St Louis and the City of Angels were seized by Egyptomania this week when the “Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost World” and “Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibitions opened in the cities this week.
The St Louis International Airport, streets, shops, buses and hotels were all plastered with posters of granite colossi of the goddess Isis, the Nile god Hapi, Ptolemaic royal figures and the head of Caesarion, Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar, half buried in the seabed, for the Egypt’s Lost World exhibition.
Others showed divers coming face-to-face with monuments beneath the waves decorating sections of the St Louis Art Museum (SLAM) façade, while a large 3D photograph of one of Napoleon’s sunken vessels dominated the main wall of the museum’s central courtyard and connecting the six grand galleries of the exhibition. St Louis, it felt, had come under the spell of the Ancient Egyptian sunken treasures.
The exhibition displays 293 objects excavated from beneath the Mediterranean. It was inaugurated by Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany and SLAM Director Brent Benjamin in the presence of Egyptian MPs Osama Heikal, head of the Culture, Antiquities and Media Committee, and Sahar Talaat Mustafa, head of the Tourism and Aviation Committee.
Enormous care had been taken in recreating the Alexandrian theme.
The different galleries of the exhibition had been designed to resemble the sunken cities of Heracleion and Canopus in Abu Qir Bay, and all the galleries were painted light blue and dark sandy-red to reflect the colours of the sea and sand.
Giant plasma screens showed films documenting the progress of marine archaeologists as they uncovered the mysteries of Alexandria’s ancient Eastern Harbour within the display theme.
A prologue and an epilogue provided information about the underwater missions of the Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) that discovered the treasures and the natural disasters that had led to the submergence of the area more than 1,000 years ago.
Benjamin had no doubt about the block-busting nature of the show in a city that already boasts one of the world’s finest collections of Egyptian antiquities. “The first exhibition of these Egyptian treasures is one of the cultural highlights of 2018.
This exhibition will attract and enthrall St Louis inhabitants as well as their neighbours,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that he expected one million people to visit the exhibition during its six-month duration.
The museum has permitted only 200 visitors per hour in order to protect the monuments and provide people with a positive experience. “This week, for example, we succeeded in selling 1,000 tickets in only one day,” Benjamin said.
He described the exhibition as “very important for American audiences as it combines both archaeology and underwater aspects at one time. We grew up watching the TV specials of [French diver] Jacques Cousteau, and here they are combined together which makes the exhibition more compelling to Americans,” Benjamin told the Weekly.
He said the exhibition was a good opportunity for those who had not had the chance to visit Egypt, as it gave them an idea of Egypt’s great civilisation. It also encouraged others to visit Egypt. “As the minister said, these exhibitions are good ambassadors of Egypt,” Benjamin said.
Frank Goddio, head of the IEASM and leader of the underwater archaeological missions that recovered the artefacts, said the exhibition was an ideal opportunity to encourage people to visit Egypt and to explore its art and culture.
He told the Weekly that the aim of sending the exhibition to the United States was to open the new discoveries to the widest public and to encourage visitors from the United States.
He explained that the interior design of the exhibition was totally different from earlier outings in Paris and London. It had a different sonography focusing more on museological techniques and history than on a spectacular ambience, he said.
The exhibition is divided thematically. Among the objects on show are three giant pink granite colossi featuring the Nile god Hapi, a statue of a Ptolemaic king, and an unidentified Egyptian queen dressed as Isis.
There is a customs stelae from Heracleion with inscriptions in hieroglyphics and Greek, a black granite sphinx representing king Ptolemy XII, father of the more famous Cleopatra, a head of Serapis and the “Naos of the Decades”, a black granite shrine covered with figures and hieroglyphic texts relating to the ancient calendar.
Pots and pans, knives, forks, bottles and plates are exhibited alongside navigational instruments, cannons, swords and guns from Napoleon’s fleet, sunk by the British admiral Nelson during the naval Battle of Abu Qir off Alexandria in 1798. Golden rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets are also displayed.
This is the exhibition’s fourth leg after its premiere in Paris at the Institut du monde arabe, followed by the British Museum in London, the Riteburg Museum in Zurich, and today in St Louis to start its tour around the United States.
