Egypt Feature Story
by Zahraa Adel Awed
Notation: Zahraa Adel Awed is a licensed Travel Guide living in Alexandria who frequently assists people who visit our Forum system, and who operates our Alexandria News Blog
As the principal anchorage of the Hellenic Empire, the Ptolemaic capital and Egypt's second largest metropolis, the Mediterranean port of Alexandria has always been a center of cultural significance. Celebration of this has been a big part of Alexandria's recent development, and these days there is the Alexandria National Museum, a splendid facility that documents Alex's rich heritage.
The Alexandria National Museum has grown in importance these days, and is now considered one of Egypt's finest museums. It was inaugurated by President Hosni Mubarak on December 31st, 2003, and is one more addition to the reasons one should visit this grand old city. The national museum is located in a restored palace and contains about 1,800 artifacts that narrate the history of Alexandria throughout the ages, including the Pharaonic, Roman, Coptic and Islamic eras. There are even some more modern pieces, including 19th century glassware, silverware, chinaware and precious jewels, which provide a sense of the richness of the court of Mohammed Ali and his descendants. Mummies are shown in a special underground chamber (basement). Also, some of the items found during the archaeological underwater excavations in Alexandria are now on the same floor as the Greco-Roman artifacts.
The museum is housed in the old Al-Saad Bassili Pasha Palace. He was one of the wealthiest wood merchants in Alexandria during his lifetime. It is located on Fouad Street (Tariq al-Horreyya), near the center of the city. Construction on the site was first undertaken in 1926. The palace covers an area of 3,480 square meters,. It is a white Italian-style mansion that sits in an expansive garden of rare trees and plants. The palace consists of four floors and an underground shelter, which was used during World War II air raids. The palace was designed by a French engineer who used the Italian styles in its construction. His three-store palace was a gathering place for the upper class people of Egyptian society in Alexandria, including notables such as Egypts former Prime Ministers, Ismail Sedqi Pasha and Ali Maher Pasha, along with many others. This villa was sold to the Americans as a consulate in 1960, and thereafter in 1997, was purchased by the Ministry of Culture for about 12 million LE. Its conversion to a museum, including up to date audiovisual equipment, security and fire protection, cost another 18 million LE. In the preparation of the Alexandria National Museum, the highest of standards has been adopted, especially in display techniques and in the design of educational and cultural galleries.
The recent realization that Egypt's museums were originally made not to assume an educational and cultural role, but rather to function as buildings for storing antiquities had led the Ministry of Culture to begin transforming them into places which transmit to the visitor a cultural message about the varied creative products of the Egyptian civilization. The Alexandria National Museum is the first of its kind in Egypt. It is the only one which narrates the history of the people of Alexandria through antiquity.
Passing through the main gate, one mounts an elegant semi-rounded staircase in view of a life-size Graeco-Roman Period marble statue of a toga-clad matron. Crossing a small but luxuriously decorated foyer with two rows of speckled grey marble columns, one enters the museum proper.
Within, one willl find symbolic colors used, just as they were during Pharaonic time, in a specific arrangement. One will notice that the Pharaonic section itself features dark blue walls. This color is meant to portray the journey of the ancient Egyptians to their eternal afterlife. In the Graeco-Roman Period section, objects are set against a sky-blue (marble color) colored backdrop, reflecting romance and a lust for life. As Copts and Muslims share beliefs concerning heaven, the sections reserved for artifacts from these religious traditions are painted green.
The artifacts within the museum's collection have not been exhibited in the past. They were previously in storage in various other Egyptian museums, and therefore come from the Egyptian Antiquity Museum and the Coptic and Islamic Museums in Cairo. Others are from the Graeco-Roman and Jewelry museums in Alexandria, which are closed nowadays for renovation.
Items from the Pharaonic Period span each critical period, including the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms. Among the masterpieces on display is a statue of King Menkaure, the builder of the third pyramid at Giza, a head of a statue of Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV) and a head of Hatshepsut, the great female pharaoh of Egypt. There is also a fine statue of a scribe and several statuettes of servants depicted in the midst of daily activities. There are also a number of offering tables, building tools and statues of deities.
In addition, there is a replica of a tomb, similar to those in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at Luxor (ancient Thebes), that contains one mummy along with genuine funerary equipment. These items include canopic jars, an anthropoid sarcophagi containing the mummy, ushabti figures and the deceaseds private possessions. The tomb is meant to provide an overview of the Ancient Egyptian concept of burial and the afterlife.
Alexandria was a Graeco-Roman city of great splendor, and there is no scarcity of objects from this period. Among the most noteworthy are the beautifully painted terra-cotta Tanagra figurines of fashionably dressed Greek women. The figurines stand motionless with styled looks, wearing hats or veils, and holding children, fans or pets.
From the Roman Period, displays include busts of the Emperor Hadrian and a red granite statue of Caracala. The collection also includes reports from pioneering scientific studies on the human body undertaken in Alexandria, complete with marble hands, legs and torsos.
A highlight of the museum is a display (on the Graeco-Roman floor) of artifacts raised during underwater excavations around Alexandria in recent years. To provide a comprehensive look at this new branch of archaeology, huge posters feature activities from various underwater sites over the last few years. Here, one finds some of the most important pieces raised from the sea bed, including a black basalt statue of a high priest in a temple of the goddess Isis, lifted in 1998, a 2.2 meter granite statue of Isis found in May 2001. There is also the granite stela of King Nakhtnebef, which is an identical copy of the Naucratis stela, discovered in the sunken city of Heraklion offshore from Abuqir.
The floor devoted to Coptic and Islamic items has a variety of objects from Egypt's two most prominent religious traditions. Coptic Christian items include icons of Jesus and the Virgin Mary and the Last Supper, as well as tombstones and clothes decorated with golden and silver crosses. Among the Islamic objects are a collection of 162 gold and silver coins minted in Alexandria, a number of metal incense burners, chandeliers, decorated pottery, doors and mashrabiya windows inset with geometrical ivory ornamentation.
Finally, the lives of Egypt's former royal family is revealed in a collection of magnificent jewelry, bejeweled gold and silver awards, watches, crystal glasses and vases, not to mention gold-plated handbags, rings, necklaces and bracelets.
No modern museum is complete without its high-tech restoration laboratory for antiquities and electronic security system to preserve them, and this museum is no exception. Also, a hall in the basement has been transformed into an audio-visual workshop in which visitors can tour the museum via computer programs that display every item in the museum from a variety of angles. Use has been made of every available space.
The old garage for the American Consulate's staff has been converted into a lecture hall and an open air theater for evening performances. The open-air theater can accommodate an audience of about 800, while the lecture auditorium holds about 150 people.
Note that this museum allows cameras, but flashes may not be used. A camera permit costing 30 LE is required.