Overlooking the Ain Al-Hayat Lake in Fustat in Old Cairo, the first Egyptian capital during the Islamic period, stands the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC), an architectural marvel embodying both ancient and contemporary elements and testimony to Egypt’s unrivalled heritage and a window onto the captivating world of ancient Egypt as well as the country’s rich cultural legacy.
Since the laying of its foundation stone in 2002, the NMEC has been conceived as celebrating Egypt’s unique heritage spanning over 4,000 years of history. With a focus on showcasing Egypt’s cultural, artistic, and historical evolution, the NMEC preserves and protects the nation’s archaeological, cultural, and ethnic treasures from successive civilisations.
It is the first museum in the Arab world focusing on civilisation and particularly on the ancient Egyptian civilisation and its successors. It is the only museum in Egypt that offers visitors the chance to explore the various periods of Egyptian civilisation, from prehistoric times to the modern era through a collection that highlights different aspects of Egyptian life through the ages, including religion, art, architecture, music, cooking, medicine, customs, and daily life.
A key attraction at the NMEC is the Royal Mummies Hall, where visitors can admire the 22 well-preserved mummies of ancient Egyptian kings and queens that were transported from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in a lavish parade that mesmerised the world in April 2021 and announced the NMEC’s official grand opening.
Two years after the royal procession, the NMEC has established itself as a world-famous museum and tourist destination not only for Egyptians and travellers but also for prominent figures and official and diplomatic visits. It has became the first educational cultural hub of its kind in the Arab world.
“The NMEC is more than just a museum,” said Ahmed Ghoneim, managing director of the NMEC authority. It combines antiquities, entertainment, and educational, scientific, historical, and cultural elements in one place.
Ghoneim said that the Pharaohs Golden Parade and grand opening of the NMEC had created untapped demand for visiting Egypt and to explore this new venue and the treasures it houses, especially the royal mummies. The buzz created by the parade stimulated the feelings of all Egyptians and increased their enthusiasm to visit the new museum and view the mummies of their ancestors who built the ancient Egyptian civilisation.
The NMEC has continued to build up its own reputation and to preserve its quality standards, not only in accordance with its stupendous collection but also with the quality of the services provided to visitors, making their visit unique and offering them a vibrant and exciting experience.
“This has been achieved through the different events, seminars, workshops, exhibitions and educational and entertainment activities that have been organised to attract all kinds of visitors from different age groups, whether locally or internationally,” Ghoneim said.
Over the past two years, the NMEC has organised seminars and forums on different topics in different domains. It has hosted musical concerts and dance performances, as well as launching initiatives on Egyptian heritage such as “Tabliet Misr”, a food series to revive popular dishes, “Movies and Civilisation” to highlight the pioneers of film production in Egypt, “Eternal Egypt” to revive the cultural heritage of Egypt, and “Heritage of our Governorates” to highlight the different traditions and customs of governorates across Egypt.
In collaboration with different foreign embassies, cultural events, art exhibitions, and musical concerts have been organised making the NMEC a cultural beacon of different civilisations.
Its scientific research and conservation centres, equipped with state-of-the-art technology, are another attraction of the museum and serve researchers and scholars.
Children and youngsters have their own share of NMEC activities, as educational and art workshops have been organised for them to raise their cultural awareness and love of their heritage. There is also the newly inaugurated “Kemet Kids” space inside the NMEC’s commercial area where children can embark on an immersive journey into the art of weaving and crafting ornaments from the ancient Egyptian period.
Through engaging in hands-on activities, both entertaining and educational, children can delve into ancient Egypt’s creative legacy.
ECONOMICS: The NMEC has recently inaugurated a new commercial area including 12 shops selling Egyptian brand products that have been carefully selected such as accessories, ornaments, arabesque objects, sweets, textiles, carpets and children’s toys.
These are in addition to the Konouz Egypt Replica Treasures showroom showcasing the products of the Treasures Company and the Factory of Antiquities Reproductions.
“Achieving a balance between the museum’s economic aspect and its cultural role has upheld the NMEC’s special identity,” Ghoneim said, adding that though it has not always been easy, it is an essential aspect of the museum.
“A purely economic vision would damage its cultural role, even if it would create revenues. We constantly think of unconventional ideas to generate income without affecting the museum’s role as a place of education and enlightenment.”
In order to celebrate the NMEC’s second anniversary on World Music Day, a concert by renowned Egyptian soprano Amira Selim was held at the museum’s open-air area overlooking the Ain Al-Hayat Lake.
Selim presented a varied group of songs by pioneer Egyptian and foreign composers and artists like Sayed Darwish and French singer Édith Piaf. She also sang the funerary Isis song that she performed two years ago during the Pharaohs Golden Parade. The concert was organised within the framework of the Eternal Egypt initiative, and it was the first paid cultural activity to be held at the museum.