It will then move to Boston and Denver in Colorado. The exhibition’s 293 underwater artefacts were carefully selected from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Museum, and the Graeco-Roman Museum and the Maritime Museum in Alexandria, as well as the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
A bronze statuette of a Pharaoh discovered in the temple of Amun-Gereb in Thonis Heracleion is an undoubted masterpiece. It depicts a Pharaoh in a striding, confident pose wearing the blue crown and royal headdress of Ancient Egypt.
His belt buckle is roughly inscribed with the Pharaoh’s name. “It is difficult to read, but it suggests that the statuette was probably an already ancient object when it was placed in the temple of Amun-Gereb as a symbol of dynastic continuity,” an exhibition curator told the Weekly.
Amun-Gereb was revered as the god who granted the Pharaohs the sacred right to rule, and masterpieces from several Egyptian museums, such as the Apis bull from the Serapeum in Alexandria, are also shown alongside magnificent recent finds from the sea.
One such piece is a stunning sculpture from Canopus representing the eldest daughter of Ptolemy I, founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, Arsinoe II.
This Graeco-Macedonian queen became a goddess beloved to both the Egyptians and the Greeks after her death, and she is depicted in the statue as the embodiment of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of beauty.
Tutankhamun In Los Angeles:
The scene is different in the City of Angels, where the Tutankhamun fever is hitting the city. The facial features of the boy-king can be seen everywhere in the city centre, including in restaurants and residential buildings.
The collection of the young Pharaoh is back, eight years after its last visit in 2005.
On the day of its opening, the California Science Center was transformed into an Ancient Egyptian necropolis, as Egyptian and American officials unveiled the long-heralded exhibition entitled “Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh”.
The opening took attendees back in time to the early 20th century when the tomb was discovered, with strains of oriental music filling the air and waiters wearing appropriate costumes greeting visitors as they made their way to meet the boy-king.
Actors dressed as excavators strode through the crowds carrying equipment to reconstructed archaeological digs, while other characters including fictitious Egyptologists offered to interpret the names of guests in hieroglyphics. Women carrying parasols explained how they whiled away the hours as their husbands searched for Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Before entering the exhibition, visitors enter an immersive environment that begins with a four-minute introductory film on a 180-degree screen meant to transport them to the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor where Tutankamun’s tomb was discovered.
During the nine-gallery exhibition that follows, guests pass through the six gates of the underworld as they travel with the king on his journey to eternity. Along the way, they encounter good-luck amulets, weapons meant to fight off demons, alabaster containers of oils that the Ancient Egyptians believed enabled him to see and hear in the underworld, and figurines of gods meant to guide and protect him.
New 3D scans of objects are animated on video screens on top of display cases, so viewers can zoom in and spin the objects onscreen for an interactive experience.
“There’s a lot more technology in this exhibition when it comes to being able to help tell the story. With these videos, visitors really get to see these objects in a way they have never seen them before,” John Norman, managing director for exhibitions of the IMG company that organised the show, told the Weekly.
For the next nine months, the California Science Center will display 166 magnificent objects from the collection that has captivated American attention since its first tour there in the late 1960s.
Dramatically laid out in nine galleries, it relates the story of one of the most interesting and perplexing kings in Ancient Egyptian history almost 3,300 years ago. Each section showcases the dazzling craftsmanship of ancient artisans that characterised the earlier Tutankhamun exhibition.
California Science Center President Jeff Rudolph said the exhibition used multimedia displays to stimulate interest in the sciences related to archaeology.
Visitors also learn how the scientific analysis of the Pharaoh’s 3,000-year-old mummy had revealed new information about his health and lineage, as well as how cutting-edge archaeological tools were assisting in discovering tombs and analysing existing ones in ways never before imagined, he said.
The last galleries in the show focus on the discovery of the tomb itself and the history of Egyptian archaeology, along with new scientific analysis of the mummy.
This is provided through a video table in the exhibition showing scan data of Tutankhamun’s mummy. The scan is from 2005, but advances in technology have made it possible to glean more information about it, including that Tutankhamun had a club foot and an impacted wisdom tooth.
New DNA testing shows that the young Pharaoh also suffered from malaria and had a badly broken left leg above the knee that pierced his skin. This likely resulted in the infection that caused his death.
The exhibition also takes visitors through the afterlife, visualising it through objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb. It combines technology, music and animation in novel ways.
“We have used a lot of technology in the exhibition,” Norman asserted, describing it as “a very theatrical experience”. He said that each gallery space had its own music to ground viewers in Ancient Egypt and provide context for the exhibition.
Osama Heikal, head of the Culture, Antiquities and Media Committee in the Egyptian parliament, praised the exhibition design and displays, leading him to describe it as “efficient and spectacular”.
“The exhibition is very well designed, with a special lighting system that shows the importance of the objects as well as their skillful craftsmanship,” Heikal said, wishing that Egyptian curators could gain more experience in the field.
Sahar Talaat Mustafa, head of the Tourism and Aviation Committee, said that the centre had sold more than 100,000 tickets, mostly through word of mouth.
Tutankhamun may be making some pop-up appearances around Los Angeles, she said, adding that according to the centre director, all the 3,500 tickets available for the first day had been sold. The centre had had to extend its official opening hours for more than three hours, she said.
The most important artefacts on show include a 40cm gold coffin, the gold diadem from Tutankhamun’s mummy, a gold fan featuring an ostrich hunt, a small gold canopic coffin ornamented with faience, a silver trumpet used for religious ceremonies, a gilded wooden statuette depicting the king riding a black varnished leopard, four marble canopic jars, and a gilded wooden jackal-headed figurine with the god Duamutef on the base.
There is a wooden travelling chest with gilded knobs inlaid with ebony and ivory, gold finger rings with images of the god Amun-Re on a cartouche-shaped bezel, a marble game board, and tapestry woven linen gloves.
Curator Abdel-Ghaffar Wagdi, who is accompanying the exhibition, said it was protected by a state-of-the-art security system installed in the galleries and inside every showcase. This was connected to an alarm system that rings if any unusual behaviour occurs, he said.
He said that the Ministry of Antiquities had full supervision not only over the artefacts, but also over the number of visitors per hour. It monitored visitor attitudes and the level of humidity inside the galleries and the showcases during the exhibition.
“No one can remove, rearrange or change the display of any object unless with my permission,” Wagdi said.
He added that every object had its own printed ticket and every showcase had its own serial code on its surface. If for any reason a showcase had to be opened, this could only be done in the presence of security guards.
“The exhibition features the finest treasures of Ancient Egypt and offers visitors the experience of a world of artefacts they might otherwise never see,” he said.
“People of all ages have an enduring fascination for Tutankhamun. And now a new generation will discover the wonders of the Pharaoh,” El-Enany said in his speech opening the exhibition.
He said there was a love story between America and Tutankhamun that had started in 1961 when some of his collection made its world premiere tour to the United States.
“The exhibition arrives in Los Angeles for the fourth time as a message of peace from the Egyptians to the Americans to show how the Ancient Egyptians built their own great civilisation with passion, faith, love, knowledge and art,” El-Enany said. He said that the exhibition came as part of the policy of the
Ministry of Antiquities to resume sending temporary exhibitions abroad. Three temporary exhibitions were officially opened this month: the World of the Fatimids in Toronto, the Sunken Cities in St Louis, and Tutankhamun in Los Angeles, he said.
“These exhibitions allow humanity to admire our treasures and encourage visitors to come to see the fascinating monuments in their original context in Egypt,” he said.
He invited the American audiences to come to Egypt to admire its wonderful monuments and to explore the 5,000 objects in the Tutankhamun collection that will be on display at the Grand Egyptian Museum in less than a year.
Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti highlighted the friendship between Egypt and Los Angeles in his speech at the exhibition. He said a sister-ship agreement between Cairo and Los Angeles had been underway, but had been stopped in 2011. He now expected it to continue.
Egypt’s Minister of Tourism Rania Al-Mashat said the exhibition would raise the number of Americans visiting Egypt, as it did in 2005. “After this splendid inauguration, we are expecting to receive more American visitors in Egypt this year, as cultural tourism is one of the most important elements of Egypt’s tourist policy,” she said.
Egyptologist Zahi Hawass said the treasures on show were among the world’s greatest cultural legacies.
The Tutankhamun exhibition which toured the world in the 1970s gave birth to the trend for blockbuster exhibitions, he said, its tour of seven US cities from 1976 to 1979 attracting more than eight million visitors. This time organisers expect an even greater number that will break previous attendance records.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly