Egypt's pharaonic temples exhibited abroad relate their stories

Mohammed Elrazzaz – Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday 26 Jun 2012

Former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser gave away pharaonic temples as thanks for help saving Abu Simbel and other Nubian monuments - Ahram Online investigates whether he was correct to do so

Ancient Egyptian collection at the MET

What do New York, Madrid, Leiden and Turin have in common? 

As strange as it sounds, all four cities have pharaonic temples. While some Egyptians like to think of these temples as ‘cultural ambassadors’ abroad, others tend to feel uneasy about the fact that Egyptian heritage could be ‘gifted’ without the stakeholders (Egyptians) being consulted.

It was Nasser’s idea to give away Nubian temples to four of the countries that had helped save Abu Simbel and other Nubian monuments in one of history’s most challenging heritage rescue initiatives. In a previous article published by Ahram Online I told the tale of one of these temples, and now I go on with the rest of the story.

A Meeting with Isis and Osiris in New York

New York is a jungle of museums and galleries that lend the city an unparalleled cultural glamour. It is a strange feeling to contemplate an entire pharaonic temple exhibited in a hall inside one of these museums, but such is the case with Dendur, and it is not just any museum: It is the MET (Metropolitan Museum), one of the world’s most outstanding museums.

The temple, as small and aesthetically insignificant as it is, is eclipsed by other parts of the MET, including the Ancient Egyptian collection, but there is something about it that haunts the viewer: the fact that you can see two of the idols of the ancient world, Isis and Osiris, in a modern building symbolic of the ‘New World'.

The temple dates back to the reign of Augustus Caesar (15 BC), and like most of the temples built around that time, it lacks grandiosity and monumentality. However, a man standing next to me was making generous comments about the temple being a marvel: “That thing must be some five-hundred years old!” he said. I could not help correcting him: “it is actually over two thousand years old.”

“Two thousand you say? Man! That’s older than Columbus!”

A more serious point of view came from Jonathan Cape (physician) when I asked his opinion of the temple:

- “I like to think of the legacy left by ancient civilizations as world heritage, and if it’s world heritage, then we are all stakeholders, and we should not make a big fuzz about its presence here.”

- “But don’t you think it is completely out of place here? Like a dead fossil in a glass bowl?”

- “Well, better a dead fossil than no fossil at all!”    

But Dendur is not the only such ‘fossil’.

Resurrection in Leiden

Leiden is a Dutch city famous for its rivers and canals. Not far from one of these canals, the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden museum is where you can visit the Temple of Taffeh, also from the era of Augustus.

Unlike the Temple of Debod in Madrid, which is exposed to the weather extremes and polluted air of the Spanish capital, the Temple of Taffeh has undergone magnificent reconstruction and conservation work.

First, over 650 blocks (weighing 250 tonnes) had to be transported from Aswan to Leiden. Second, special care had to be given to the relatively delicate sandstone, which meant the temple had to be rebuilt inside the Museum and not in some open-air garden or court. Finally, the temple was rebuilt in a way adapted to the Dutch climate, allowing daylight to illuminate it in a controlled way through a weatherproof shelter.

Now it stands at the purpose-built central hall of the museum, being the jewel of its collection. Not bad for a temple that, since the late Middle Ages, served as residence for people and even a barn for animals.

Other important pieces in the Museum’s Egyptian Collection include a rare blue wine bowl depicting a female lute player, as well as a statue of a scribe from the third millennium BC and the beautifully painted coffin of the mummy of Peftjauneith (650 BC).

Back to the temple, a closer look would reveal the Christian use of the temple as indicated by a carved cross and some Greek inscriptions, but that is not the most interesting part. According to my Dutch friend, Nico Overmars (Leiden-based architect), the cult of Isis is still alive! The hall where the temple is exhibited can be hired for private events, and there are rumours about high profile visitors that hire the hall and engage in rituals of veneration of the ancient goddess to whom the temple was dedicated originally. Nico does not know that for sure, but “people speculate” as he put it.

Turin, on the way to Thebes

“The road to Memphis and Thebes passes through Turin.” Jean-François Champollion

Champollion, the famous decoder of the hieroglyphs, spent much time in Turin, famous historically for the Shroud of Turin, quenching his passion for Egyptology. His quote makes perfect sense when we know that Turin is home to the world’s second largest Ancient Egyptian collection.

Thutmose III never would have guessed that the temple he had consecrated some 3500 years ago between the first and second cataracts in the Nile to please the Nubians would one day be transported to please the citizens of another nation born centuries later. The Temple of Ellesiya is part of the collection of the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy.

The museum owes its collection to successive purchases and acquisitions by Italian kings, and a considerable part of the objects come from the Italian excavation missions in Egypt during the first third of last century, thanks to the efforts of Maspero’s apprentice, Ernesto Schiaparelli. At the time, the finds were shared between the discoverers and the Egyptian state. At the moment, the museum owns over 30,000 objects, only 20 per cent of which are exhibited. Among the most prized pieces in the collection are the diorite busts of Ramses II and Thutmose III, as well as the mummy, mask and toilet box of Merit from the New Kingdom.

The Temple of Ellesiya is a ‘pale’ temple, in the sense that most of its wall relief work was lost and its colours gone following the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1902 (and the subsequent flooding of the Temple). Originally, it was hewn out in a mountain side, but as part of the 1960s UNESCO campaign, and just like the Temple of Taffeh, it was dismantled and later reassembled in Europe. The façade is far from impressive, but this does not change Daniela Antonini’s opinion a bit. This young Italian curator tells me that “the temple is precious. It is ours because we earned it. It belongs here because Italians are crazy about Ancient Egypt and they showed it over and again…Italy gave the world some of the best Egyptologists ever, like Schiaparelli, Drovetti, Barsanti, and ‘The Great Belzoni’! Belzoni alone would have been justification enough.”

These ‘justifications’ still do not convince Ahmed El-Bakri, a Turin-based entrepreneur who thinks that “Nasser could have done it differently. Instead of giving away our heritage, he could have granted citizens of these countries visa-free entry to Egypt for a number of years.”

The debate is far from over.

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