Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Short Story: Adventures in the Egyptian Museum

What lies hidden in the basement maze of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, asks Zahi Hawass.

I have always dug in sand, and this is where I have made my most important discoveries, such as the Valley of the Golden Mummies in the Bahariya Oasis and the Tombs of the Pyramid Builders at Giza. But one day I became interested in digging in a new place, a place without sand – the basement of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

There is a maze of corridors lying under the museum. For decades, no one knew what was hidden down there: Boxes of all sorts of treasures discovered by foreign and Egyptian expeditions were brought in and stored there over the years without the proper recording of the artefacts. There were objects of stone and wood, mummies, and even objects made of precious metals. But no one knew exactly what was down there. It was said among scholars that anything sent down to the basement of the museum would be lost forever.

At the beginning of my career I excavated at Kom Abu Billo, an important site in the Delta. I worked there for nine years from 1970 until 1979. We discovered a great cemetery from the Graeco-Roman period, where many of the people interred were devotees of the goddess Isis-Aphrodite, the Egyptian-Greek goddess of beauty and love. Near the cemetery was a temple to the god Apollo. We had begun excavations at this site because a grand canal five km long was being dug through the desert. So we had to excavate along the designated route. Each year, I took a truck to the Egyptian Museum full of boxes packed with jewellery, especially bracelets, and gold amulets, stelae and 12 beautiful statues of the goddess Isis-Aphrodite.

When I came to Cairo much later, I tried to find these artefacts in the museum, but no one could tell me where they were. When I became head of Egypt’s Antiquities Service in 2002, which coincided with the centennial of the museum, I decided to deal with the issue myself. I asked Mamdouh Eldamaty, the then director of the museum, to begin clearing out the basement and opening the various boxes to see what was inside them. We cleaned out several basement galleries on the west side of the museum and turned them into an exhibition area. The first exhibition held here was of treasures found in the basement of the building, along with objects from storerooms around the country and exhibits from overcrowded showcases in the museum itself. We called the exhibition, which consisted of about 250 objects, “Hidden Treasures,” and it was a great success.

The clearing of the basement has been ongoing since then, and it has become an important project in its own right with specially chosen curators inspecting and recording each of the objects found. The heroine of this work was curator Sabah Abdel-Razik, who spent most of her time in the basement. We are now in the process of building a new inventory database for the museum where all these objects, along with their exact locations, will be recorded.  This project was begun under Janice Kamrin, now a curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, assisted by Yasmine Al-Shazli. We expect that all the objects in the basement will be in the new database. This will bring enormous changes, and it will help to take the museum into the new millennium.READ MORE.

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