The ancient Egyptian civilisation, which flourished and lasted for more than three millennia, has always stirred up curiosity worldwide owing to its art, its many inventions, its culture and philosophy, and its daily life traditions. For centuries, archaeologists from all over the globe have been under its spell and have come to Egypt to try to uncover its mysteries.
On Sunday, it was the turn of the Czech Republic to be seized by Egyptomania when the “Kings of the Sun” exhibition was officially inaugurated at the National Museum in the Czech capital Prague by Egyptian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babišalong along with the Czech ministers of culture, environment, finance, and health.
Streets, shops, buses, the subway, and train stations throughout the historic city of Prague all carried posters featuring photographs from the exhibition, including of the treasures of the ancient Egyptian Fifth-Dynasty kings of Abu Sir. One depicted a statue of princess Sheretnebty and official Nefer. Others were of the Fifth-Dynasty king Neferefre and the 27th-Dynasty high-priest Iufaa.
Visitors to the exhibition will be able to go back in time to the era of the Pyramid-builders, and the exhibition design, using the latest audio-visual technology, allows them to explore the earliest ancient Egyptian kingdom whose remains are at the archaeological site of Abu Sir where a Czech-Egyptian archaeological mission has worked for 60 years.
They will also be able to experience the atmosphere of the era of these great Egyptian kings through replicas of the tomb of princess Sheretnebty, daughter of the Fifth Dynasty king Niuserre, and the pyramid complex at Sahuraa.
El-Enany described the exhibition as an exceptional event at a challenging time. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, he said that after five years of preparation the exhibition had finally come true and was unique both in terms of the value and the origins of the objects on display.
The exhibition is the first time that Egypt has loaned such an impressive collection of Old Kingdom items for an exhibition abroad. El-Enany said that when the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) opens on the Pyramids Plateau in 2021, the objects in the exhibition will be on permanent display.
He said that Egypt and the Czech Republic have always enjoyed a strong relationship on all levels, especially in the field of archaeology, which has seen a great deal of successful scientific cooperation over the past 60 years. From 1958 to 1965, Czech archaeologists helped in the international campaign to safeguard the Nubian temples in Upper Egypt during the building of the Aswan High Dam by carrying out the documentation of rock inscriptions.
Meanwhile, excavations at the Abu Sir Royal Necropolis have led to several discoveries, among the most important being the pyramid complex of the Fifth-Dynasty king Neferefre, the intact tomb of the 27th-Dynasty high-priest Iufaa, and the tombs of princess Sheretnebty and top official Nefer.
A Czech team played a very important role in the conservation of the tomb of the nobleman Ti, completed in 2019, El-Enany said.
“The exhibition allows the Czech people and the international public as a whole to admire some of our treasures, and we encourage them to visit Egypt and explore the uncountable fascinating monuments and museums in our country,” El-Enany said.
He said that though the Kings of the Sun exhibition was the first Egyptian temporary exhibition to be held in the Czech Republic, he was sure it would not be the last. “It is another milestone showcasing an important part of the world’s culture heritage to the Czech people and the world as a whole,” he said.
“By organising this exhibition, the National Museum and several generations of Czech Egyptologists have seen their dreams fulfilled,” Michal Lukeš, director of the National Museum, told the Weekly.
He said that the exhibition was one of the most remarkable shows ever to have been held in the museum. “For almost half a year, visitors to the National Museum will have the chance to admire a globally exceptional collection of millennia-old Egyptian artefacts.
“To prepare such a vast international exhibition is always an immensely difficult task, but to me it is miraculous that our team managed to organise it despite all the challenges posed by the coronavirus,” Lukeš said.
“I must thank all Czech and Egyptian colleagues who have put such great efforts into making this happen. It is thanks to them that the Czech Republic can be proud of hosting an exhibition that is without parallel anywhere in the world.”
The “Kings of the Sun” exhibition at the National Museum in Prague
OLD KINGDOM: The ancient Egyptian Old Kingdom is regarded as the first territorial state in human history. Between the 27th and 22nd centuries BCE, ancient Egyptian civilisation recorded unprecedented growth, evolving into an awe-inspiring culture admired for its advances, skills, and mysteries.
The archaeological site of Abu Sir, from which many of the artefacts in the exhibition come, is part of the pyramid fields extending dozens of kilometres from today’s Cairo all the way to the Fayoum Oasis in the south.
During the time of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, some of the largest pyramid complexes of Egyptian kings and funerary structures of members of their families, high-ranking dignitaries, and ordinary Egyptians were built there. Abu Sir and neighbouring Saqqara are located in the heart of the site, which is home to most royal and non-royal monuments preserved to date.
Kings of the Sun is the name given to the kings of the Fifth Dynasty, who chose to worship primarily the sun god Ra from among the many ancient Egyptian deities. Four of the kings erected their mortuary complexes in Abu Sir. During their rule, ancient Egyptian architecture, art, philosophy, and state administration all reached their peak.
The exhibition presents the world-class achievements of Czech Egyptologists and explains the basic facts about the ancient Egyptian civilisation. Its aim is not only to showcase a collection of rare artefacts, but also to provide a deep understanding of the structure of the civilisation and of some personal stories of its officials.
The show illustrates the importance of interdisciplinary research and of the huge potential for collaboration between archaeology and other technical and scientific fields. It is a means of showing that archaeology is crucial to the understanding of our own civilisations, for example.
Highlights of the exhibition include precious artefacts from the third to the first millennium BCE, culminating in a set of globally unique royal sculptures of king Raneferef, one of the largest collections of preserved royal statutes from the Old Kingdom to date.
Other objects include stone vessels, ceramics, writings, and reliefs from the royal complexes in Abu Sir. The total value of the objects amounts to some CZK1 billion.
The discoveries from the king Raneferef temple complex are indisputably one of the most valuable achievements of Czech exploratory missions in Abu Sir. Considered to be one of the largest sets of royal statutes from the age of the Pyramid builders, they include a rare papyrus archive describing the cult and ceremonies in the royal temple.
The exhibition also features an unprecedented corpus of objects loaned from many international museums, including the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and museums in Berlin, Leipzig, Hannover, Heidelberg, Hildesheim, and Frankfurt am Main. It also displays items acquired by the National Museum thanks to the archaeological missions in Abu Sir led by Czech scholars from Charles University in Prague.
Professor Miroslav Bárta, director of Czech archaeological missions in Egypt and vice-rector of Charles University, explained that the Kings of the Sun exhibition provided an exceptional chance to view for the first time ever outside Egypt the greatest discoveries made during yearly missions led by teams from the Czech Institute of Egyptology.
Prague would become the home to dozens of rarely seen artefacts that tell the story of the ancient Egyptian civilisation of the Pyramid builders, he said. “I am glad that, in close cooperation with the National Museum, we managed to organise this exhibition both for Czech and international visitors,” he added.
Professor Tomáš Zima, rector of Charles University, said that the missions of the Czech Institute of Egyptology and the Faculty of Arts at Charles University were the most important Czech scientific expeditions working abroad. Their achievements and discoveries, including the present spectacular exhibition, proved that their work met the highest international scientific standards of excellence, he said.
“I greatly appreciate their contribution to Czech and global science. This is yet another example of the quality of science, research, and teaching at Charles University,” Zima said.
“The exhibition is unique in content and form,” he added, saying that it not only showcases precious and never-seen-before objects, but also uses a modern design. As a result, it whisks visitors back to the age of the ancient Egyptian empires. Thanks to the use of audio-visual installations, visitors can soak up the unique atmosphere of royal Abu Sir.
The Kings of the Sun exhibition is sure to become an unforgettable experience for visitors of all ages. The National Museum has prepared a diverse accompanying programme for the exhibition’s duration, including lectures by Czech Egyptologists, film screenings about Egypt, activities for children, and guided tours, as well as a unique Egyptological night tour.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly