In brightly lit labs near the pyramids of Giza, restorers in white coats work with intense concentration on some of ancient Egypt’s most splendid artefacts. They are cleaning and conserving gilded chariots, ceremonial beds and linen underwear found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, the “boy king” who lived 35 centuries ago and whose relics have long captured the imagination of the world.
“I am strengthening weak spots and reattaching bits of the gilded surface that have fallen off,” said Ali Hussein as he worked on a golden funerary bed featuring the heads of two lionesses.
The Tutankhamun collection will assume pride of place in the long-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum, under construction and set to open in 2020. With a price tag of $1bn, funded mainly by Japanese loans, the museum will be the largest in the world devoted to a single civilisation, say Egyptian antiquities officials.
They hope the museum will give a needed boost to tourism, a driver of the Egyptian economy and a main source of foreign currency and jobs. Arrivals fell amid the political upheavals following the 2011 revolution and again following a 2015 Isis plane bombing that killed more than 200 Russian tourists.
The sector has started to rebound. This year, tourism operators have reported an increase in arrivals from Europe and the US.
“Tourism has been recovering strongly, providing much-needed support to the economy’s overall growth of [above] 5 per cent,” said Mohamed Abou Basha, head of macroeconomic research at EFG Hermes, the Cairo-based regional investment bank. “It is the economy’s second-largest employer after the government and is now the third-largest source of source of foreign currency after remittances and exports.”
The government does not announce official tourism figures. However, Mr Abou Basha said revenues for the year to the end of June totalled $9.8bn and were expected to grow by at least another 15 per cent to more than $11bn by the end of June 2019 — “all this while still missing its single-largest market, namely Russia, which is still imposing a partial travel ban”.
The hope is that completing the museum will accelerate revival of the sector. Conceived on a monumental scale it is designed to provide panoramic views of the Pyramids to the south-east from all galleries. It will be home to 50,000 artefacts, almost half of which have not been exhibited before.
The complete collection of Tutankhamun — about 5,600 pieces — will be displayed for the first time since the intact tomb was discovered in 1922, said Tarek Tawfik, the museum director.
“We will transport the visitor 3,500 years back in history to the court of the king,” he said. “This is a unique case. We don’t just have the gilded throne and the royal insignia, but also the king’s leather sandals, his cushions, the dried fruits that were in his tomb and metres upon metres of textiles. Now, with modern means, we can restore many of these finds back to their original beauty.”
In a country rich in antiquities with discoveries made regularly, the promise of a modern museum with research facilities and accessible storage is one that many Egyptologists welcome as long overdue.
Some, however, are concerned that it could draw funds and attention away from a needed broader effort to preserve sites in rural areas and less-visited places.
“Archeological locations in small towns and villages need attention,” said Monica Hanna, an Egyptologist. “Some are falling prey to urban encroachment and looting. We need a proper heritage management programme that would bring visitors to these places and make an economic impact on the lives of locals so they would protect the sites.”
Mr Tawfik said the new museum will be “a safe haven” for some of the most priceless artefacts. Its storage facilities can accommodate 50,000 items. A computerised system will allow researchers to accurately locate each object, in contrast to the current overcrowded storage in the basement of the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo.
“We are aiming for 10,000 visitors a day initially, which should rise over time to 20,000,” said Mr Tawfik. “The museum will have all the must-see Egyptian pieces and it will also be a destination for researchers and scientists who want to do work in it.”
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