“There are future plans to open more attractions at the NMEC, but these have been halted for the time being while we look for funds,” Ghoneim said, adding that the museum is to open two new halls. The first will display the tomb of Sennedjem, the overseer of workers at the Deir Al-Medina Necropolis in Luxor, and both the painted anthropoid coffins and the mummies of him and his wife will be on show. The second is the building’s Glass Pyramid, where hologram technology will take visitors on an ascending journey of 22 floors.
The Friends of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation is another innovation that will be launched soon. This is a non-profit organisation that aims at raising funds for the museum and suggests plans and activities for its development. It will include a group of prominent public figures and actors.
THE NMEC: Plans for the NMEC were first drawn up in 1990 and space allocated for it on what is now the parking area of the Cairo Opera House in Gezirah.
However, this proved too small, and the idea remained dormant until 1997 when, during an Iftar (breaking of the fast in Ramadan) with the then minister of interior, former minister of culture Farouk Hosni was so impressed with the panoramic view of the Ain Al-Sira Lake, now Ain Al-Hayat, that he suggested to archaeologists and experts from the UN cultural agency UNESCO that it might make a suitable location for the museum.
All the authorities concerned agreed, describing it as a perfect site not only because of its attractive backdrop but also because of its distinguished history.
In addition to being at the core of the ancient city of Fustat and neighbouring religious and antiquities-rich Old Cairo with its Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque, Hanging Church, and Ben Ezra Synagogue, the site is close to Maadi, an important site in the Pre-Dynastic epoch, as well as to the Citadel of Salaheddin.
The stage for the NMEC was set in 2000, with the Cairo governorate removing all encroachments on the site and offering the Ministry of Culture the 33 feddans of land it needed. In 2002, the pyramid-shaped foundation stone of the new museum was laid, and in 2004 the first phase of the project was completed.
This aimed at preparing the site for construction work by carrying out an extensive pre-building inspection to check if salvageable relics were buried below ground. An up-to-date storehouse, similar to the ones at the Louvre Museum in Paris and the British Museum in London, has now been built on site. It is the first of its kind to be built in Egypt and has a sophisticated security system connected directly to the police commissariat.
The opening of the museum was delayed, but in 2017 the Temporary Exhibition Hall with an exhibition on “Egyptian Crafts through the Different Eras” was inaugurated by former minister of tourism and antiquities Khaled Al-Enany and Irina Bokova, former director-general of UNESCO.
This hall showcased the four main crafts that have shaped Egyptian culture, pottery, wood, textiles, and ornaments, through displaying a collection of 400 artefacts from different periods. Short documentaries highlighting the distinctive characters of these authentic Egyptian crafts were also screened on large TV screens.
In 2021, the museum received the 22 royal mummies announcing its official opening by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.
The NMEC Main Hall is designed to offer visitors a holistic experience of the evolution of Egyptian civilisation. It showcases tangible and intangible Egyptian heritage within a framework that allows visitors to relate to the artefacts while acquiring a deeper understanding of Egyptian culture in a welcoming and exciting environment.
The exhibits highlight important achievements in different eras, starting from prehistoric times and going through the ancient Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic eras reaching modern-day Egypt.
The Mummies Hall, a key display of the museum, is designed to look like the royal tombs in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings. It has a slope leading down to it where visitors find themselves face-to-face with the royal mummies in a dimly lighted hall.
In addition to the royal mummies and their coffins, this displays panels about the first and second cachette of mummies, along with photographs of the Pharaoh Amenhotep II’s tomb (KV35), the hiding place where the second group of royal mummies was uncovered in the late 19th century. Other objects are also shown, such as linen shreds decorated with images of the ancient Egyptian god of mummification Osiris.
The history of each king and queen is also on show beside his or her mummy, as well as the results of DNA tests, descriptions of the diseases the mummy suffered from during life, as well as the lineage and members of the family.
To celebrate the first anniversary of the NMEC in April 2022, a new hall for Egyptian textiles was inaugurated. It presents the art of Egyptian textiles throughout history by exhibiting a collection of tools used by the ancient Egyptians to clean clothes, along with illustrations demonstrating the various stages of laundering clothes in ancient times.
Monks’ robes, icons, and clothes from the Islamic era are also exhibited, along with a collection showing the traditional costumes of all the different governorates. Among the most important objects on display are a collection of linen robes dating from the Ptolemaic, Coptic, Islamic and modern eras, along with a group of fabrics and ancient spinning and weaving instruments, a model of a textile workshop dating back to the ancient Egyptian Middle Kingdom, a statue of an overseer of weavers during the Old Kingdom, and a group of statues and paintings that chronicle fashions through the ages.
The display is enriched with a collection of heritage and traditional fabrics showing traditional costumes in modern times, specifically from North and South Sinai, Siwa, the Delta, Upper Egypt, and Nubia, and a unique collection of traditional costumes of farmers and women.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly