It seems that the curse of the Pharaohs that has hovered over the Sohag National Museum for more than 29 years will finally be broken as the museum is set to open its doors overlooking the Nile in the Upper Egyptian town of Sohag in the coming days.
Since its launch in 1993, the museum has ground to a halt several times due to disagreements over technical issues and interior design as well as over its exhibits and a lack of funds after the 25 January Revolution. In 2016, work resumed on the museum, and it is now scheduled to open next week.
The museum is in the shape of a two-storey Ancient Egyptian temple overlooking the Nile with a dock for ferries and exquisite landscaping dotted with water channels and fountains. Five colossi of the lion goddess Sekhmet stand before the museum’s entrance to welcome visitors.
“The Sohag National Museum [SNM] is not just a regional museum that the Ministry of Antiquities is opening in an Upper Egyptian province, but is part of the country’s strategy to give attention and care to the Upper Egyptian governorates and to develop their resources,” Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He added that the completion of the museum was a dream come true and the result of a promise by the ministry to Sohag and its inhabitants.
Sohag has rich archaeological sites from the early Ancient Egyptian era right up to the Ptolemaic, Graeco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic periods. But although the governorate contains many distinguished monuments and historical landmarks, it is seldom visited.
To promote the governorate’s archaeological sites and encourage tourists to pay a visit to its monuments, El-Enany said the Ministry of Antiquities had been accelerating efforts to complete the museum as a mirror reflecting Egypt’s history. A comprehensive plan had been launched to develop sites in Sohag and to make the area more tourist-friendly as well as to continue to preserve and conserve them.
Elham Salah, head of the Museum Sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, told the Weekly that the aim of the museum was not only to reflect the unique history of the governorate from pre-history to modern times, but also to highlight Egyptian identity through the changes that had taken place in Upper Egypt.
The exhibition scenario focuses on six influential aspects of Egyptian life throughout the ages: kingship, the family, cooking and cuisine, faith and religion, employment, industry and textiles and handicrafts.
The museum displays a collection of 945 artefacts, most of them unearthed in different sites near Sohag and the rest having been carefully selected from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo’s Bab Al-Khalq neighbourhood, the Textiles Museum in Al-Muizz Street in Historic Cairo and the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo.
They include clay pots with handles and small bases and a collection of jars and painted clay lamps of different shapes and sizes. Also selected was a collection of paintings showing scenes of a woman standing inside a domed doorway and a man on the banks of the Nile. A small Persian manuscript relating the traditional love story of Qays ibn Al-Mulawah and Layla in seventh-century Arabia, known as Layla and Al-Majnun, is also among the selected objects and features 18 coloured illustrations.
Pieces of fabric decorated with faience ceramic beads, the remains of children’s linen robes, and a rectangular piece of the Kiswa, the cloth draped over the Kaaba in Mecca, are also in the collection. It is designed to display pieces that represent the traditions, customs, industry and handicrafts of the area, including traditional costumes and jewellery.
“The concept of the museum is no longer dependent on placing artefacts next to each other to illustrate Ancient Egyptian civilisation,” Salah said.
“Instead, the Ministry of Antiquities is adopting a new philosophy in order to turn the country’s regional museums into more educational, cultural and productive institutions.” She added that the aim was to provide a broader educational service to visitors and raise archaeological awareness and belonging to Egypt by showing visitors how their ancestors built such a great civilisation through scenes of daily life and culture.
Egypt’s regional museums have sometimes not fulfilled their true potential because they have often displayed objects without a thematic storyline, she pointed out, resulting in less than a fair share of visitors.
“Every regional museum should reflect the city or town in which it is located,” Salah said, explaining that in the Sohag Museum, for example, the exhibition design provided clear information about the history of Sohag, Abydos and Akhmim, as well as the role played by local rulers in building Egyptian civilisation.
Sohag was the town where the kings of the early dynasties lived, and this explained the selection of kingship as the first topic in the new museum. The focal object here is a colossus of the Pharaoh Ramses II because he was one of the most influential rulers in Egyptian history and had a temple in Abydos.
A collection of stelae and engravings of his father Seti I are also on show because the latter had a beautiful temple in Abydos. There are also the heads of other kings and statues of top officials and nobles who played an influential role in the kingdom, including statues of New Kingdom priests and viziers.
Weapons and ivory labels discovered in the First and Second Dynasty royal necropolis in Abydos are also exhibited, the labels bearing the names of kings.
The second hall in the museum presents the family, especially the family in Upper Egypt, and the focal object is a statue of an Ancient Egyptian couple symbolising family bonding. “Members of the family in Upper Egypt were very close to each other and might have lived in one house,” Salah said, adding that this section also highlighted the important role that women have played as the core of the family. Children are also represented through toys and clothes.
Marriage traditions are on display through a collection of clothes, cosmetics and marriage contracts. The most distinguished is one written on textile from the Ottoman period.
The third section of the museum is devoted to cooking and cuisine in an attempt to show the different recipes of the Ancient Egyptians and how they have developed. It also shows food vessels and cooking instruments, as well as the design of kitchen furniture and dining and offering tables.
Employment and industry are displayed through a collection of statues and instruments depicting jobs such as those of scribes, fishermen, craftsmen, musicians, singers, dancers, bearers and sommeliers. These are shown through a collection of music instruments and engravings.
Sohag is well-known for its distinguished textiles and its industry, Salah said, and the new museum has allocated a hall to the city’s textiles. The focal object is a linen wrapping on which the name of the Sixth-Dynasty Pharaoh Pepi I is written. The hall exhibits textiles from different periods, including Ancient Egyptian, Roman, Coptic and Islamic. Sohag folkloric traditions are also shown through a collection of women’s and men’s clothing.
The focal point of the faith and religion section is an Ottoman copy of the Quran selected from the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, along with a collection of crosses, religious manuscripts, containers for burning incense and Ancient Egyptian religious reliefs. Magic is represented in this section through Ancient Egyptian reliefs and magical dolls from the Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic eras.
The basement is allocated to the theme of pilgrimage, and an Ancient Egyptian pilgrim boat is the focal artefact. The Ancient Egyptians used to go to Abydos on pilgrimage where a temple to the god Osiris built by Seti 1 is located. Statues of several deities are displayed as well as wooden coffins and mummy masks.
To create a more attractive and informative experience for visitors, labels and graphics explaining the displays are featured in the different halls of the museum.
The museum is also friendly to the disabled, and the visitor route is provided with ramps to facilitate circulation. The disabled can also access the museum’s different levels by lift.
An educational programme for students and school pupils will be available on opening, and the museum will help facilitate school history classes and university lectures as needed. “History teachers in schools can deliver their classes in the museum to make them more attractive to pupils,” Salah said, adding that the new museum also has a library and lecture hall. Workshops on handicrafts will also be held.
“The most-distinguished object in the museum is a statue of the Sixth-Dynasty army leader Wini who was also the first known military leader in the Ancient Egyptian army,” Salah told the Weekly, adding that reliefs of Seti I and a statue of his son Ramses II are also among the important objects.
The interior design of the museum has been developed from Sohag’s natural environment, she said. The walls are painted dark green, reflecting the area’s agricultural nature, while the backdrop of the showcases is light beige to symbolise the desert environment of the governorate.
“This is the first and only museum to be established in the governorate thus far, and it is an important tourist attraction to add to Sohag’s archaeological sites,” El-Enany told the Weekly. He added that the Ministry of Antiquities had launched a comprehensive project to develop Sohag’s archaeological sites, and the visitor centre at Abydos, where the temples of Seti I and Ramses II are found, is nearing completion.
This will include an audio-visual hall to provide visitors with the information they need about the site, as well as a library and lecture hall.
El-Enany and Waziri putting the final touches before opening
Sohag’s archaeological sites
AMONG the archaeological sites in Sohag is Abydos, one of the most ancient cities of Upper Egypt and in ancient times the site where the sacred head of the god of the dead and the underworld Osiris was buried and preserved. For this reason, the site was an important pilgrimage destination and necropolis from the Early Dynastic Period to Christian times.
Abydos also houses several other archaeological sites, such as the Umm Al-Gaab area (mother of pots) that contains the tombs of early Pre-Dynastic chieftains and the burials of many of Early Dynastic kings. It has a mud-brick enclosure serving the royal funerary cults of the kings of the first and second dynasties, of which the best preserved is Shunet Al-Zebib. The remains of other royal and elite tombs and temples can also be found.
In North Abydos there is an area called Kom Al-Sultan that houses the remains of an early town and a temple of the god Osiris-Khentyamentiu. During the Middle Kingdom, a yearly procession celebrating the resurrection of the god Osiris after his murder at the hands of his brother Seth led from this temple to the tomb of Osiris at Umm Al-Gaab.
In the centre of Abydos are the New Kingdom temples of Seti I and his son Ramses II. Behind them is the symbolic tomb of the god Osiris, the Osirion. In South Abydos, there is a small Third Dynasty pyramid, together with a mortuary complex for the 12th-Dynasty Pharaoh Senosert III and a pyramid and temple built by the first Pharaoh of the New Kingdom, Ahmose.
In addition, there is a small temple thought to have been dedicated to the cult of Ahmose’s principal consort Ahmose-Nefertari and a small chapel dedicated to his grandmother Tetisheri.
Athribis or Al-Sheikh Hamad, is another archaeological area located 10km southwest of Sohag. It houses a collection of Ptolemaic monuments, among them a temple dedicated to the lion goddess Repyt and a massive gateway of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes.
A granite temple from the reign of the 26th-Dynasty Pharaoh Haaibre is also to be found, as well as a structure from the reign of Ptolemy IX Soter with a pylon and enclosure wall. A Roman birth-house is also located in Athribis dedicated to the god Triphis.
In Akhmim, there is an open-air museum that houses an 11-metre statue of the goddess Merit-Amun wearing a close-fitting pleated robe and crowned with a modius decorated with serpents and the double feathers of a wife of the god Amun. The museum also houses a beautiful statue of the Roman goddess of love Venus and a collection of stelae and architectural elements from the surrounding area.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Egypt's Sohag National Museum set to open within days