The Grand Egyptian Museum rises in the shadow of the Pyramids, an Egyptian project with Japanese investment. A soft opening provides first impressions of what visitors to this mega- museum museum can expect.
by Susanne Mauthner-Weber
Mario can still remember when Ramses II was practically on his doorstep.
The gigantic three-thousand-year-old likeness of the ancient emperor originally came from an Aswan quarry.
After spending decades on the square in front of Cairo’s main railway station, it now dominates the atrium of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) in the shadow of the Pyramids.
And as KURIER ReiseGenuss found out last week, “grand” is the perfect adjective for every aspect of this stunning project. Although the GEM is still awaiting its official opening after two decades of construction, the Ministry of Antiquities has decided to hold a “soft opening” that allows visitors to gather first impressions of the world’s biggest museum of archeology.
But back to Mario. Despite the name – he confesses to having been named after Super Mario – Mario is Egyptian through and through. His job is to guide the first visitors through the GEM. However, what they now see is only a foretaste of things to come. The complete tomb treasure of Tutankhamun that forms the museum’s crowning glory is not yet on display, and all the other display spaces are likewise off limits for the moment. In fact, all that is on show at present is the impressive façade, the monumental architecture of the entrance area and the shopping mall.
But even these are well worth a visit. In front of the museum, visitors are greeted by the world’s first hanging obelisk. The wing to the right is occupied by the solar barque of the emperor Cheops (Khufu), until recently on display in the Giza Solar Boat Museum near the Pyramids. When the GEM opens, visitors will be able to follow the live restoration process of the barque’s twin.
In the atrium, all stone, glass, metal and water, Mario embarks on a lesson on Ramses II. He paints a picture of the king who had more than one hundred children, reigned for sixty-six years and had twenty different names, all carved into the reverse of the statue. “Quite some ego”, comments Mario, before moving on to point out the hieroglyphs framing the entrance. Among them, a closer look reveals a small square hole at one point.
Not a design fault, but an intentional feature, assures the young Egyptian. It beckons the GEM’s first visitors to undertake a journey of the imagination to Abu Simbel. Probably the best-known of all of Egypt’s temples, Abu Simbel was built by Ramses and is located on Lake Nasser in the far south of the country. It is known for its solar alignment; twice a year, the sun’s rays shine into the depths of the shrine and illuminate three of the four statues on its rear wall. Mario explains, ”This happens on 21 February and 21 October –the dates of Ramses the Great’s birthday and his ascension to the throne. Here in the Grand Egyptian Museum, the phenomenon has been reconstructed, and that small hole will allow the sun’s rays to enter and illuminate the greatest of all the pharaohs.”
The next chance to experience this solar alignment will thus be 21 October – and with a little luck, it may also be the actual opening day of the museum. Asked when the museum will open, Mario gives an optimistic grin and replies, “Six months, inshallah” (‘hopefully’; or, literally translated, ‘if God wills’).
Translated from originally german language and published with the kind permission of the author and KURIER, where the article first appeared in the 19.03.23 issue.