Meet the first president of the GEM

Nevine Mossaad
Tuesday 4 Jun 2024

Gihane Zaki has long defended the values of coexistence and dialogue, using culture to resolve political disputes or at least to calm them through words and deeds.


Before I met Gihane Zaki about three years ago as part of an Egyptian civil society delegation that travelled to Khartoum to meet and dialogue with Sudanese social and political groups, I had never heard her name.

This is the case with many people who are more interested in contributing to the position they serve than in personal advancement. When the moment comes to stand in the spotlight, they often take a step back.

However, on the Sudan trip, I learned two things about the personality of university professor and researcher Gihane Zaki. The first is her intense passion for ancient Egyptian civilisation almost to the point of becoming one with it. There is a big difference between being a student of this civilisation and being one with it or even a spokesperson for it.

In a video Gihane Zaki made for her book Whispering to an Artifact – the name of the book is very significant – she makes herself the voice of the immortal Egyptian antiquities that people often stand in front of with admiration and amazement. She describes these people as understanding them fully because they make the artifacts themselves feel their value. She places herself in the position of the artifacts, imagining them under the gaze of a human audience.

During the trip to Sudan, we were delving into issues such as the relationship between civil society and the ruling regime, the relationship between religion and the state, and what the political forces in Sudan wanted to see from Egypt. However, Zaki was also interested in other topics, such as how the kings of the ancient Sudanese civilisation of Meroe learned from the kings of Thebes until science, mathematics, and philosophy became the common property of both.

We visited the holdings of the Khartoum University Library, and Zaki exclaimed in admiration at rare illustrations of the daily life of people on the banks of the Nile that originally appeared in the French Description de l’Egypte. When our Sudanese hosts invited us to draw with henna on our hands as a compliment, Zaki chose a drawing of the key to the Nile on her wrist.

The idea of a regional melting pot and the cultural and emotional interaction between the peoples of the Nile Valley leads us to the second feature of Gihane Zaki’s personality, which is her absolute belief in the necessity of openness to others. Just as the Nile River connects its peoples together, so too is the Mediterranean Sea a meeting point for the peoples who live on its shores.

Gihane Zaki has long defended the values of coexistence and dialogue, using culture to resolve political disputes or at least to calm them through words and deeds. She teaches at the University of Paris IV Sorbonne in Paris, where she supervises Masters students from Western and Eastern Europe and China in their studies of ancient Egyptian civilisation in its religious and archaeological manifestations, linking the East to the West and the North to the South so that this civilisational mix becomes part of their cultural formation.

She also often writes in the Al-Ahram Weekly about cultural diplomacy and how this is a valuable alternative to other forms. She believes that a person thought worthy of representing his or her country abroad must be characterised by an ability to listen to others, have the skills of coexistence, and be aware of and respect cultural and other differences.

When the Gaza war broke out, she was asked to what extent she still believed in coexistence between East and West after what we had been witnessing in terms of the double standards of the Europeans and others. She replied without hesitation that “my belief in coexistence and the need to correct any stereotypes that one side might have about the other and to learn the lessons of history that the war has presented to us has only increased.”

Zaki is thus a distinguished person by any standards, someone who has spent her life studying history, antiquities, and ancient Egyptian civilisation. She studied at the hands of leading archaeologists such as Professor Essam Al-Banna, Professor Gamaleddin Mukhtar, and Professor Jean-Claude Goyon, and her name is associated with the opening of new fields that Egyptian women have not entered before.

She was the first woman to hold the position of director-general of Antiquities of Lower Egypt, for example, and then the first woman to become director of International Organisations Affairs and Restituted Antiquities Management. She was the first woman to head the Nubia Antiquities Rescue Authority and the first to head the Egyptian Academy of Arts in Rome. Now she is the first person and the first woman to head the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), and we are all proud of this wonderful choice.

Even more important than being the first woman in all these positions is what she did in her pioneering work in them. This is important because it seems that fate chose Gihane Zaki not only to pave the way for other women in the highest national and international cultural positions, but also placed a number of major challenges in her way in order that she could prove that a qualified and competent woman in these positions is fully up to the task.

There is her period as head of the Egyptian Academy of Arts in Rome for seven years, for example, starting in 2012. Gihane Zaki was able to deal with one crisis after another during this difficult period in modern Egyptian history. In the face of the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to impose a religious character on the activities of the academy, the only artistic platform of its kind for either the African continent or the Arab world in Rome, and its attempts to sell the Egyptian Pavilion in Venice, one that shines and glitters with the Egyptian arts, Gihane Zaki cooperated with universities and artistic institutions inside and outside of Italy in Europe and in the world as a whole.

In the face of the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts after the June 30 Revolution to incite Egyptians residing in Italy, attempting to distort their identity and detach them from themselves, she worked to approve plans to restore an Egyptian identity to the third generation of immigrants to Italy, with these later becoming integral parts of the plans of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.

In the face of the series of church and monastery burnings that swept Egypt after the June 30 Revolution, she partnered with the Vatican Museums and the Municipality of Rome to include the permanent exhibition on Tutankhamun’s and other treasures located at the academy’s headquarters on the list of artistic and tourist attractions of the city of Rome.

As a result, Gihane Zaki’s period in Rome was full of activity, vitality, and networking with various cultural entities and personalities in Italy. When she was chosen to head the GEM, the Italian newspapers celebrated this news and put it on their front pages.

Gihane Zaki reads ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and speaks many modern languages. She is the youngest member of the prestigious Institut d’Égypte and is as keen on her Egyptian identity as she is on interactions between Egypt and the rest of the world. She is a woman who has been shaped by government work and trained in the art of management and dealing with bureaucracy.

The GEM now welcomes Gihane Zaki as its first leader. We are expecting a lot from her in this role, and we extend our sincere congratulations.


The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University and the head of the National Dialogue’s Subcommittee on Human Rights.

 * A version of this article appears in print in the 6 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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