The must-see GEM in Egypt
A walk through the much-anticipated Grand Egyptian Museum with Egyptologist Dr Tarek Sayed Tawfik.
WORDS KIRSTIE BEDFORD
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There are few tourist experiences as eagerly awaited as Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM). This isn’t simply a museum, it’s a destination in its own right. The more than five-million-square-foot state-of-the-art museum has panoramic views of the Pyramids of Giza and is the largest archaeological museum in the world. It will also house the greatest collection of artifacts from ancient Egypt. However, six years ago its entire existence was in doubt when the development came to a standstill. It was then that the Minister of Antiquities called on the best person he could find to take on the role as general director and ensure its success, Egyptologist Dr Tarek Sayed Tawfik.
“I’m an academic, and I didn’t plan to become a museum director.” Dr Tawfik says. “But this project was not advancing, and I followed this patriotic demand and took over.”
You can hear in his voice how proud he is in achieving this monumental feat - and rightly so. Dr Tawfik was instrumental in both securing funding to ensure its completion, and choosing and transporting 50,000 artifacts, but he’s quick to add it was a team effort.
“This is not a project that one person achieved. This is a project of an entire generation, and I am very proud that I was able to be involved as a chief administrator at a crucial time. I hope the whole world will enjoy this fantastic monument that Egypt has built.”
Gracing the entrance of GEM are huge statues of pharaohs and Egyptian gods
Dr Tarek Sayed Tawfik with one of the incredible artifacts that was restored on site at GEM
The five-million-square-foot state-of-the-art museum has panoramic views of the Pyramids of Giza and is the largest archaeological museum in the world.
The pyramids of Giza are royal tombs built for three different pharaohs
There’s no questioning GEM’s importance. The museum will be the first to feature all 5,000 objects found inside King Tutankhamun’s Tomb. Of those, more than 4,000 were either on display in another museum or in storage. “They had to be moved in a very careful way because they are mostly of organic nature and fragile.” Dr Tawfik explains. He says the exhibit will offer an entirely new insight into the life of the Pharaoh. “For the first time, you can see his clothing and sandals. In his tomb, he had a lot of preserved foods for the second life after death. There was beef and duck, bread and treats. It’s as close as you will get to his life.” Leading to King Tut’s tomb is a grand staircase that showcases statues of pharaohs and Egyptian gods. In total, 40,000 artifacts were transported to the museum from all over Egypt, and more than 30,000 artifacts were restored at GEM, which has the largest conservation center in the world.
“About 20,000 of those artifacts have never been on display before, so some were in storage and some are the result of the discoveries throughout the last ten years.” He adds.
In total, 40,000 artifacts were transported to the museum from all over Egypt
The museum will be the first to feature all 5,000 objects found inside King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Of those, more than 4,000 were either on display in another museum, or in storage.
More than a museum
The building itself is undeniably a piece of art. Heneghan Peng Architects in Ireland was appointed to design the structure after a worldwide search that resulted in 1,577 entries from 83 countries. It is the size of a major airport terminal and includes multiple restaurants, shops, a children's museum, conference and education facilities and a large conservation centre. Guests enter via an atrium with a more than 131-foot high ceiling where the largest artefact in the museum sits, a nearly 40-foot high statue of Egyptian King Ramses II. The 3,200-year-old statue weighs 166,000 pounds and is so large and fragile, it was transported vertically.
Interest is visiting GEM is already high, and Dr Tawfik says they're expecting five million visitors initially, but the museum is designed to host up to eight million people a year.
While no longer director general, Dr Tawfik still plays a key role as part of the scientific committee and says it'll be something he'll always be proud of. “This monument that Egypt has built allows us to preserve the ancient Egyptian culture, which is an important part of humankind heritage for future generations.”
The museum is scheduled to open in October 2021.
The Great Sphinx of Giza is one of the largest and oldest statues in the world
Other unmissable sights of Egypt
With its pyramids and gold pharaohs, towering temples and cursed tombs, it’s no wonder Egypt's been on the tourist trail for the last 4,500 years. Here are the other sights you can’t miss on a trip to Egypt.
WORDS BELINDA JACKSON
A camel takes a rest in front of the Pyramids of Giza
The wondrous Pyramids of Giza
Of all the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World only one survives, and it’s in Giza on the outskirts of Cairo. The Pyramids of Giza are some of the world’s most recognizable architectural structures and still dominate the skyline 4,500 years after their construction. They’re part of the Memphis Necropolis, a vast plain that includes two lesser-visited clusters of pyramids, Dahshur and Saqqara. Sleepy Dahshur’s new drawcard is the tunnel into the heart of the Bent Pyramid, and staggering Saqqara is still revealing treasures from antiquity, as told in a new Netflix documentary, Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb.
It's not until you sit here that you appreciate the scale of the Temple of Karnak
The lure of Luxor
There is a perfect symmetry to ancient Egypt’s seat of political and religious power, Luxor. The East Bank celebrates the rising sun and life; follow the processional Avenue of the Rams into the Temple of Karnak, the world’s biggest ancient religious complex, and the nearby Temple of Luxor. Across the river, the West Bank is the land of sunset and death; the site of the Memorial Temple of Hatshepsut, the pharaoh queen and the famed Valley of the Kings. The most colourful subterranean mausoleums include the richly coloured tombs of Ramesses V and VI and Seti I. It’s all tied neatly together by a visit to the Luxor Museum.
Coptic Cairo is said to be where the holy family visited with baby Jesus
Cairo's Christian landmarks
With sites dating from the birth of Christ, Coptic Cairo is a wealth of early Christian landmarks, including the Church of St Sergius and Bacchus, where the Holy Family is said to have hidden from King Herod’s massacre of all firstborn sons. At 1,000 years old, Cairo’s medieval palace walk may not be considered ancient, but the palaces, mosques, hospitals and caravanserais that line Sharia al Muizz, Islamic Cairo’s main thoroughfare, must not be missed. Gorgeously turreted, the buildings are capped with domes and minarets, while the cool interiors are fabulously inlaid with exotic carved timbers, marble columns and intricate calligraphy.
The sacred Temple of Philae was relocated from Upper Egypt due to flooding
Towering temples in Upper Egypt
The best way to explore the temples of antiquity built around Luxor is by boat on the serene waters of the Nile. To the north, the Temple of Hathor in Dendera is small, but significant because Hathor was the mother of all gods. To the south, the Temple of Horus at Edfu is famed for its staggering proportions, while the riverside Temple of Kom Ombo includes a museum dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek. Further south, in Aswan, the Temple of Philae was one of 20 ancient sites rescued from flooding in the 1960s. While some temples were transported as far as New York, Philae’s new home is a tiny island, a short boat ride from Aswan’s marina. However, Upper Egypt’s brightest star is Abu Simbel. Standing at the feet of gods, visitors are towered over by the colossal nearly 66-foot high statues of Ramses II.