Egypt’s new £889 million museum is fit for a pharaoh

The Grand Egyptian Museum is a monumental showcase for all 5,000 of Tutankhamun's treasures—and a symbol of a nation that has reclaimed its past.

By Tom Mueller
Published 19 Oct 2022, 15:11 BST
A 3,200-year-old statue of Ramses the Great dominates the atrium of the new Grand Egyptian Museum, ...
A 3,200-year-old statue of Ramses the Great dominates the atrium of the new Grand Egyptian Museum, popularly known as the GEM, on the outskirts of Cairo. Two decades in the making at an estimated cost of more than a billion dollars, the facility brings together for the first time nearly all 5,000-plus artifacts from King Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic

It’s an unusual museum director who wears camouflage clothing and combat boots to work, but Maj. Gen. Atef Moftah isn’t your typical museum director, and the Grand Egyptian Museum isn’t your typical museum. Seen from a distance, the sprawling, postmodern GEM, as it’s called, is so huge that it’s hard to make sense of. Its jutting, prowlike lines resemble an enormous ship run aground in the desert. Closer up, the museum’s exterior is covered in pyramid motifs, echoing the Pyramids at Giza that rise little more than a mile away. The design may be disorienting, but the message is clear: This is a museum fit for a pharaoh.

An engineer by training, General Moftah is compact and erect, with close-cropped hair, a swift gait, and a take-charge manner, though his kindly expression and self-effacing humour don’t fit my stereotype of a military leader. Nor does his calm demeanour square with the intense pressure he’s under.

The GEM is a signature project of the Egyptian government, a monumental undertaking begun 20 years ago that, because of the Arab Spring uprisings and the COVID-19 pandemic, is many years behind schedule. In a nation highly dependent on tourism revenue, and where archaeology and politics are deeply entwined, General Moftah and his staff are under orders to ensure that the GEM is a resounding success.

Egypt’s wealth of antiquities increases with every excavation, including this dig in the shadow of the Pyramids at Giza. The new GEM, located within sight of the famous monuments, celebrates the country’s rich cultural heritage as never before.
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic

As we walk across the broad esplanade toward the museum’s entrance, the general gestures toward the towering tombs in the distance, shimmering in the heat. A pedestrian walkway is under construction to link the museum area with the pyramids. “It will be longer than the Champs-Élysées or the Rambla,” he says.

Turning to the museum, General Moftah reviews its statistics: 484,000 square feet of floor space, 12 exhibition halls, 100,000 artefacts, total cost of more than £889 million pounds – a cool billion U.S. dollars. “And we are 99 percent finished!” he declares, clapping his hands in satisfaction.

The GEM fits the scale and theatrics of other recent archaeological projects sponsored by the Egyptian government, including the reopening of the Avenue of Sphinxes, in Luxor, and the inauguration of major new museum spaces in Sharm el Sheikh, Cairo, Hurghada, and elsewhere.

Many of Tut’s treasures, including this figurine, were kept until recently at the cramped Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which opened in 1902. Artifacts long hidden in storage will be displayed at the GEM, some for the first time.
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic

In April 2021, during a flamboyant, state-sponsored event branded the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade, 22 royal mummies were placed on customised vehicles tricked out to evoke ancient funeral barges. The vehicles moved in grand style from the old Egyptian Museum, through the streets of Cairo, to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation. On arrival, they were greeted by President Abdel Fattah el Sisi and received a 21-gun salute.

“The mummy parade really helped raise awareness among Egyptians,” says Khaled al Anani, the former minister of tourism and antiquities. “It told us that we all belong to a great civilisation, that we respect our ancestors. The Grand Egyptian Museum will send the same messages in powerful new ways: pride, respect, unity, strength.”

Hussein Kamal (center, without mask), director of the GEM’s state-of-the-art conservation labs, briefs a team of conservators on aspects of Tutankhamun’s outer coffin. “You can’t find an Egyptian without a passion for archaeology,” says Kamal. “We’ve all been born in or near archaeological sites.”
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic

Formerly separate entities in the national government, the ministries of tourism and antiquities were merged in 2019—much to the dismay of some Egyptologists, who say archaeology has become tourism’s handmaiden. The GEM also has its critics. Some worry the museum will cater more to foreign visitors and their money than to ordinary Egyptians. Others say the huge structure is ugly—like a graceless series of aircraft hangars—and that it will be dreadfully expensive to cool and illuminate.

But as General Moftah and I step out of the fierce sunlight into the museum’s soaring atrium, my doubts fade. The play of light and shadow created by the layered metal mesh roof is dramatic and ever changing. The pyramid motifs that seemed tacky on the exterior are somehow elegant here, variations on an eternal theme. The ceiling rises so high that a statue of Ramses the Great (the leading candidate for the pharaoh of the Bible) seems unremarkable—until you approach close enough to realise that it’s a 36-foot-tall colossus.

From the central atrium, broad staircases lined with statues of pharaohs ascend to the 12 exhibition halls. With a laser pointer, General Moftah indicates the shallow pool in the granite floor where cooling water will soon splash. He points to decorative cartouches and squares of golden alabaster on the walls, and explains the avant-garde lighting system.

Egyptian excavators, some with skills and positions passed down for generations, give attention to their crew leader at a dig site on the Giza Plateau, outside Cairo. A century ago, Egyptian participation in archaeology was limited mostly to manual labor, but that began to change when Egypt won its independence from Britain and insisted that no artifacts from King Tut’s tomb would go to foreign museums or collectors.
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic

Then he turns and zaps his beam up one of the staircases. “And that is where Tutankhamun lives,” he says. Two exhibition halls are devoted entirely to Egypt’s most famous pharaoh and will display, for the first time, nearly all of the more than 5,000 objects discovered in his tomb. When I request a sneak peek, General Moftah smiles and shakes his head. “Out of the question. President El Sisi’s orders. Nobody enters until the inauguration.”

I thank the general for his time, then head to the GEM’s state-of-the-art conservation labs, which were the first part of the museum to open in 2010. Priceless pieces from Tutankhamun’s tomb are being cleaned and restored before being put on display.

At one station, a conservator is examining the black resin on Tut’s massive outer coffin. At another, Ahmed Abdrabou, an expert in gilded wooden artefacts, is restoring an elegant chariot in elm wood that is a masterpiece of joiner’s art. “For a young Egyptian, it’s such an honour to see many treasures from Tutankhamun’s tomb come through our laboratories,” he says. “Month after month, our heritage passes before me.”

Other restorers, mostly women in headscarves and face masks, work at benches around the perimeter of the room. I pause with Manar Hafez, who wears surgical gloves and holds something like a dental tool, and ask about the war shield she’s restoring. As we talk, she gently runs her fingers over the ancient wood, as if caressing a child. “This was like a dead body when I first saw it—all in pieces, no identity,” she says. “Slowly, slowly, I have seen it come back to life. Sometimes it feels like my daughter.”

Still wrapped like mummies after their move to the GEM from sites across Egypt, statues of pharaohs and gods surround Maj. Gen. Atef Moftah, the museum’s director. In 2016 Moftah, an engineer by training, was appointed by Egypt’s president to oversee work on the long-delayed museum, originally scheduled to open in 2011.
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic

Summer in upper Egypt makes excavating a very unpleasant, even dangerous, business. At 10 in the morning, as I leave the shade of date palms along the Nile and drive into the sun-seared desert beyond, the temperature already is nearing 100°F (38°C). Yet a team of Egyptian archaeologists is hard at work in the so-called Lost Golden City, an amazingly well-preserved site that is ancient Egypt’s version of Pompeii.

Excavation leader Afifi Rohim Afifi guides me down a path that was a bustling city street decades before Tutankhamun’s time. “I almost expect to see an ancient Egyptian turn the corner and walk toward me,” he says. Local workers have helped him decipher features he’s uncovering, such as the matraha, a wooden tool for cooking bread, and the manama, a low-ceilinged room for sleeping. “ ‘We still use these in our village,’ they tell me,” Afifi says. “They feel a strong spiritual connection to this place and want to keep working even after the season ends.”

Archaeological projects led by Egyptians have multiplied during the past decade. The shift to local leadership was accelerated by the pandemic, which grounded air travel and halted most fieldwork by foreign archaeologists. Egyptians stepped in to fill the void, and today they lead more than 40 archaeological missions throughout the country.

As with the Lost Golden City, many of those sites are producing remarkable discoveries and a wealth of artifacts: 30 painted coffins in Luxor; 40 mummies in Tuna el Gebel, a major necropolis near Minya; and an enormous haul from Saqqara, including 250 painted wood sarcophagi, 150 bronze statuettes, and scores of mummies and statues of cats, mongooses, crocodiles, and ibises.

Today’s custodians of Egypt’s cultural heritage include Mohamed Megahed, who oversees the pyramid complex of Pharaoh Djedkare at Saqqara. The ancient burial ground has been the site of many finds in recent years.
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic
Egyptologist Yasmin el Shazly spent years curating priceless antiquities, such as this bust of Tutankhamun, at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. “I used to be completely overwhelmed by these pieces,” she says. “I still feel their power.”
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic
When the pandemic kept most foreign archaeologists at home, Mostafa Waziri, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, hired locals to carry on the work, greatly increasing the number of digs overseen by Egyptians.
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic
Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, examines a tiny coffin made for a mummified shrew. “For the ancient Egyptians,” she says, “no animal was too small to be ignored, and each occupied a very particular place in the cosmos.”
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic

Egyptian authorities are proud of this spate of discoveries and the media attention it’s attracted. Every new find is free publicity for Egypt and its travel industry, says Zahi Hawass, the former minister of antiquities.

Some Egyptologists are less enthusiastic, however. “Right now, all the stress is on gold, on treasures, on secrets, and on people in Indiana Jones hats, all of which appeal to the Western audience,” says Monica Hanna, acting dean of the College of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage at the Arab Academy in Aswan. “This is treasure hunting, not real scientific archaeology.”

Even so, Hanna echoes the glowing comments I heard from Khaled al Anani and other officials about the parade of royal mummies and the interest it has stirred among Egyptians.

“Thousands and thousands of Egyptians contacted us, asking for books on ancient Egypt,” Hanna says. “People were eager to learn more about their ancestors. But there are no books in Arabic on the pharaohs, or even on Tutankhamun. So, in a way, most Egyptians feel estranged from their past. How can they fully understand and engage with their history when they can’t access the knowledge about it?”

Egyptologist Monica Hanna has been leading the charge against looting of ancient sites across the country, even confronting armed looters herself. She hopes the GEM will be a museum that “speaks to Egyptians, that shows them how they are descendants of this great civilization, and how they can relate to and identify with their past.”
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic

A 15-minute drive from the Lost Golden City takes me to the Valley of the Kings, site of Tutankhamun’s tomb. More of Egypt’s new generation of archaeologists are at work here, and Zahi Hawass has invited me to meet his team of young excavators. When I arrive, Fathy Yaseen and his colleagues usher me into a tomb they’re using as a workshop and storage area. They show me the 700 amulets, statuettes, and ostraca, each carefully cataloged, that they’ve unearthed recently in deposits near Tutankhamun’s tomb. As we talk, they remember their more spectacular finds of the past and muse about what the coming season may bring. Then they walk me toward the stairs leading down to Tutankhamun’s tomb.

“Whatever we find, it probably won’t be like this,” Yaseen says with a wry smile.

Descending the 16 steps, the desert heat and brilliance fading to a memory, it’s hard not to hear the footfalls of history: Tut’s burial party; the tomb robbers; Howard Carter and George Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon; the throngs of visitors drawn here over the past century. At the bottom, I pass through the remains of the wall Carter and Lord Carnarvon broke down on that fateful day a century ago and stand in the first of the tomb’s four rooms, which Carter called the antechamber. The wall frescoes are still bright, despite some discolouration caused by long-dead microbes. On the north wall, Tut is embraced by Osiris, god of the underworld. To the south, the goddess Hathor holds an ankh, symbol of life, to Tut’s lips.

A team of geneticists led by Yehia Gad (second from left) examines the mummy of an unidentified boy in the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep II. A pioneer in the DNA analysis of ancient mummies, Gad is studying samples from King Tutankhamun and his extended family, looking for clues to their ancestral ties and genetic maladies.
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic

Once, parts of this tomb were packed so densely with splendid objects that the excavators had to dangle from ropes attached to the ceiling to avoid trampling them. Now all those artefacts reside in the GEM, some 400 miles away. The one exception is the hulking sarcophagus carved from a single block of quartzite, which once contained Tut’s three nested coffins. At almost five feet tall and weighing untold thousands of pounds, the sarcophagus evidently was too much trouble to remove. Four stone goddesses stand at the corners, wrapping their graceful wings protectively around it. Nothing else remains of Tut’s treasures.

Tutankhamun’s mummy is still here, however. Tucked away in a corner of the tomb, in a climate-controlled glass box, the young king lies beneath a white coverlet. His face, wizened by the ages, is a far cry from the golden death mask he once wore, with its iconic, self-assured smile, sly as the Mona Lisa.

For the field of Egyptology, this tomb represents a unique resource. As an icon of ancient Egypt, a symbol of the current government, and a magnet for hard currency, Tut possesses star power that remains undimmed. Yet the boy king seems forlorn here in this tomb, stripped of his treasures, deprived of all that ancient Egyptians believed he would need in the afterlife.

Winged goddesses protect each corner of Tutankhamun’s stone sarcophagus—which, along with his mummy, remains in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Other Egyptian royals are known to have been buried in the valley, but their graves haven’t been located, raising a tantalizing question: Are there more tombs like Tut’s to be discovered?
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic

Still, Tutankhamun would probably be pleased at how his saga is playing out. Egyptians believed that a person’s being was composed of many layers, each of which fared differently in the next world. The khat, or physical body, was thought eventually to decompose to dust, despite elaborate mummification rites. The ba was the deceased’s unique character or personality, often depicted as a falcon with a human head. The ka was the life force that required food and drink after death.

A particularly important layer was the ren, or name. The Egyptians obsessively repeated the names of their famous dead in inscriptions, prayers, spells, and funerary text, believing that by doing so the deceased was in some sense revived. If the name was forgotten, the dead person’s soul would be lost for eternity—a much feared second death.

Down here in Tutankhamun’s tomb, his khat has seen better days, and about his ba and ka, I can’t say for sure. But his ren is sitting pretty. No pharaoh has been named as often and as joyfully over the past hundred years as Tutankhamun. It seems a safe bet that the boy king who once was a historical footnote will live forever in our imaginations.

Longtime contributor Tom Mueller has lived or worked in 48 countries. Paolo Verzone has photographed dinosaur bones, biblical manuscripts, and other treasures for National Geographic.

This story appears in the November 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.


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