In a momentous occasion that marks a significant milestone in Egypt’s commitment to preserving its rich cultural heritage, the Imhotep Museum officially opened its doors early this week at the historic Saqqara Necropolis outside Cairo.
The unveiling signals not only the inauguration of a new museum but also a celebration of ancient Egypt’s engineering and architectural marvels.
The Imhotep Museum takes its name from the legendary ancient Egyptian architect, physician, and statesman Imhotep. Renowned as the mastermind behind the iconic Step Pyramid of Djoser, the first stone building in the world, Imhotep is considered to be one of the earliest polymaths in history.
As visitors step into the museum, they are transported back in time and are able to witness the fascinating story of Imhotep’s contributions to ancient Egypt. The exhibits showcase not only his architectural brilliance in designing the innovative Step Pyramid but also his expertise in medicine, making him a revered figure in various fields.
They also highlight two other themes: the different architectural and artistic styles at Saqqara and the evolution of burial methods and furniture in ancient Egypt.
Delighted at the opening of the new museum, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Ahmed Issa described it as one of the iconic site museums that are now being built in Egypt, adding that its opening will add a new attraction to the necropolis which is also on the UN agency UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
The site is being developed to enhance the visitor experience, unlocking the mysteries of this ancient burial ground.
The site entrance has been developed and the ticket office refurbished. Electronic gates have been installed along with information about the site and its monuments, a map showing directions, and the site visitor route.
Signage has been installed at the foot of every monument giving information about it, its history, and its restoration. A visitor path has been created and slopes and pathways created for visitors with disabilities. New lighting and security systems connected to a control room have been installed. Sunshades, seats, and recycle bins are also provided on site.
To facilitate visitor access to the archaeological site as a whole and to the Imhotep Museum in particular, a new entrance to the necropolis on the Al-Awsati Ring Road is now under development and will be inaugurated soon.
Issa praised the efforts carried out by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) towards achieving financial sustainability, a crucial element for the success of any institution.
“During the last fiscal year ending in June 2022, the SCA funded two-thirds of its spending on archaeological projects from the state’s general budget. In the early months of the current fiscal year, it succeeded in reducing its reliance on the budget to nearly zero,” Issa said, attributing this to the dedication of SCA employees, an increase in ticket prices for museums and archaeological sites, and a fivefold increase in the SCA’s revenues.
“It is expected that these revenues will exceed LE.6 billion, contributing to the SCA’s ability to fund development and restoration projects to preserve Egypt’s heritage,” Issa said.
He emphasised the ministry’s desire to encourage investment in facilities management at archaeological sites and museums in order to improve service quality and provide financial resources for the restoration, development, and rehabilitation of the sites.
“The new museum’s exhibition scenario remains the same except for a little twist,” said Secretary-General of the SCA Mustafa Waziri, adding that six new showcases have been installed with 70 additional artefacts uncovered by an Egyptian archaeological mission in different areas of the necropolis.
Among the most distinguished artefacts on display are a collection of early medical instruments from the Fifth Dynasty, the oldest royal mummy ever found of the Sixth Dynasty king Mery-Re, and a collection of mummified animals such as lynxes, cheetahs, lion cubs and cats.
Waziri said that the development project had cost LE48 million, including the outdoor landscaping from the necropolis’ main entrance to the Imhotep Museum’s main gate as damaged stone flooring was replaced and the site’s surrounding walls upgraded.
The irrigation system of the cultivated area around the museum was improved, while the visitor path was also upgraded with additional sunshades, seats, and restrooms. Services for visitors have been improved by adding information signs and interactive display screens showing videos and photographs of some of the archaeological discoveries made at the Saqqara Necropolis.
Assistant Minister of Tourism and Antiquities for Archaeological Projects Hisham Samir, also supervisor of the ministry’s Projects Sector, said that the museum’s façade had been cleaned and consolidated, special panoramic lighting for the site had been installed, and the exhibited archaeological pieces, security and surveillance systems, and central air-conditioning units had all been upgraded.
