It’s been a while since news first broke on Egypt’s much anticipated new antiquities museum: the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), which will be the largest archaeological museum in the world. The opening date has been pushed back over a year, but we have heard (by Presidential decree, no less) that it will definitely happen in 2020 – at least a soft opening. If you have visited Cairo’s existing Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, you’ll notice a definite leap from the 19th to the 21st century with this opening. Where the old museum has been a storehouse of treasures, the new one is a $1 billion state-of-the-art, glass and concrete display space that leads guests through a journey similar to Howard Carter’s when he discovered the Boy King’s tomb a century ago. The new location—outside central Cairo, on the Giza plateau on the edge of the Western Desert—looks out at the famous pyramids and adds even more atmosphere.
The GEM was first announced in 1992, partially to deal with what was considered a pretty unsatisfying selection of institutions showcasing Egypt’s inheritance. The location was chosen to get around the issues of moving visitors through central Cairo’s infamous traffic, but Irish architects Heneghan Peng have also addressed visitor overcrowding, poor acoustics and, crucially, conservation threats. There will be more than enough space, as Eltayeb Abbas, the new museum’s head of archaeology, put it, “for us to welcome the world and show them the best of our ancient civilization.” The ambition is huge: officials hope the GEM will immediately attract 5 million visitors a year (roughly the same as the Tate Modern, the U.K.’s most visited attraction) and shortly after, surpass the 7 million annual visitors to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (for the record, ticket cost will be on par with the Met and Louvre, at around $20).
What the Grand Egyptian Museum will look like
The GEM is built on a slope and straddles the 162 foot difference in levels between the Nile valley, where you enter, and the Giza plateau, where the main galleries are situated. There are sculpture gardens in the museum park, while a massive statue of Ramses II greets you upon entry into the main atrium. From here, the Grand Staircase, which leads from valley level to plateau, will be lined with 87 statues of kings and gods.
The main galleries lead left from the staircase and are divided into four eras: pre-dynastic (up to 3100 B.C.) and Old Kingdom (the pyramid builders), Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom (Tutankhamun, Ramses and Co) and Greco-Roman. These chronological galleries are then organized according to themes, unlike in the old museum: Beliefs and Eternity (religion), Kingship and Power (rulers), and Society (the rest of us). At the end, visitors are led right back to tall glass windows, which look out toward the pyramids and drive home the magnificence of Ancient Egypt—the grand finale of a chronological show celebrating one of the world’s greatest civilizations.
To the right of the staircase are the Tutankhamun galleries where, for the first time, the contents of the tomb will be shown in their entirety. There is also a separate children’s museum within the museum, which will use state-of-the-art visual tricks to explain Egypt’s ancient world to kids. An especially cool note about the Tut galleries: the relics are displayed in the exact order that Carter came across them in the tomb.
What to look for
Though each of the dazzling main galleries have enough original and restored works to keep you browsing for the better part of the day, prioritize the Tutankhamun gallery. There were about 1500 items from the boy king’s tomb in the old museum and there are 5400 in the new, but few visitors will spare time to see the entire collection: the gold mask and sarcophagus, the jewels, throne and chariots are the stand-out pieces. And unlike in the old museum, which simply displayed the treasures, here entire narratives have been developed in the designs of many of the galleries, to demonstrate King Tut’s lifestyle, including what and when he ate, and what he might have been wearing.
The pre-dynastic collection, which was limited to just a few items in the old museum, is finally being given some prominence, including gilded elongated figures. The 140-foot-long solar boat, buried beside the Great Pyramid, has been worked into the new displays. And we might finally see the glory of the little-known Middle Kingdom, which kicked off around 2050 B.C. and is considered to some a high point in ancient art, but has been poorly presented until now. A point to focus on is the massive restoration effort from the 17 dedicated on-site labs that went into preserving and restoring these relics, many of which are nearly 5000 years old (keep an eye out for Tut’s colorful, 3500-year-old bejeweled sandals).
When to visit the Grand Egyptian Museum
September to April are the prime months for touring in Egypt, with Christmas and Easter as the busiest periods. All tour groups are expected to visit the GEM, so it is unlikely to ever be empty—although visiting later in the day may be easier. Some of the restaurants are expected to be open 24 hours a day.
How to visit
Unlike the old antiquities museum, the GEM is well-placed for access. It’s close to the Cairo ring road, the freeway circling Cairo’s metropolitan area. It will be connected to the Cairo metro when the new line is completed and, conveniently, can be reached by air: the new Sphinx International Airport, 20 minutes away, will receive international flights, but the main advantage will be the domestic routes, making it an easy day trip from the Red Sea resorts.
Alongside the galleries, there will be eight restaurants, 28 gift shops and a 3-D cinema.
What will happen to the old Egyptian Museum?
It’s being slowly cleaned up, but a major renovation of the 1902 building will be undertaken once everything has been moved to the GEM. The old museum will still house a world-class collection of antiquities, but is likely to be only visited by students, scholars and those of us with a more-than-passing interest in the wonders of this ancient land.