Steeped in history and cultural significance, Alexandria has always had a special allure for visitors, as it is not only home to a plethora of museums and archaeological sites that offer a captivating journey through time and the arts, but also has a cosmopolitan charm and distinguished location on the azure Mediterranean Sea.
It is a refined melting pot of diverse civilisations, cultures, religions, and nationalities.
One of Alexandria’s prominent landmarks is the Graeco-Roman Museum with its beautiful neoclassical facade of six columns and a pediment bearing the Greek inscription ‘MOYΣEION’ (MOUSEION) now welcoming visitors after almost two decades hidden behind scaffolding and green sheets for restoration and development.
This ambitious restoration aimed not only to revive a building of historical significance, but also to breathe new life into a treasure trove of civilisations past from a fascinating period in Egyptian history when the Greek, Roman, and Ancient Egyptian civilisations all interacted, resulting in a fusion of traditions.
The Museum was officially reopened by Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly last week, who described it as a new tourist attraction in Alexandria and an addition to Egypt’s tourism that aligns it with Government plans to revive the country’s archaeological sites and museums.
Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Ahmed Issa said that the Museum restoration project aimed to reinforce the message of enlightenment in one of the most important Museums in the Mediterranean Basin.
Visitors to the two-storey Museum, with its new exhibition route, can explore the history of Alexandria from before its construction by Alexander the Great and through the Ptolemaic, Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods. They can see the history of the city’s cultures, sciences, arts, sports, religious beliefs, daily lives, and traditions.
They will also be in direct contact with several legendary figures from world history, all of whom played important parts in the life of Alexandria, such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra, along with deities like Serapis, Isis, and Harpocrates.
“We have changed the whole concept of the Museum, but preserved its special character, like its distinguished neoclassical façade and several objects in the Museum’s treasured collection,” said Moamen Othman, Head of the Museums Sector at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).
“The exhibition scenario of the Museum was completely altered and restructured to be much easier for the public to understand. It also created new sections and highlighted the intellectual and artistic amalgam of the ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Coptic and Byzantine civilisations.”
He explained that the Museum’s exhibition galleries show the history of Alexandria prior to its construction by Alexander the Great until the Roman period and passing through the Ptolemaic, Greek, and Roman periods.
The inner walls of each section of the Museum are painted in different colours to differentiate each historical epoque. Royal blue represents the Ptolemaic and Greek periods, while Burgundy is dedicated to halls displaying objects from the Roman era. The rest of the Museum’s halls are painted in grey.
The installation also emphasises the idea of Alexandria as a city that had once been a beacon of arts, architects, knowledge, and science and that attracted scholars and philosophers from all parts of the ancient world, along with being a centre for trade and commerce in the Mediterranean.
The city of Kanub, now Abu Qir, is also shown in the new exhibition through the display of several artefacts from the Mediterranean seabed.
The Museum includes 6,000 artefacts, among the most distinguished are the Sobek Temple with a shrine bearing a mummified crocodile from the reign of Ptolemy V. This Temple was previously on display in the garden of the Museum prior to the restoration project.
The Apis Bull is one of the main exhibited objects, along with a Byzantine Basilica with a fresco from Gerga and a mosaic portrait of the Ptolemaic queen Berenice II, spouse of Ptolemy II.
A collection of Tanagra statuettes along with replicas of houses, a Greek ship filled with original clay pots and amphoras, and coins are also on display to highlight the daily life and trading traditions during that time.
Othman said that the Museum also has a library including 12,400 books, among them the Description de l’Egypte and the rare books of Omar Tosson Pasha. A state-of-the-art conservation and research centre and a hall for multimedia have also been established along with a hall displaying the gypsum replicas that have been donated to the Museum over time.
Hisham Samir, Assistant to the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities for Archaeological Projects, said that according to a cooperation protocol between the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces to conserve a collection of eight monuments including the Baron Empain Palace in Heliopolis, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Fustat, the Elyahu Hanavi Synagogue, and the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, the restoration of the Museum began in 2018 and included the structural reinforcement of the building itself, the restoration of the main façade, the replacement of showcases, the installing of new lighting, ventilation, and security systems, and renewing the overall display.
The idea of building a Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria first emerged in 1891 from Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Botti who then became its first director. He wanted to house the artefacts unearthed in Alexandria and protect them from destruction.
In 1892, the Museum began in a modest five-room rented property in downtown Alexandria. With more excavations and an increase in the number of discoveries, a more spacious building was required to house all the unearthed artefacts. In September 1894, Nubar Pasha laid the cornerstone for the new Museum to be built on land adjacent to the Municipal Council.
The new edifice was designed by German architect Dietrich and Dutch architect Stenon in a neoclassical style. The construction took one year, and it was inaugurated by the Khedive Abbas Helmy II in 1895.
The Museum has been renovated several times before. The largest was in 1982, when a development project was implemented during which a new wing was added connecting the western and eastern wings of the building. In 1983, the Museum was listed on Egypt’s Heritage List for Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish Antiquities.
In 2005, the Graeco-Roman Museum was closed and taken off the tourist circuit for restoration and rehabilitation. Due to a lack of finances and the 2011 Revolution, the project was put on hold until it was resumed in 2018.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 19 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly