Friday, January 23, 2015

News: New Port Said Museum

The neo-Mameluke building of the old Port Said Museum once stood on the south-eastern side of Port Said City overlooking the Suez Canal, its collections bearing witness not only to the ancient history of the region but also to the building of the canal itself.
The building was demolished in 2009 and the site is now empty. However, this week it was announced that a new museum was being built on the site, opening to the public within the next 18 months.

Ahmed Sharaf, head of the museums sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the original building had become dangerous and could not be restored. Cracks had spread throughout the walls, and its foundations had been eaten away by underground water.

The museum was originally built in 1963, displaying a collection of nearly 5,000 artefacts from the ancient Egyptian period through to modern times. Most of the pieces had been found near Port Said, while some had been carefully selected from Cairo’s main museums, such as the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, the Museum of Islamic Art, and the Coptic Museum.

In 2008, the museum was closed for restoration.  Architect Al-Ghazali Kesseiba drew up a restoration plan and the project was put out for tendering.
However, exaggerated estimates were presented by the contractors, and in 2009 the project was handed over to the National Defence Council which agreed to the budget approved by the Ministry of Antiquities of some LE11 million.

The museum’s architectural features and equipment were removed and placed in storage until the completion of the construction work. However, the building was then demolished since it was found to be in a very poor state of conservation and unstable architecturally.

“It was not a safe building to host one of the country’s treasured collections,” commented Sharaf, adding that a decision had been made to build a better building more suited for the Museum’s mission.   

In 2010, consultants were hired to identify the best construction style and materials for the new building, bearing in mind the particularities of the soil and location. However, shortly after this the project was stopped as a result of budgetary problems following the 25 January Revolution.

But earlier this week Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty embarked on an inspection tour of the site and gave the go-ahead to the project. Eldamaty announced that the construction of the new museum would be completed within 18 months in order to put Port Said back firmly on Egypt’s tourist map.

Eldamaty said that the construction came within the framework of plans to connect the archaeological sites and monuments located around the Suez Canal in an attempt to spruce up development projects along the planned New Canal. The new building will be a two-storey structure, the collections being presented chronologically.
Among the most important objects on display will be a marble head of the Pharaoh Menkawre, a wooden sarcophagus of a New Kingdom priest, clay and decorated glass vessels from the Graeco-Roman era, and a collection of kohl containers and linen and wool clothes from the Coptic period.

 A collection of Ottoman tiles ornamented with foliage decorations will also be on show, along with a relief of a former local ruler, Abdel-Aziz Ben Al-Garou, and a collection of gold and silver coins from the Fatimid era. Objects associated with the former monarchy will also be on display, including the khedive Ismail’s carriage.
During his visit, Eldamaty announced that the ministry would also be restoring the bronze statue of French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps who developed the Suez Canal that once stood at its entrance. “For the first time since 1956, the statue and its base will be renovated and joined together,” Eldamaty said, explaining that the statue and base would now be erected in front of the museum.

Next to the statue would be statues of an Egyptian farmer, symbolising one of those who actually dug the canal, and late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser who nationalised it in July 1956.

The ten-metre tall bronze statue of de Lesseps was originally erected on a concrete base at the entrance to the Suez Canal, in honour of the French diplomat and developer. The statue’s right hand welcomes visitors entering the Suez Canal, and its left holds a map of it.  It was sculpted by the French sculptor Emmanuel Frémiet and erected on November 17, 1899.

Many would have preferred to see a statue of a pharaoh, perhaps Ramses II, or even an obelisk, but the salty humidity of the area would have destroyed the latter. There has long been a wish to have an Egyptian figure standing at the head of the canal, since it was built by hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, many thousands of whom lost their lives during its construction.

The statue was damaged during the 1956 Suez Crisis by Yehia Al-Shaer, a member of the Egyptian resistance. It was then restored by the Paris-based Association des Amis du Canal de Suez and is now located in a shipyard in Port Fouad.

During the minister’s visit to the site of the new museum plans were also announced to restore the Port Said lighthouse. Built in 1869 and one of the first such structures to use reinforced concrete, this stands 56 metres high and is one of the only original buildings still standing in Port Said.
Source: Al Ahram weekly 

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