Cafeterias and bazaars have been added to the site. Facilities have been provided for visitors with disabilities, including dedicated restrooms and pathways.
Moemen Othman, head of the Museums Sector at the ministry, said that the idea of the Imhotep Museum emerged in 1990 as a way of offering a new perspective on site museums and to set an example for others planned by the SCA at other archaeological sites in Egypt.
Such museums also offer highly efficient storage space, replacing the earlier haphazard storehouses that were regularly subject to theft, he said. The artefacts are housed in a suitable atmosphere to prevent deterioration.
Since site museums are ideally suited to preserving and protecting Egypt’s treasures, as well as adding new tourist attractions to famous sites, the Imhotep Museum was the first in the series. However, for technical and financial reasons, as well as for reasons having to do with landscaping and site-protection, the construction of the museum was put on hold.
The project was kept under wraps until 1997 when construction began. The building was completed in 2003, and suitable objects were brought for display from archaeological storehouses at Saqqara and Abusir.
THE IMHOTEP MUSEUM: The new museum complex, with its gleaming white marble façade, stands at the foot of the Saqqara archaeological site welcoming visitors.
It has six galleries telling the story of the Saqqara Necropolis and the intricacies of Imhotep’s architectural style. On entering the main gallery, visitors find a statue of Imhotep at the base of a statue of the Third Dynasty King Djoser on which are inscribed the name and titles of Imhotep. Four graphics show different styles of architecture before and after Imhotep’s time.
The second gallery displays masterpieces unearthed at Saqqara by various archaeological missions over the last century. Among them is a collection of clay and alabaster vessels in various shapes, statues of deities, and an anthropoid painted coffin cased with gold, as well as medical instruments from the tomb of Qar the physician, a Late Period statue of King Psammatik, two funerary stelae, one of which bears the name of the Pharaoh Necho, and a large collection from the Aperia Tomb.
The third gallery, entitled “Saqqara Style”, displays the various styles of art found in Saqqara in an exhibition of vessels, stelae, statues, instruments and tools used by the ancient Egyptians to build their colossal monuments.
Visitors then go through to the largest gallery, conceived to exhibit examples of Imhotep’s distinguished architectural style. It contains elements from the Step Pyramid including columns, blue-tiled walls, a panel of cobra decorations, a headless statue of Djoser, and the so-called Snake Pillar from the burial complex.
The masterpiece of this gallery is a small bronze statue showing Imhotep seated and holding a papyrus stem.
To give visitors an idea of a typical Saqqara tomb, a tomb with a sarcophagus, boat, and a funerary collection is exposed in situ. Objects featuring various schools of funerary art can also be seen.
The final gallery is dedicated to the library. On show are some of French Egyptologist Jean-Philippe Lauer’s excavation tools, and his hat, safari suit, camera, and compass. On the walls are photographs of Lauer working on the site or guiding heads of state on official visits to Saqqara.
Precious artefacts have also been transferred from their musty mud-brick magazines to two enormous state-of-the-art storehouses behind the museum.
Imhotep’s crowning achievement is the design and construction of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. His brilliance extended beyond the realm of architecture, however, and he is credited as one of the earliest known physicians in history.
His medical knowledge and practices were so revered that, centuries after his death, he became deified as the god of medicine in ancient Egypt. Imhotep’s medical writings and teachings influenced generations of healers, and his holistic approach to healthcare emphasised both physical and spiritual well-being.
Mahmoud Mabrouk, an advisor to the minister of tourism and antiquities on exhibition scenarios, said that Imhotep, the brilliant architect of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, should be universally remembered.
“He is the one who transformed the construction of the king’s tomb from a mastaba to a pyramid and for the first time used stone in the construction,” Mabrouk said. The Step Pyramid is the first large-scale structure to be built of stone in the world.
A commoner by birth, Imhotep’s intelligence and determination enabled him to rise through the ranks to become one of the king’s most trusted advisers. He eventually held the offices of high priest of Heliopolis and Lector priest, making him a very powerful and influential man whose name was given the honour of being inscribed on the base of one of Djoser’s statues.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly