The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) is indeed shaping up to be a gem. Anyone passing the GEM are stopped in their tracks by the grandiosity of the premises. The new museum has come a long way in a short time. While a year ago the building was surrounded by scaffolding, today it stands tall, overlooking the Giza Plateau, almost ready to receive its eager visitors later this year.
Progress has been quick and impressive. In only four years, tremendous efforts have been put into finishing off a site that the whole world is waiting for. In 2016, only 17 per cent of the museum was complete. Today, more than 94 per cent of the works are finished.
Sprawled on 500,000 square metres, and bigger than Vatican City, the museum’s trapezoidal architectural design and distinguished external wall offers an enormous panoramic view of the Giza Plateau. It will house 100,000 objects from ancient Egypt, beginning with prehistory and going up to the early Roman period. Among the objects on display will be the unique treasures of the boy King Tutankhamun, some of which will see the light for the first time ever.
Upon entering GEM’s main external gate visitors will be greeted by the obelisk from the San Al-Hagar archaeological site in Zagazig. It will be the first obelisk in the world to be placed in a special display, offering visitors the opportunity to walk beneath it and see the cartouche of King Ramses II engraved on its bottom. Ancient Egyptian royal figures used to engrave their cartouches on the bottoms of obelisks as a mark of ownership. Within the building itself the statue of Ramses II proudly greets incomers. Moreover, the museum’s unparalleled grand staircase, spread out over 6,000 metres, will carry some 87 huge ancient pieces.
GEM is foreseen to be the largest and most significant cultural project in the world today and is projected to change Egypt’s tourism map. In fact, BBC Travel lists the opening of GEM as one of the reasons Cairo is a top place to visit in 2020.
The new museum will provide a full cultural experience. Its grounds will include a 7,000 square metre commercial area with retail shops, cafeterias, restaurants, leisure and recreational activities. These will include a 1,000-seat conference centre, a 500-seat cinema, eight restaurants, with two overlooking the Giza Pyramids, an open-air theatre, food courts, bookshops and other retail outlets, with 28 shops, a traditional arts and crafts centre, a spacious piazza for festivals of more than 15,000 participants and a multifunctional building.
The streets around the GEM have also been developed to highlight it as the centre of attention and to facilitate arrivals to the museum, untangling the heavy traffic for which the neighbourhood was infamous.
GEM is a dream come true — a fourth pyramid for Egypt. The idea of the museum dates to 2002. It was meant to solve the problems of the overstuffed Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square and to bring together materials stored at various archaeological sites across the country. The $1 billion facility was finally made possible thanks to funding by the Egyptian government along with two soft loans from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) amounting to around $750 million.
What GEM will provide to the world is much bigger than the sum going into building it; it will be Egypt’s gift to the world, a monument left to future generations. With so many investments and efforts going into making the dream come true, it is of utmost importance that all concerned authorities focus on how best to promote it to the world, and how to organise an unforgettable inauguration ceremony. GEM is no less important than the Suez Canal. If well managed, it could be a major source of hard currency income for the country and help boost Egypt’s tourism appeal as a whole.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.