2023 Yearender: A year of heritage

Nevine El-Aref , Tuesday 19 Dec 2023

Enhancing the tourist experience, digitising the services provided at archaeological sites and museums, exploring and conserving Egypt’s heritage, and opening new cultural attractions all took place this year, writes Nevine El-Aref

Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition in Sydney
Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition in Sydney


Egypt embarked on a journey to harness the power of digital technology to enhance the tourist experience, preserve monuments, and make the wonders of its past more accessible to all types of visitors this year.

The digital revolution at the country’s archaeological sites and museums is not just about embracing modernity but is also about safeguarding and celebrating the nation’s cultural heritage for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

This year further efforts were exerted to enhance the tourist experience and digitise the services provided at archaeological sies and museums across the country, in addition to a wealth of new openings and discoveries.

Egypt’s National Tourism Strategy launched in November 2022 aims to attract 30 million tourists to Egypt by 2028, increasing arrivals by 25 to 30 per cent annually. It continues the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities’ policy started many years ago to develop the quality of visitor services at Egypt’s archaeological sites and museums, making them more tourist-friendly and more accessible to visitors with disabilities.

The strategy targets a threefold increase in seat capacity on flights in collaboration with the Ministry of Civil Aviation. It seeks to enhance tourist experiences at archaeological sites, museums, and other landmarks, create convenient products for independent travellers, improve the investment environment, and encourage room capacity.

It also focuses on fast-growing markets that can generate high volumes of tourists and widen the range of activities to increase spending.

The improvement of the quality of services at archaeological sites and museums aims to allow for more sustainable tourism, giving visitors the opportunity to fully experience ancient sites and make their visits more enjoyable and at the same time protect the sites from any negative impacts.

In 2021, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities launched a project to improve visitor services at 40 archaeological sites and museums across the country as well as to build partnerships with private-sector companies and scientific institutes to improve facilities at sites such as the Salaheddin Citadel in Cairo, the Giza Plateau, the Saqqara Necropolis, Beni Hassan, the Karnak and Luxor Temples in Luxor, and temples in Aswan such as Philae, Abu Simbel, Amada, and Seboua.

It also upgrades the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square and sites that the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) has already improved, such as the Isis Temple in Aswan and archaeological sites in Fayoum.

The development of services undertaken by the strategy includes the installation of visitor paths and new signage with information about the sites and monuments. Maps of the sites are provided to visitors along with descriptions of each with QR codes for more information. Sunshades and benches are provided.

All sites will be equipped to be accessible to the disabled under the strategy, including by providing improved mobility for those in wheelchairs, as well as making information more accessible to those with impaired sight and hearing. Environmentally friendly vehicles have been provided at sites such as the Salaheddin Citadel and the Giza Pyramids in Cairo, Deir Al-Bahari and the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, and the Abu Simbel Temples in Aswan.

E-ticketing systems have been implemented at most sites and museums in a step towards their being introduced at all of them. There are now e-ticketing systems at sites including the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) in Cairo, the Egyptian Museum, the Giza Plateau, the Karnak and Luxor Temples, and the Kom Al-Shoqafa Catacombs and Qait Bay Citadel in Alexandria, among others.

As part of the ministry’s digital transformation initiative, a new payment system has been launched for purchasing tickets to access archaeological sites and museums all over Egypt that started in May this year. The move is part of the third phase of the ministry’s strategy to allow entry to 120 archaeological sites and museums via cashless payments, such as credit and debit cards and pre-paid Meeza cards.

The new system is meant to facilitate and control the entry process, as well as ensure that foreign currency makes its way into the banking sector and increases its flow. Exceptions are being made for Egyptian school trips until a special electronic ticketing portal is implemented. Egyptian nationals can purchase tickets electronically on site or via the website egymonuments.com. Tour agencies can buy group tickets through bank transfers to the SCA or via direct purchase on site.

Cashless entry is now available at the temples of Edfu, Kom Ombo, Abu Simbel, and Philae, as well as at the Nubian Museum and the Unfinished Obelisk in Aswan, the Giza Plateau, the Cairo Citadel, and the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. It has also been implemented at the Baron Empain Palace in Heliopolis, the Royal Carriages Museum in Boulaq, and the Prince Mohamed Ali Palace in Manial.

