A first look at the Grand Egyptian Museum

Geoffrey Lenox-Smith attends the ‘soft opening’ of Giza’s new blockbuster museum.

The entrance to the GEM is inspired by the triangular theme used throughout the building.

The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) will be a spectacular addition to Egypt’s attractions – when it finally opens. Built close to the Giza pyramids, when finished it will be one of the largest museums in the world. The entire Tutankhamun collection will be housed together for the first time, together with many favourite objects, such as Khufu’s solar boat. The plan is to have three museums in Cairo presenting the treasures of ancient Egypt: the old Cairo Museum in Tahrir Square will remain open; the Royal Mummies can be seen at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation; and the new GEM will showcase a new collection.

Building the GEM has been a challenge. The foundation stone was laid in 2002, with an expected completion date around 2012. However, the various uprisings and COVID-19 pandemic led to repeated delays and, at the time of writing in mid-2023, there is still no official opening date. But in early 2023 the GEM began trialling a ‘soft opening’. Visitors can book a timeslot on the GEM website to attend a tour (in English or Arabic) of the interior atrium of the museum, although with no access to the actual galleries. I wanted to have a look at the GEM, so on my latest trip to Giza I pre-booked a place on the tour.

Things began badly when security told me that no cameras were allowed on the tour. I would have to leave my camera at the front gate and use my elderly phone to take photos. I could not see the logic in this, but I handed my camera in, as did the others on the tour.

The hanging obelisk

The ‘hanging obelisk’ of Ramesses II has been relocated from Tanis.

The tour began at the so-called ‘hanging obelisk’ which has been erected in front of the museum’s entrance. This is an obelisk of Ramesses II found at Tanis in the Delta. When I visited Tanis in 2008, the obelisk was lying on its side, broken into two pieces – but still an impressive sight. The two halves have been rejoined and the complete obelisk erected on top of a four-legged pedestal, which is decorated with the word ‘Egypt’ written in different languages of the world. The idea is that visitors can enter the pedestal and look up to see the base of the obelisk, which is inscribed with the cartouches of Ramesses II. Unfortunately, at the moment, the pedestal is roped off, so you are not able to do this. But I remember seeing them when the bottom half lay on its side in Tanis.

When the museum is fully open, visitors will be allowed to enter the pedestal and look up to see the cartouches on the base of the obelisk.

From the hanging obelisk, the tour proceeded through the entrance of the museum into the large atrium area inside. The decorative theme of the museum is the triangle, as might be expected given the proximity of the Giza pyramids. Around the entrance is an attractive display of kings’ cartouches.

Colossus of Ramesses II from Memphis

The Ramesses II obelisk was originally at Tanis, lying on the ground and broken into two pieces.
A closer view of the entrance, decorated with the cartouches of the kings of Egypt.

A centrepiece of the atrium is a red granite standing colossus of Ramesses II. One of a pair, it was found in 1820 at the Temple of Ptah at Memphis. The statue now in the GEM was first relocated to the front of Cairo’s main railway station, but this site proved to be unsuitable due to pollution and vibrations from heavy traffic. So, in 2006, it was moved to the Giza Plateau, and in 2018 moved again to its current location inside the GEM. The other statue of the pair is in less good condition, with missing feet and base, so it has remained at Memphis and can be viewed today, lying on its back inside a purpose-built building. Each of the statues would originally have stood around 11 metres tall and weighed around 80 tonnes. Inside the GEM, Ramesses stands on an island within a pool of water, recreating the first moment of creation, when order emerged from the watery chaos.

On entering the atrium of the GEM, the visitor is greeted by a standing colossus of Ramesses II from Memphis.

The back pillar of the statue identifies three of the royal names of Ramesses II: the Horus, ‘Strong bull, beloved of Maat’; the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, ‘Strong is the justice of Ra, chosen of Ra’; and the son of Ra, ‘Ramesses, beloved of Amun’.

The back pillar of the colossal statue gives three of the royal names of Ramesses II.

Victory column of Merenptah

This granite column with a limestone base was found at Heliopolis in 1970. It is decorated with scenes of King Merenptah offering to deities, and celebrating his victories against Libyan invaders. The text at the bottom of the column shaft records how, in regnal year 5, Merenptah repelled Libyans who had transgressed the borders of Egypt, confiscating all their possessions, including gold, silver, horses, goats, and bows and arrows.

The victory column of Merenptah.
The shaft of Merenptah’s victory column is inscribed with a text telling how he drove Libyan invaders out of Egyptian territory.
Merenptah offers his cartouches to the god Ra-Horakhty.

Ramesses would be proud to see Merenptah, his son and successor, being remembered next to him. Although Ramesses’ long reign meant that Merenptah was elderly when he finally became king, he successfully campaigned against the Libyans, and in Canaan.

Colossi of a Ptolemaic king and queen

A royal couple dating to the early Ptolemaic Period, from the city of Thonis-Heracleion. The city, north-east of Alexandria, is now submerged under the sea.

Thonis-Heracleion, north-east of Alexandria, was an important city in Late Period Egypt. It was built on a series of islands off the mainland, serving as an important trading port for international trade. Unfortunately, a catastrophic event (possibly an earthquake) submerged the city at the end of the 2nd century BC.

Underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio has been diving to the city ruins since 2000, bringing spectacular finds up to the surface. In 2016, the British Museum held an exhibition – ‘Sunken Cities’ – showcasing many of these finds.

The standing colossi, now in the GEM atrium, were found by Goddio close to the Temple of Amun. Each is of red granite, and around 5 metres tall. The statue of the king (which might represent Ptolemy II) was found in five pieces, but is nearly complete. He wears a simple kilt and the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. The queen’s statue was found in three pieces, and is missing her right shoulder and arm and her left knee. She wears the crown of Hathor/Isis with its cow horns, sun disc, and feathers.

Colossus of Ramesses II from Tanis

The final stop on the tour was the North Court of the GEM to see another colossus of Ramesses II, this time a quartzite statue from Tanis, one of several that adorned the Temple of Amun there. Ramesses wears the white crown of Upper Egypt.

A standing colossus of Ramesses II from Tanis.
Ramesses II’s daughter Merytamun stands between his legs.

Like most of the grand objects at Tanis, this statue would probably have first stood at Pi-Ramesses, the new capital city near Tanis that Ramesses II established. When Pi-Ramesses was later abandoned, its statues and obelisks were relocated to Tanis.

Another daughter of Ramesses, Bintanath, stands behind his legs.

Ramesses liked to give his statues names. On the belt buckle, this statue is called ‘Ramesses, beloved of Amun, great of monuments’. A nice feature is the inclusion of two of Ramesses’ daughters (and later wives): Merytamun, between his legs; and Bintanath, behind his legs.

Final thoughts

Until the GEM opens fully, the best way to visit it is to enrol on the tour of the atrium area. This gives a flavour of just how impressive the museum will be. I look forward to being able to enjoy all the galleries of exhibits, hopefully with my camera in hand, rather than my phone.

Geoffrey Lenox-Smith is a chartered accountant from London who holds the Certificate in Egyptology from Birkbeck, University of London. He makes frequent visits to Egypt and is a regular AE contributor.

All images: Geoffrey Lenox-Smith