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Museum for a demi-god
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 04 - 2006

EGYPT'S first site museum is to be opened today by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak and Bernadette Chirac, wife of French President Jacque Chirac, during their two-day visit to Egypt by invitation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Nevine El-Aref previewed the Imhotep Museum built at Saqqara in commemoration of the ancient Egyptian architect Imhotep and the renowned French Egyptologist Jean Philip Lauer.
The museum complex, with its gleaming white marble façade, stands at the foot of the Saqqara Plateau. The complex, three years in the building on a budget of LE20 million, offers a new perspective on site museums and could set an example for others planned by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) at other archaeological sites.
According to the site management programme launched by the SCA four years ago, such complexes will offer highly efficient storage space and will replace the haphazard storehouses which were regularly subject to theft. The artefacts will be housed in a suitable atmosphere to prevent deterioration.
The idea of such museum was floated in 1990, but the location chosen would have distorted the landscape and was considered inappropriate. The project was kept under wraps until 1997, when construction began on a new site. The building was completed in 2003, and suitable objects were then brought for display from archaeological storehouses at Saqqara and Abusir.
The complex includes seven tourist bazaars, a bookshop and a two- level cafeteria. There is also a visitor's centre which as preparation for the tour has a model of the site, including Djoser's Step Pyramid, and shows a 15-minute documentary film of Saqqara's history.
The museum's six galleries tell the story of the Saqqara necropolis, the intricacies of Imhotep's architectural style, and Lauer's devotion to the restoration of the Step Pyramid. On entering the main gallery the visitor confronts the solid base of the statue of the Third-Dynasty King Djoser on which are inscribed the name and titles of Imhotep. The base is on a four-month loan from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Four graphics show different styles of architecture before and after Imhotep's time, along with panels on Lauer and Djoser.
The second gallery displays masterpieces unearthed at Saqqara by various archaeological missions over the last century. Among those are a collection of clay and alabaster vessels in various shapes, statues of deities, anthropoid painted coffin cased with gold, as well as medical instruments from the tomb of Qar the physician, a Late Period statue of Pharaoh Psammatik, two funerary stelae -- one of which bears the name of Pharaoh Necho -- and a large collection from the Aperia tomb.
The third gallery, entitled "Saqqara Style", displays the various styles of art found in the history of Saqqara in an exhibition of vessels, stelae, statues, instruments and tools used by the ancient Egyptians to build their colossal monuments.
Visitors will then go through to the largest gallery, conceived to exhibit examples of Imhotep's distinguished architectural style. This contains elements from the Step Pyramid including columns, some blue-tiled walls, a panel of cobra decorations, a headless statue of Djoser and the so-called Snake Pillar from Teti's burial complex. The masterpiece of this gallery is a small bronze statue showing Imhotep seated and holding a papyrus stem.
To give visitors an idea of a typical Saqqara tomb, a tomb with a sarcophagus, boat and some funerary collection is exposed in situ. Objects featuring various schools of funerary art can also be seen.
The final gallery is dedicated to Lauer. On show are some of his excavation tools, his hat, safari suit, camera and compass. On the wall are photographs of Lauer working on the site or guiding heads of states on official visits to Saqqara.
Saqqara's precious artefacts have been transferred from their cramped, musty mud-brick magazines to two enormous state-of-the- art storehouses behind the museum. An administrative building for SCA employees and a residential complex for archaeological missions are also included in the complex.
"This is really what a site museum could be," SCA Secretary- General Zahi Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that when he took office four years ago several such museum projects had been put on hold for technical and financial reasons. However, since he believed that these projects would preserve and protect Egypt's treasures, as well as add new tourist attractions to famous sites, he enlisted the support of Culture Minister Farouk Hosni to revitalise the scheme.
Hawass said Imhotep's site museum complex was the first in the series. "As well as being the most important area of the so-called Memphis Necropolis, [Saqqara] is considered the richest archaeological site in the world, exhibiting monuments from different ancient Egyptian eras," he said.
Hosni described the new museum as a great example and a living memorial to Egypt's ancient civilisation. He said such complexes would benefit Egypt by preserving and protecting its priceless artefacts as well as putting the country on the international museum level.
The project director of the SCA, Ali Helal, said that within the framework of the Saqqara development project all the buildings that disturbed the panorama of the plateau would be demolished and removed to the museum's backyard. In addition, he continued, a wall would eventually separate the administrative and residential area from the archaeological zone.
One person who has worked hard on the project is engineer Abdel-Hamid Qutb, who said the completion of the complex had been no easy task. Every day for the last six months, from early morning to dusk, more than 50 workmen, archaeologists and engineers have been on site adding the final touches. Qutb sees the project as another success for the Ministry of Culture and the SCA in the preservation of Egypt's heritage.
Commenting on the project, art consultant Mahmoud Mabrouk said Imhotep, the brilliant architect of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, should be universally remembered. "He is the one who transformed the construction of the king's tomb from a mastaba to a pyramid, and for the first time used stone in the construction," he said. The Step Pyramid was the first large-scale structure to be built of stone.
A commoner by birth, Imhotep's intelligence and determination enabled him to rise through the ranks to become one of the king's most trusted advisers. He eventually held the offices of High Priest of Heliopolis and Lector Priest, making him a very powerful and influential man whose name was given the great honour of being inscribed on the base of one of Djoser's statues.


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