Solar energy stations have been installed at the Sharm El-Sheikh National Museum, the Mohamed Ali Palace in Manial, and the Giza Plateau Visitor Centre, both in the Greater Cairo area, and at the Alexandria National Museum and the Jewellery Museum in Alexandria, marking a significant step towards greener and more sustainable tourism and heritage preservation.

The installation is the result of an agreement signed in November 2022 during the UN COP27 Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh between the SCA and a number of international development and cultural preservation bodies.

Solar energy is more sustainable and economically feasible than electricity provided from the grid. It will contribute to preserving, protecting, and rehabilitating Egypt’s cultural heritage and help to achieve the country’s Sustainable Development Strategy 2030.

NEW DISCOVERIES: This year witnessed spectacular new discoveries revealing more about Egyptian history.

Among the most compelling was the chevron ceiling corridor found within the northern face of the Great Pyramid of Khufu on the Giza Plateau and just above its main entrance using five non-invasive techniques: infrared rays, muography, georadar, ultrasound, and architectural and 3D simulation.

The corridor, which is not accessible from outside the structure, is nine metres long and two metres wide. After the discovery was made, the scientific ScanPyramids team responsible sent a tiny six mm Japanese endoscope through a crack between the stones to attain images of the space from inside.

The discovery is part of the ScanPyramids project launched in 2015 to unravel the secrets of the Great Pyramid four millennia after its construction. The project combines several non-invasive and non-damaging scanning techniques to search for the presence of any hidden internal structures and cavities in ancient monuments that may lead to a better understanding of their structure and their construction processes and techniques.

An unprecedented discovery of eight previously undocumented storage chambers — or magazines — within Sahure’s Pyramid was also made at the Abusir Necropolis south of Giza. This discovery, carried out by a joint Egyptian-German mission, sheds new light on the interior design and architecture of King Sahure’s Pyramid, the second king of the Fifth Dynasty and the first to be buried in Abusir.

At the Saite-Persian Cemetery in Abusir, excavations carried out by a Czech-Egyptian team also revealed more about ancient Egyptian society during the 26th and 27th dynasties. The shaft tombs found there reveal information about the society that produced them, showcasing the society that produced King Djoser’s Pyramid, the first stone structure in history.

The area was not used until the end of the 26th Dynasty, when high-ranking dignitaries at the royal court selected it to be their final resting place for eternity.

The site is on a straight line connecting the Giza Pyramids with the King Djoser Pyramid, forming the head of two shallow valleys running from the east and southeast. It is also located near older royal structures and has a sanctified status steeped in long-standing tradition. It is likely to be close to the cemetery of foreign mercenary soldiers commanded by dignitaries. The geological foundations of the site, characterised by a substantial layer of hardened mud, proved conducive to the construction of tombs.

There was a stunning discovery at the Saqqara Necropolis outside Cairo that is unlikely to be the last at this extensive archaeological site. Two embalming workshops considered to be the largest and most complete found to date dedicated to humans and animals have been uncovered. Also unearthed were two tombs from different historical periods, along with a significant collection of artefacts.

The human embalming workshop is a rectangular building with multiple rooms containing stone beds that were used for the mummification of the deceased. They were covered with plaster and featured gutters. Among the artefacts found within the workshop were clay pots, tools, and ritual vessels used for mummification.

The other workshop, also rectangular in shape, was constructed with mud walls and stone floors consisting of several rooms where a collection of clay pots and animal burials were unearthed. Bronze tools used in the mummification process were also found. The workshop contained five stone beds distinct from those discovered in the human embalming workshop.

Initial studies show that this particular workshop was used for the mummification of sacred animals.

Excavations at Al-Ghoreifa at Minya’s Tuna Al-Gabal site in Upper Egypt revealed a significant find that promises to be an addition to the annals of archaeology. For the first time the New Kingdom cemetery of the 15th ancient Egyptian nome, or district, was found, although cemeteries from the old and middle kingdoms had been unearthed many years ago.

The cemetery comprises an array of rock-hewn tombs filled with anthropoid limestone sarcophagi and intricately decorated wooden coffins adorned with religious depictions. It also included 25,000 statues depicting ancient Egyptian deities and ushabti figurines crafted from faience.

A collection of canopic jars and amulets was also unearthed, alongside mummy masks and an exceptionally well-preserved papyrus, spanning 13 to 15 feet in length and bearing text from the Book of the Dead. This papyrus was transported to the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) for public display.

The Esna Temple in Luxor governorate witnessed the discovery of Egypt’s first complete Zodiac on the ceiling of the temple’s Hypostyle Hall during restoration work carried out by a German-Egyptian team and revealing a bright and colourful astronomical representation of the ancient Egyptian night sky.

The relief contains all the 12 Zodiac signs, the outer planets of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, as well as depictions of the so-called seven arrows and constellations used by the ancient Egyptians in time measurement.
The reliefs also depict deities, animals, the names of divine figures, and composite beings including a ram-headed serpent and a crocodile-headed bird.

Excavation in Abu Qir Bay, the site of the ancient sunken city of Thonis-Heracleion off Alexandria also revealed new archaeological treasures this year. An Egyptian-French archaeological mission led by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) found the remains of Aphrodite’s sanctuary and a collection of artefacts from the Amun Gereb Temple on the seabed.

The discovery is considered as important because it shows how the city sank and the kind of life that its inhabitants had once led. Precious objects and jewellery from the treasury of the famed Temple of Amun Gereb, part of which slid into a canal during the earthquake that hit the country destroying the city, have been also found.

RESTORATION PROJECTS: Several restoration projects were completed this year, and various new archaeological attractions were opened as part of Egypt’s commitment to preserve its Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish shrines as well as the artefacts in museums.

Several mosques and sites in Historic Cairo were inaugurated after the completion of restoration projects.

In Al-Muizz Street in Historic Cairo, the Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah Mosque was inaugurated after the completion of restoration work aimed mainly to reinforce the walls and clean the masonry and desalinate it. The restoration also aimed to clean and strengthen the building’s architectural designs, wooden ceilings, mashrabiya (lattice woodwork) windows, arcades, paintings, engravings, and fine metal ornaments.

The mosque is the fourth oldest in Egypt and the second largest after the Mosque of Ibn Tulun. Its construction begun in 380 AH/990 CE by Al-Hakim’s father, the Fatimid caliph Al-Aziz bi-Allah, who died before its completion, leaving his son to finish it in 403 AH/1013 CE.

Neighbouring the Al-Hakim Mosque is the Al-Aqmar Mosque, which reopened its doors this year to worshippers and visitors after three years of restoration that included the maintenance of the main stone facade, the removal of dirt and bird waste from the walls, the cleaning of marble pillars, restoration of plaster engravings, replacement of missing parts of the construction with historically accurate replacements, and the restoring of wooden doors and windows.

New lighting and metal window grilles to protect the architecture from birds were installed. The walls of the minaret and glass decorations were also strengthened.

The mosque was commissioned by the Fatimid caliph Al-Amir bi-Ahkam Allah in 519 AH/1125 CE. Construction was supervised by the Vizier Al-Maamun Al-Bataihi, and it was renewed during the reign of Sultan Barquq in 799 AH/1397 CE under the supervision of Prince Yalbugha Al-Salmi.

In the Al-Zaher area in central Cairo stands the Al-Zaher Baybars Mosque, which has now regained its original splendour. The mosque has been under restoration since 2007, but the work was halted in 2011 when the SCA supervising the work realised that the bricks used in the restoration did not match the originals.

The Permanent Committee of Islamic Monuments had agreed to use adobe bricks in the restoration work that were similar to the originals and not mudbrick ones.

The work did not resume until 2018, when the mosque’s foundations were consolidated, putting an end to the leakage of subterranean water into the foundations by installing a new drainage system to lower the groundwater level. The faulty electrical system was replaced, and the mosque’s minaret, dome, and columns, as well as inner walls and ceilings, were restored.

The ground of the mosque’s open courtyard was paved with tiles similar to those used in the original design, while the four halls around it were covered in a manner consistent with its original design to protect it from rain. New lighting and security systems were installed, while decorative features inside and outside the Mosque were cleaned and restored.

In the Cairo Citadel, the Suleiman Pasha Al-Khadim Mosque, known as the Sariyat Al-Gabal Mosque, was officially inaugurated after the completion of its architectural restoration. The restoration work included removing plasterwork added over the centuries, cleaning the masonry, and repairing the mosque’s walls, woodwork, and decorative elements.

The Sariyat Al-Gabal Mosque was built on the ruins of a former Fatimid Mosque built in 1140 CE by the Fatimid Governor Abu Mansur Qastah Ghulam Al-Muzaffar Ibn Amir Al-Guyush. In the Ottoman period, the mosque served the Janissaries, an elite unit of the Ottoman armies that conquered Egypt in 1517.

Sariyat Al-Gabal is considered to be Egypt’s earliest Ottoman-style mosque and is characterised by domes, semi-domes, pencil-shaped minarets, and ceramic tiling.

In Menoufiya, the Mosque and Mausoleum of Al-Fadl Ibn Al-Abbassi has been opened after restoration. The aim of the restoration was to strengthen the foundations and protect them from damage. The walls were consolidated, cracks removed, missing and decayed stones replaced, and masonry cleaned and desalinated.

Parts of the damaged floor of the mosque have been restored and the missing pieces replaced. All the wooden furniture such as the pulpit, the Quran Chair, and mashrabiya windows were restored, along with all the façades and stained-glass windows. A new drainage system was installed to prevent the leakage of rainwater.

In Old Cairo, where layers of history converge on narrow alleyways and centuries-old architecture, remarkable restoration efforts have been breathing new life into three cultural gems that stand as testimony to Egypt’s rich historical and cultural diversity.

The Ben Ezra Synagogue, the Aqueduct, and the Babylon Fortress in Old Cairo were inaugurated by Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli as part of the rehabilitation project of Historic Cairo, testifying to the government’s keenness to carry out development work while maintaining and protecting Egypt’s heritage.

The three monuments have undergone meticulous restoration work that not only rejuvenates their physical structures and preserves tangible pieces of Cairo’s history, but also rekindles the bonds of tolerance. The walls of the three buildings have been reinforced and cleaned as part of the restoration project and the masonry cleaned and desalinated. Decayed parts of the wooden mashrabiya windows have been restored and replaced with similar ones.

Wooden ceilings and decorative elements have been restored and paintings retouched. New lighting systems have been installed in the three buildings, giving them a dramatic look at night.

The synagogue holds an exceptional place in the tapestry of Cairo’s history. Legend has it that it stands on the spot where the infant Moses was found among the reeds that lined the Nile in antiquity. However, the history of the synagogue as a Jewish place of worship really begins in the ninth century CE, when it was purchased from the Christian community in Cairo. Over the centuries, the synagogue has seen various challenges, from fire to political changes, yet its spiritual significance and architectural beauty have endured.

The southern section of the Babylon Fortress located beneath the Hanging Church and known as the Amr Gate was restored after the completion of the first phase of the larger restoration project around the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo.

The façade of the fortress’s southern part has been cleaned of dust and bird droppings and any damaged blocks restored. A new lighting system has also been installed to highlight the beauty of the architecture and the original job for which it was constructed.

During the second century CE, the Roman emperor Trajan ordered the construction of a fortress to secure the Roman military units in the country and to be the first line of defence at the eastern gateway of Egypt. In the fourth century CE, the Roman emperor Arcadius restored, expanded, and strengthened the Fortress.

Leading to the Cairo Citadel, the Aqueduct stands as testimony to the engineering skills of Egypt’s Islamic civilisations. Its origins go back to the reign of Al-Nasser Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi (Saladin) in the 12th century CE, and it was renovated during the reign of the later Mameluke Sultan Al-Nasr Mohamed Ibn Qalawun in the early 14th century CE.

Sultan Qansuh Al-Ghuri built the wheels that bring water from the Nile into the Aqueduct to serve the Citadel, and the construction as a whole extends from the banks of the Nile to Sayeda Aisha Square close to the Citadel. For centuries, the Aqueduct was an engineering marvel, delivering water from the Nile to the Citadel and ensuring that its inhabitants had access to this vital resource.

The wooden waterwheels were repaired as part of the restoration work and all encroachments on the walls and the surrounding areas removed. The stonework has been cleaned and dirt and soot removed. The woodwork and floors in the internal corridors have been restored, the stairs rehabilitated, and the area surrounding the monument upgraded.

The idea of building an Aqueduct to carry water to the Citadel goes back to Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi himself. A canal was constructed on top of a wall to convey water to the Citadel by a series of waterwheels. The water flowed through the canal to the Citadel, where it was used for drinking and irrigation.

MUSEUM PROJECTS: Within the grounds of Ain Shams University in Cairo stands the Al-Zaafarana Palace (Saffron Palace), with its exquisite 19th-century architectural style welcoming Egyptian and international students and researchers after the completion of its restoration.

Named after the saffron plantations that surrounded it at the time of its construction, the Al-Zaafarana Palace has now been turned into an educational museum and its basement has been transformed into galleries relating the history of Egypt since the ancient Egyptian era right through to modern times.

The new museum displays 167 artefacts carefully selected from different museums in Egypt, such as the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, the Museum of Islamic Art, the Manial Palace Museum, the Royal Carriages Museum and Kafr Al-Sheikh Museum.

The palace’s design combines the Gothic and Baroque styles, two of the most important architectural styles used in the 19th century in Europe. It is a three-storey building and has a basement designated for services, including kitchens, laundries, and stores. The third floor was designated for the accommodation of courtiers and servants.

The Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, considered one of the city’s most prominent landmarks, was reopened to the public this year after almost two decades of closure for development.

The ambitious restoration aimed not only at reviving a building of historical significance, but also at breathing new life into a treasure trove of civilisations from a fascinating period in Egyptian history when the Greek, Roman, and Ancient Egyptian civilisations all interacted, resulting in a fusion of traditions.

The restoration involved adding new sections to the museum to attract more visitors and highlight the intellectual and artistic amalgam of ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Coptic, and Byzantine civilisations.

Both the museum and its library were consolidated and restored, while the showcases were improved to ensure a better display of the artefacts. A new exhibition scenario was created to display the objects chronologically and thematically, and new lighting and security systems were also installed.

The Graeco-Roman Museum, built in 1892, was inaugurated by khedive Abbas Helmi II in 1895 to display Graeco-Roman artefacts discovered at archaeological sites in Alexandria. It was registered on Egypt’s Heritage List for Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish antiquities in 1983.

The Saqqara Necropolis Site Museum was also reopened to the public this year after development to enhance the visitor experience, unlocking the mysteries of this ancient burial ground.

The site entrance has been developed and the ticket office refurbished. Electronic gates have been installed along with information about the site and its monuments, a map showing directions, and the site visitor route.

Signage has been installed at the foot of every monument giving information about it, its history, and its restoration. A visitor path has been created and slopes and pathways created for visitors with disabilities. New lighting and security systems connected to a control room have been installed. Sunshades, seats, and recycle bins are also provided on site.

The new museum’s exhibition scenario remains the same except for the addition of six new showcases with 70 additional artefacts uncovered by an Egyptian archaeological mission in different areas of Saqqara Necropolis.

Among the most distinguished artefacts on display are a collection of early medical instruments from the Fifth Dynasty, the oldest royal mummy ever found of the Sixth-Dynasty King Mery-Re, and a collection of mummified animals such as lynxes, cheetahs, lion cubs, and cats.

The irrigation system of the cultivated area around the museum was improved, while the visitor path was also upgraded with additional sunshades, seats, and restrooms. Services for visitors have been improved by adding information signs and interactive display screens showing videos and photographs of some of the archaeological discoveries made at the Saqqara Necropolis.

The museum’s façade has been cleaned and consolidated, special panoramic lighting for the site has been installed, and the exhibited archaeological pieces, security and surveillance systems, and central air-conditioning units have all been upgraded. Cafeterias and bazaars have been added to the site. Facilities have been provided for visitors with disabilities, including dedicated restrooms and pathways.

The museum, called the Imhotep Museum, takes its name from the legendary ancient Egyptian architect, physician, and statesman Imhotep. Renowned as the mastermind behind the iconic Step Pyramid of Djoser, the first stone building in the world, Imhotep is considered to be one of the earliest polymaths in history.

EXHIBITIONS ABROAD: This year, Paris and Sydney fell under the spell of the ancient Egyptians as an exhibition of their treasures was opened in both cities.

The Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition opened in April at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris, where the coffin of the Pharaoh Ramses II was seen abroad for the first time.

The exhibition then opened its doors at the Australian Museum in Sydney in November, selling more than 10,000 tickets before its opening.

The exhibition features 182 invaluable artefacts, including the coffin of King Ramses II, one of the most impressive royal coffins from ancient Egypt ever to be discovered, as well as the timeless beauty of jewellery, funerary masks, amulets, and animal sarcophagi, many of which have never left Egypt before.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: