2020 Yearender: Egypt's Archaeological extravaganza

Nevine El-Aref , Thursday 31 Dec 2020

It’s been a busy year for archaeologists. Several discoveries made international headlines and major museums and sites were inaugurated in an effort to revivify tourism, the hardest-hit sector due to coronavirus

Sharm El-Sheikh Museum
Sharm El-Sheikh Museum

This year has been good for archaeology in Egypt, as several discoveries were announced and major museums and sites inaugurated after restoration and development over the course of the past 12 months. It has been a very busy year for Egyptologists, as they continue to explore and conserve Egypt’s vast heritage and mysterious history, which always has interesting stories to tell.

The sun boat hall in Sharm El-Sheikh Museum
The sun boat hall in Sharm El-Sheikh Museum


One of the most-compelling discoveries is the Saqqara Coffins Cachette where a collection of more than 100 colourful, intact and sealed coffins was unearthed in the Saqqara Necropolis in November this year.

This find was so monumental that it has been named one of the Top 10 Most Important Discoveries of 2020 by the prestigious US Archaeology magazine. A collection of 40 wooden statues of Saqqara goddess Ptah Soker, some of which have gilded faces, along with four golden funerary masks and two beautifully carved wooden statues of a top officials, were also unearthed.

X-ray tests made on one of the mummies revealed that it belonged to a healthy man aged 45.

At the Al-Ghoreifa area of the Tuna Al-Gabal archaeological site in Minya governorate, Egyptian archaeologists uncovered several Late Period communal tombs of high priests of the god Djehuty and senior officials in the 15th nome of Upper Egypt and its capital Ashmunin.

Among the tombs uncovered were 16 tombs filled with about 20 sarcophagi and coffins of various shapes and sizes, including five anthropoid sarcophagi made of limestone and engraved with hieroglyphic texts and five wooden coffins in good condition, some of which were decorated with the names and titles of their owners.

More than 10,000 ushabti figurines made of blue and green faience, most of which are engraved with the titles of the deceased, were also found. More than 700 amulets of various shapes, sizes and materials, including heart scarabs, amulets of the gods, and amulets made of pure gold such an amulet in the shape of a winged cobra were found.

Many pottery vessels of different shapes and sizes used for funerary and religious purposes were also unearthed, along with tools for cutting stones and moving coffins such as wooden hammers and baskets made of palm fronds. The discovery included eight groups of painted canopic jars made of limestone with inscriptions showing the titles of its owner who took the title of the “singer of the god Thoth”.

Two groups consisting of four canopic jars made of alabaster for a woman and a man were also unearthed, along with a group of stone images without any inscriptions representing the four sons of Horus. One of the discovered stone sarcophagi belonged to the son of Psamtik, who took the title of the “head of the royal treasury”.

The Royal Corridor
The Royal Corridor


There were many openings this year, among the most important being the Baron Empain Palace in Heliopolis, inaugurated by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi with a view to developing it into a museum relating the history of Heliopolis.

The exhibition includes a collection of photographs, archival documents, maps, drawings and letters in relation to the history of the Heliopolis suburb, including Matariya. The awe-inspiring palace with its burnt sienna colour and distinguished Indian architectural style is as magnificent as it has always been and illustrates something of the creation of this elegant Cairo suburb.

The restoration work on the mansion, originally built in 1911, was carried out in collaboration with the Armed Forces Engineering Authority and the Arab Contractors Company with a budget of more than LE100 million. It was based on the original plans of the palace’s French architect Alexander Marcel, and the team succeeded in solving even unexpected problems.

The Sharm El-Sheikh, Kafr Al-Sheikh and Royal Carriages museums in Cairo were also inaugurated by President Al-Sisi this year after renovation. Their opening on the same day was an exceptional event in the history of antiquities in Egypt, and the work was budgeted for a cumulative total of almost LE1 billion.

The Sharm El-Sheikh Museum is the first antiquities museum to be built in Sinai. The idea of building a museum on the peninsula started in 1999, and actual construction work began in 2003, though it stopped in 2011 in the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution.

Work resumed in early 2018 and was completed this year with a budget of LE812 million. The museum puts on display around 5,200 artefacts, ranging from the pre-historic period to modern times, as well as showing the rich urban and tribal culture of Sinai inhabitants. It is a cultural hub for all civilisations and a new tourist attraction in this coastal city that now combines cultural with leisure tourism.

The Kafr Al-Sheikh Museum displays a collection of distinguished artefacts showing the diversity of Egyptian civilisations through different ages. The idea of building a museum in Kafr Al-Sheikh started as early as 1992 when the governorate allocated a plot of land to host it. Work started in 2003, but stopped in 2011, and then resumed in 2018 with a budget of LE62 million.

The new museum is located in the Sanaa Gardens next to Kafr Al-Sheikh University and reflects the role that the city played in different periods, focusing on its position as a capital of Egypt during the ancient period.

Coffins discovered in Saqqara
Coffins discovered in Saqqara

The Royal Carriages Museum, located on 26 July Street in Boulaq in Cairo, was inaugurated after years of closure for restoration and development with a budget of LE63 million. Its distinguished early 20th-century architecture and its beautiful entrance now add elegance to this crowded area of Cairo, with the museum reopening its doors to enable visitors to admire the exquisite royal carriages of members of the former ruling Mohamed Ali family.

Restoration work on the museum was started in 2001, but was halted in 2011 and only resumed in 2017. The museum building, in poor condition, has been rehabilitated, the walls and foundations consolidated, and facades and decorative elements restored. New lighting and security systems have been installed.

Meanwhile, the Hurghada Museum, Egypt’s first to be established in partnership with the private sector, was inaugurated this year by Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli. It is a way of linking maritime and cultural tourism, and the government did not shoulder any financial burdens in the construction of the museum, which cost LE185 million, as these were met by the partner company.

This provided the requirements the ministry requested, such as showcases, the security and lighting systems, and the design of the museum’s halls. Revenues will be equally divided between the ministry and the company, and the museum has state-of-the-art security system equipped with surveillance cameras and alarms.

The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities will be the sole authority responsible for the management and security of the Hurghada Museum collection, as well as anything related to antiquities, such as exhibition halls, and the maintenance and restoration labs.

A Horus statue at Kafr Al-Sheikh Museum
A Horus statue at Kafr Al-Sheikh Museum


In Alexandria, the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue was inaugurated this year after massive renovation work that had been carried out under a cooperation protocol signed between the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry and the Armed Forces Engineering Authority in 2017.

The restoration of the synagogue delivers to the whole world a message of tolerance and acceptance of others. It reflects the Egyptian government’s keenness to restore Egypt’s monuments and archaeological sites, including Jewish, Coptic and Islamic sites, which represent the country’s heritage.

Abdine’s Al-Fath Royal Mosque in Cairo was also inaugurated after restoration. It had been closed for restoration for more than two years, as it had been suffering from deterioration. Walls were reinforced, cracks repaired, wooden and marble elements cleaned and refurbished, and the pulpit and mihrab repaired.

New sound, lighting and security systems were installed along with surveillance cameras and burglar alarms. The mosque overlooks the gardens of the Abdine Palace, and it was formerly known as the Abdine Mosque after its founder Abdine Bek, the Amir Al-Liwaa Al-Sultani (commander of the sultan’s bodyguard) who founded it in 1729.

The mosque was restored by order of former king Fouad in 1918 and inaugurated in 1920.

Celebration and medallion halls at the Royal Carriages Museum
Celebration and medallion halls at the Royal Carriages Museum

After 14 years of restoration, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara outside Cairo, the first stone building in history and the oldest pyramid in the world and consisting of six stacked terraces to a height of around 63 metres was inaugurated by Madbouli this year.

The Step Pyramid is the highlight of the Saqqara monuments. It is the oldest monumental stone building in history and Egypt’s oldest pyramid. It was commissioned by Djoser (c 2667-2648 BCE). The architect was Imhotep, and he designed a layout in which the Step Pyramid was at the centre of a larger funerary complex.

The dimensions of the base are 121x109m. The pyramid has two entrances, one on its northern side, which is the original entrance, and another on the southern, which dates back to the 26th Dynasty. The complex also includes a colonnade entrance, the South Tomb, the Sed Festival Court, the Pavilions of the North and South, and a funerary temple to the north.

Kafr Al-Sheikh Museum
Kafr Al-Sheikh Museum


The pandemic took its toll on the majority of industries and sectors. Hospitality, aviation, and travel opportunities for antiquities, leisure, beach, and sports tourism were all hit hard.

Egypt’s tourism sector, accounting for 12 to 15 per cent of the country’s GDP, lost some $1 billion per month as the government in March suspended air traffic, closed hotels, restaurants, and cafés except for delivery services, and imposed a night-time curfew in order to halt the spread of the pandemic.

Although the tourism industry in Egypt was celebrating for the first three months of the year a record year as the number of tourists reached around two million, with the Covid-19 pandemic tourism was decimated, and the number of tourists after the resumption of inbound tourism starting in July reached around only one million from some 20 countries.

To support the industry and reduce the impact of the pandemic on the tourism sector and help in its recovery and the safe resumption of inbound tourism, the government issued hygiene safety regulations for all airports, hotels, restaurants, cafés, archaeological sites, and museums in Egypt.

It set a timeline for the resumption of tourism in light of the regulations. This was preceded by the complete disinfection of all hospitality establishments and archaeological museums and sites, and awareness programmes for employees and workers in the tourism sector.

Hotels and resorts that had obtained the hygiene safety certificate were gradually reopened to receive domestic tourism, with maximum occupancy rates of 25 per cent. This was then increased to 50 per cent. Restaurants that had obtained the certificate also started to reopen gradually, with maximum occupancy rates of 25 per cent and then 50 per cent, allowing them to receive guests until 10 pm and then until midnight.

In July, Egypt started to receive inbound tourism at certified hotels and resorts located in the coastal governorates of the Red Sea, South Sinai, and Marsa Matrouh, with maximum occupancy rates of 50 per cent. The three governorates had excellent epidemiological results, in addition to having well-equipped private and public hospitals.

Tourists flocking to these governorates were thus able to safely enjoy their vacations and return to their homelands without a single infection from Covid-19.

Egypt restarted cultural tourism in September after the reopening of archaeological sites and museums. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) granted Egypt its specially designed Safe Travel Stamp, which allowed travellers and other travel and tourism stakeholders to recognise destination authorities and companies around the world that have implemented health and hygiene protocols aligned with the WTTC’s Safe Travels Protocols.

Qait Bey Fortress
Qait Bey Fortress

All travellers arriving in Egypt were required to submit a recent negative PCR test certificate for Covid-19 done in the source country within a maximum of 72 hours prior to the time of departure of their direct flight to Egypt.

Those coming from Japan, China, Thailand, North and South America, Canada, and the London Heathrow, Paris, and Frankfurt airports were allowed to submit the certificate within a maximum of 96 hours prior to the time of departure of their flight to Egypt.

To facilitate the procedures, Egypt offered travellers arriving at the Sharm El-Sheikh, Taba, Hurghada and Marsa Alam airports the possibility of doing the PCR test upon arrival at a cost of $30 or the equivalent in other currencies.

To encourage inbound tourism, incentives were granted to airports in tourist governorates until April 2021, including on aviation fuel prices with a 10 per cent per gallon discount, 50 per cent discounts on landing and housing fees, and a 20 per cent discount on ground-handling fees.

Tourists arriving directly in Aswan, Luxor, Matrouh, Sinai South, and the Sea Red were exempted from visa fees until April 2021.

Tutankhamun display in Hurghada Museum
Tutankhamun display in Hurghada Museum


The cabinet issued decrees to support the tourism industry, such as postponing the payment of all debts owed by tourist companies and hotels for periods before the start of the coronavirus crisis.

Payments will begin from January 2021 as a result for electricity, water and gas consumption, and there has been an extension of the deadlines for tax returns for three months. Payments of income or value-added taxes have been deferred for a period of six months, as have social insurance contributions including the share of workers and tourist establishments.

Twenty-seven further nationalities, in addition to the 46 already allowed, can obtain visas at arrival ports in Egypt, provided that they have the guarantee of a tourist agent. Tourists who earlier obtained Egyptian entry visas and are citizens of the US, UK, or the Schengen countries have had their visas extended.

A reduction of $10 on the price of visas for tourists arriving at Luxor or Aswan airports has been available to encourage inbound tourism in Upper Egypt during the summer months of June, July, and August.

The Tourism and Antiquities Ministry has invested in technology during the pandemic and launched virtual tours of the country’s archaeological sites and museums on its social-media platforms so that people can view the country’s ancient heritage from home.

Under the slogan “Experience Egypt from home. Stay home. Stay safe,” the initiative is part of the ministry’s efforts to enable people worldwide to explore and enjoy ancient Egyptian civilisation during the coronavirus outbreak.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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