koran with a hard cover decorated with shells, the first contract she signed with the Egyptian Radio Station in 1934, her diplomatic passport, a number of diaries dating back to 1965 and letters of thanks addressed to her by presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat for her contribution to the war effort in 1955 and 1973.

Moreover, the museum displays the decorations the singer received, such as the Nile Medal awarded by Gamal Abdel Nasser, Lebanon’s National Order of the Cedar, the Syrian Order of Civil Merit, the Medal of Intellectual Competence from Morocco and the Pakistani Star of Excellence. The museum’s library contains dozens of magazines that featured Umm Kulthum between 1924 and 2000, alongside master’s and PhD dissertations written by singing students that mention her. The screening halls show a documentary about her life as well as clips from her films and concerts translated into English and French.

Across Egypt, dozens of museums contain millions of antiquities and sculptures dating back millennia as well as specialized museums such as the Geological Museum, the War Museum, the Wax Museum, the Islamic Museum, the Coptic Museum and the Agricultural Museum. This is in addition to museums dedicated to historical figures, such as the late leaders Saad Zaghloul, Mustafa Kamel and Gamal Abdel Nasser and singer, actor and composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab, as well as royal and presidential palaces that later became museums.

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