The Egyptian Museum in retrospect

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 16 Aug 2022

Zahi Hawass writes on the history of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, including its foundation and early history

Egyptian Museum
Egyptian Museum



With more than 150,000 objects on display and even more in its basement storage rooms, the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo may be the most important museum in the world.

Its displays allow visitors to read Egypt’s history through countless objects, which reflect all aspects of life in Pharaonic times. It gives us an understanding of the political, economic, social, and religious dimensions of Egypt’s antiquity.

After I took the position of secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), I devoted a lot of care to this museum. It was in a bad state. Its curators had helped foreigners take photographs or study various objects, but they themselves undertook no scholarly work. No one had bothered to create a database of its collections or to track the movement of individual artefacts.

On my first day in office, I learned that 38 objects were missing. I sent this case to the administrative court, which appointed a committee composed of archaeologists to review the objects in the museum to see if these objects were genuinely missing or not. The committee determined that the objects were not in the museum. This demonstrates how the Egyptian Museum was functioning — or not functioning — in those days.

In 2002, the very year of my appointment, the Egyptian Museum was to celebrate the centennial of its opening. We decided that an international celebration, with an exhibition especially for the occasion, was called for. For the first time, we turned part of the basement into an exhibition hall for “Hidden Treasures of the Egyptian Museum”, an exhibition that brought to light artefacts from many sites that had never before been publicly displayed.

The outside of the building was repainted. For the ceremonies, we erected a large tent outside the museum and at night it was beautifully lit. A military band provided music for the anniversary, which Egypt commemorated with a special postage stamp. We showed a National Geographic film about the museum and we honoured not only curators but also the workmen and guards who were responsible for keeping the museum going for the last 100 years.  

The museum has its own history. It began as early as the tenure of Mohamed Ali Pasha, who ruled Egypt from 1805 to 1848 and recognised the many dangers facing Egypt’s antiquities. In 1826, he prevented the British from taking a Pharaonic lintel that had been reused as a foundation stone in a mosque near Bab AI-Nasr. Mohamed Ali gave orders to Hussein Bek Heider to excavate areas in Egypt where he knew antiquities would be found. He did not want the Europeans to obtain them. Some objects from these sites he had heard had already left the country through the port of Alexandria.

Mohamed Ali Pasha was not entirely opposed to foreign excavation, however. In 1828, he permitted French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion, the decipherer of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, to excavate because he knew that Egypt would benefit from it. Champollion duly explored many sites during his 19-month stay in Egypt, and he recorded what he saw, including the destruction of antiquities.

He suggested to Mohamed Ali that a law should be issued to control excavations. Mohamed Ali agreed, but he did not want to give this responsibility to a foreigner, so he appointed sheikh Rifaa Al-Tahtawi to the job. Al-Tahtawi had studied in France as part of a group of students Mohamed Ali had sent to France from 1826 to 1831. He became the first Egyptian responsible for the preservation and excavation of ancient Egyptian monuments.

He took measures against the theft of antiquities and the first steps that would eventually lead to the creation of the Egyptian Museum.


PROTECTION: In 1835, Mohamed Ali established the first government department to protect and serve antiquities, including laws governing their ownership, and developed a programme to preserve Egypt’s ancient monuments.

He asked Youssef Diger Effendi, who oversaw archaeological sites in Upper Egypt, to suggest a site to establish a first museum. Diger suggested Al-Azbakiya in Cairo and objects from all over Egypt were sent to him for storage. Mohamed Ali asked the Ministry of Education to present a report about ancient sites and objects, but the end of his rule in 1848 also ended this project.

Three years later, the khedive Abbas Helmi I moved the objects that had been collected to a hall inside the Salaheddin Citadel atop the Mokattam Hills just outside Cairo. Four years later, the khedive Mohamed Said Pasha granted a large portion of the collection to Duke Maximilian of Austria as an official gift. This was common practice at the time, but Said also ordered that the police should give more attention to the protection of the country’s monuments and watch for any export of antiquities beyond Egypt’s borders.

Only a couple of years before, while Abbas Helmi I was still ruling, French archaeologist Auguste Mariette had begun excavations at the Saqqara Necropolis west of Cairo where he was fortunate enough to discover the Serapaeum, the burial place of the sacred Apis Bulls.

Defying khedival orders, Mariette continued to dig at the site and secretly sent most of the objects that were found to France. In 1858, Said Pasha established the country’s first Antiquities Service and appointed Mariette as its first director. Mariette, who had worked at the Louvre Museum in Paris for several years, created a programme to document objects and discoveries, and we can also credit him with renewing Mohamed Ali’s project to establish an Egyptian Museum.

Although, he wished to have the museum in Giza, he first restored an old mosque in Boulaq to be a temporary facility. He collected many objects from different sites and put them on display there.

In 1859, Mariette discovered the tomb of the ancient Egyptian queen Ahhotep at Draa Abul-Naga in western Thebes. The queen’s beautiful jewellery and other treasures captivated Said, who was finally inspired to commission the construction of a proper museum. Four years later, the next khedive, Ismail Pasha, officially opened the museum at Boulaq to display these objects and many more unearthed by other excavations.

Near the Boulaq Museum, Ali Mubarak, a prominent figure in the development of modern Cairo, and German Egyptologist Heinrich Brugsch founded Egypt’s first school of Egyptology. This lasted from 1869 to 1874, until Brugsch’s absence and Mariette’s hostility brought it to a close. Mariette, it was rumoured, was jealous of his position in the Antiquities Service and did not wish to train Egyptian archaeologists.

EARLY DAYS: More than just personalities conspired against the growth of Egyptian Egyptology in the early days. The flood of 1878 reached the museum in Boulaq, damaging the building and the artefacts in it. Mariette then asked for a safer and more permanent place for a museum.

A month before his death in 1881, Mariette wrote that no Egyptian artefact should be given to any foreign power. But foreigners were still important within the Antiquities Service. Another French Egyptologist, Gaston Maspero, took Mariette’s place as director, and at the same time another great Egyptian personality in antiquities appeared, Ahmed Kamal Pasha, Egypt’s first native Egyptologist.

Trained by Brugsch, Kamal Pasha belonged to a group documenting antiquities and preparing a new catalogue of the museum’s collections. He opened a small school of Egyptology inside the museum, but lack of funding forced it to close in 1885.

By 1887, the Boulaq Museum was overcrowded with antiquities. It looked like a shop, not a museum. To resolve the situation, the khedive, Tawfik Pasha, donated one of his palaces at Giza, which opened as a museum in 1890. But even this was not big enough to contain all the objects in the growing collection.

The khedive Tawfik then decided to build a new museum in Cairo. He announced an international architectural competition for the building, which resulted in the submission of 73 projects. The honour of designing the new museum went to the French architect Marcel Dourgnon, but the contract for the construction went to an Italian team, perhaps as a consolation for having lost.

Construction began in 1897, and in 1901, Alessandro Barasanti, one of Maspero’s assistants, received the key to the world’s first building especially built as a museum. Now the difficult work of transferring the collection began. So many objects were moved from the Giza Palace, the Boulaq Museum, and storage room at Al-Azbakiya that it took 5,000 boxes to hold them all.

On 15 November 1902, during the reign of the khedive Abbas Helmi Il, the Egyptian Museum opened with 36,000 objects. Artefacts in the museum are displayed according to their historical sequence. Although the outside of the building is neoclassical with almost no Egyptian influence, the rooms inside were built to resemble the chapels at the Edfu Temple in Upper Egypt.

Maspero was appointed the first director, and in July 1902 the body of Auguste Mariette was moved to the garden of the museum. It is appropriate for his remains to be buried near the antiquities he worked so very hard to collect and protect.

Egyptology was also changing and becoming more Egyptian. In 1910, Ahmed Kamal convinced the then minister of education to open a new archaeology department at the Higher Teachers College in Cairo, and in 1951 he was honoured with a bust placed in the museum garden.

Twelve years after Kamal established the department, Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings. Until that time, if a foreign scholar found an intact tomb, the objects were divided between Egypt and the expedition team. But now there were new laws, and with Tutankhamun’s tomb, and for the first time, Egypt was able to keep all the objects found in the tomb.

A special hall within the museum was dedicated to these beautiful artefacts, which number about 4,500 pieces.


CENTENNIAL: During its centennial in 2002, the Egyptian Museum gained a new school for adults and children. This had been a dream of mine — to have the school at the museum, to follow in the footsteps of Al-Tahtawi and Kamal before me, and to raise the awareness and appreciation of the Egyptian people for their ancient heritage.

More changes were in store for the museum. I wanted to bring it into a new and more modern phase, so my office undertook a number of other projects. The most important of these was the museum database. The American Research Centre in Egypt funded the project, which was directed by Janice Kamrin, who later left to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She trained capable young Egyptian scholars who continue to work on the project today.