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A tomb to Egypt

Hanging with the pharaohs in the unfinished wreck of the National Museum of Egyptian Culture

TextTom RollinsPhotographyTom Rollins

I arrived in Egypt about 10 days before the June 30 protests. That bespoke blend of popular revolution and military coup chucked Mohamed Morsi and brought in an army-sponsored “revolutionary” government not outwardly keen on Muslim Brothers, journalists, activists or anyone against the army-sponsored “revolutionary” government. In the weeks and months that followed I saw keffiyeh-wrapped men pulling AK47s from their backpacks, up-ended police vans in flames and rooms full of dead bodies. It’s far from over.

Some people went to the beach, others left altogetherInstead I took a day off, and I’m standing at the entrance to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. By Egypt’s standards, this trip is intrepid in its banality: I call a number to arrange an interview, get in a taxi and walk through the gates. The antiquities ministry will later ask how exactly I got in without permission, they want to approve my article and check what pictures I've taken.

The building has been closed to the public since it was first announced in the early 80s. One president has been assassinated and two others overthrown in that time. There’ve been one and a half revolutions. The museum is still there, jutting out of El Fustat like a monument to the Egyptian history that won’t make it into any glass display case.

It's depressing, she says, smiling down at the ground. This was my first job. I started here 10 years ago.

After walking through a deserted car park, probably passing through a hundred different CCTV screens, I am looking through the press kit with the site’s PR officer, Fayrouz. The photocopied paper talks about the need to "preserve this civilization" in convincing floral enthusiasms. But when I ask Fayrouz what it's like working for a project that has been in a state of just-about-to-be-opened for so long, she is less poetic. "It's depressing," she says, smiling down at the ground. "This was my first job. I started here 10 years ago."

The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC) – “en-meck” for those in the know – was meant to open in 2007 just like it was meant to open in 2011 and 2012. Some staff now tell me it will be 2014; the ministry says 2015. It seems like nobody really knows. Delay after delay, and a massive lack in funds, has kept pushing it back. "It’s been a very long time," Fayrouz admits.

NMEC was first announced in 1982, the year after Anwar Sadat was assassinated and Hosni Mubarak started his 30-year Egyptian cavalcade of repression and corruption in Egypt. Then first lady, Mubarak's wife Suzanne, laid the foundation stone in 2002 and building started in 2004. The website still has references to “His Excellency,” now a little piece of history signed off by a museum director who retired years ago.

The museum will store tens of thousands of artefacts, telling the story of Egypt from prehistory through the pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic periods and right through to today. There is a plan to place the 2011 revolution somewhere in amongst it all, but nobody seems sure quite where.

"This is a big project for Egypt and the whole Middle East," museum director Dr. Mohamed Fawzy tells me. Outside we can hear drilling. When I ask how far off the project is from being finished, he starts listing things. "Yes, we have a shopping area, a cinema and a big lake…" But why have there been so many delays? Another list. Fawzy likes to talk big.

There’s something tragic about the survival of a museum meant to celebrate the greatness of Egyptian civilization boiling down to how many plaster of Paris Tutunkhamuns it can pick up

Sometimes it feels like that was the main concern for the museum. Make it massive and inshAllah we’ll see. “The project is very, very big,” Fawzy goes on. And ambitious? “Oh yes, very ambitious.”

The museum still needs $100 million for a halfway, “soft” opening – part of the museum and the entertainment area: lakeside hang-out, mall, cinema and theatre, corporate facilities, etc. But NMEC needs another $100 million to open properly. Fawzy is keen to push that. He asks me to approach Egyptian newspapers to campaign for funds. A printing house buried in amongst the store rooms is ready to use, he suggests. “Maybe you could print your newspaper here?”

There’s something tragic about the survival of a museum meant to celebrate the greatness of Egyptian civilization boiling down to how many plaster of Paris Tutunkhamuns and corporate gigs it can pick up while still under construction. It also serves as a reminder to the confusing legacy of decades of heavy-handed rule – by police states, free market capitalists and military patriarchs – how a museum of civilization boils down to what, for the time being, is essentially an out-of-town entertainment complex. This is sterilized history, accidentally capturing the fraught mood of post-revolutionary Egypt.

What was meant to be a landmark project that built on Egypt’s booming tourism industry before the revolution, after it became a struggling behemoth that comprised security concerns (for stolen antiquities) and safer tourism sites (outside downtown Cairo). On January 28 – the Friday of Rage – protesters got into the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square and stole a host of priceless items.

Security comes first, along with the other opaque words that gloss over counter-terrorism and violent crackdowns.

Now success will depend on tourists in a big way. But after weeks of travel bans and warnings – following on from a series of street massacres carried out by the security forces – those tourists are harder to find. How does Fawzy expect to turn the tide? “When you walk outside, do you feel threatened?” he asks back. “Even though there is a revolution you can walk out at any time. I was in Genoa in 2005 and I couldn’t walk outside after 8pm. There are negroes with guns. At any time the negroes can shoot you.”

Egypt: Safer Than Genoa With All Them Negroes About probably isn't the tagline the Egyptian tourism ministry is looking for. And yet when state TV can carry an "Egypt fighting terrorism" banner 24-hours a day, it isn't clear how the Egyptian authorities are factoring in tourism – a key source of national revenue – into their plans. Security comes first, along with the other opaque words that gloss over counter-terrorism and violent crackdowns. "Anti-coup" protests spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters need to be quashed. 

Inside the museum, priorities sometimes seem elsewhere. The vast main hall is a dusty litany of scaffolding and bare concrete walls. It looks like an industrial warehouse meant for storing something that hasn’t been decided on yet. Mohamed, who curates the pharaonic section, tells me the stairs into the basement – where ancient mummies will eventually be kept on display – are meant to resemble the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. At the moment it is a concrete staircase with wooden barrier at the bottom. Mohamed suggests I don’t take a photograph: “It’s very dirty, see?”

Before we leave, I ask Mohamed about a big banner in the corporate area that's got a picture of protesters in Tahrir Square. Apparently it was made up for a 2011 symposium meant to discuss the revolution with activists, academics and political figures.

Maybe the revolution will give the Egyptians pride in themselves. It’s not easy to remove two presidents in this short amount of time

Mohamed starts telling me about Egypt’s long history of revolutions: “The kings who had all the power and wealth, while the people had nothing.” One such uprising divided Egypt into two. He chuckles when I suggest some sort of parallel with today. Mohamed thinks there should be more emphasis on looking at Egyptian history from the bottom-up, from the perspective of the people who built the pyramids, not the ones mummified inside.

Maybe the conference is the best idea the museum has had: Egypt talking about its recent history with itself, communing with the present.. At the time, Mohamed tells me, the museum was buzzing: invitations were sent out and another staffer paid for the banner printing out of his own pocket. But the minister – Mohamed Ibrahim – wasn’t having it, Mohamed says sighing and then laughing. “He said it was not the appropriate time… There were security concerns.” 

But still, Mohamed remains hopeful for the future – Egypt’s as well as the museum’s. “Maybe the revolution will give the Egyptians pride in themselves. It’s not easy to remove two presidents in this short amount of time… It was not easy,” Mohamed says with a far-off smile. In the meantime, history waits. “I think the people have started to dream now, of new things.”

Read about how Cairo artists are fighting post-revolutionary apathy here