When the 2011 revolution swept through the Egyptian capital, ambitious museum projects were put on the back burner as the country grappled with political turmoil and economic crisis. But six years later, Egypt’s cultural initiatives are picking up speed.
The Museum of Islamic Art, which was badly damaged by a bomb attack on the nearby police headquarters in 2014, reopened at the end of January. The long-awaited National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC)—under construction in Cairo’s al-Fustat district since 2004—opened a temporary exhibition hall in February. And the massive Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), originally scheduled for completion in 2011, plans to open the first full display of its Tutankhamun collection next year.
The political will to support these projects is there—but cash is short. In a speech at the opening of the NMEC, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, linked museums to the government’s counter-terrorism efforts. But as many tourists continue to avoid Egypt, the ministry of antiquities is struggling to maintain existing institutions, let alone invest in new ones. The antiquities minister, Khaled al-Anani, told Arabic media last month that 2bn Egyptian pounds (around $110m) is needed to reopen 20 provincial museums that have closed in the years since the revolution.
Visitors view an ancient copy of the Koran at the reopened Museum of Islamic Art (Photo: Amr Nabil/AP)
Mahrous Said, NMEC’s director, says: “The challenge is to find funding. When we have the funds, we will finish our permanent exhibition within two or three years.” The museum’s inaugural exhibition—dedicated to the development of Egyptian craftsmanship in pottery, textiles, carpentry and jewellery through the ages—cost around EGP40m. After attracting 30,000 mostly local visitors in the opening weeks, Said hopes the show will galvanise sponsors to raise the EGP800m needed to complete the permanent displays. The surrounding complex, which has rental space for more than 40 shops, could be up and running—and generating income—by June, he says.
Meanwhile, foreign governments have plugged the financial gap at the Museum of Islamic Art and at GEM. The United Arab Emirates gave a grant of EGP50m to restore the Islamic museum in 2015, while Japan agreed last autumn to give GEM a second loan worth $450m (after an initial $300m in 2006). GEM, which will also be part of a bigger commercial complex, aims to create an international friends scheme and build an endowment, according to its director, Tarek Tawfik.
The museum is banking on the 5,000 treasures of the Tutankhamun collection—3,000 of which have already undergone conservation—to draw up to five million visitors a year. Until now, only a fraction of the collection has been on show at its historic home, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Since work on the new facility began in 1992, the project has almost doubled in cost, from $550m to an estimated $1bn. Located two kilometres away from the pyramids of Giza, GEM will boast 93,000 sq. m of exhibition space, making it the world’s largest museum dedicated to a single culture. Egypt’s ministry of antiquities says the site should be complete in 2022, in time for the centenary of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb.
As culture officials wait for a tourism revival, the revolution has had the positive side-effect of inspiring local interest in Egyptian heritage. The number of Egyptian visitors to the Islamic museum has “risen exponentially” since the reopening, prompting GEM to rethink its projected audiences, Tawfik says. There is a sense that the government’s push to complete major cultural projects will “re-establish faith in the country [after] a very tough few years”, Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, says. “Egyptians are more interested in where they came from and what they have.”