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Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Date of Submission: 01/02/2021
Criteria: (iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Egypt to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Cairo Governorate
Coordinates: N30 02 52 E31 14 00
Ref.: 6511

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Located in the heart of Tahrir Square, Cairo, the Egyptian Museum is a unique building designed to host the world's oldest collection of Pharaonic art and monuments. Built on an area of 13,600 sq. meters, with more than 100 exhibition halls, the museum is a product of a competition launched by the Egyptian Government in 1895 and thus it is considered the first national museum in the Middle East. The original collection, established in the late 19th century, was previously housed at a building in Bulaq. Afterwards it was transferred to the palace of Ismail Pasha in Giza, until its definitive resting place was completed. Several design projects were proposed, but the one presented by the French architect Marcel Dourgnon was chosen as the winner. The cornerstone was laid on 1st April 1897 at Tahrir Square by the Italian company of Giuseppe Garozzo and Francesco Zaffrani. Due to the fact that the competition was specifically created to find the most practical design and architecture strategy for hosting a vast exhibition of antiquities, the Egyptian Museum became the first purpose-built museum edifice in the region, setting a precedent for many other museological institutions that were to emerge during the 20th century.

Besides the site’s original and avant-garde design concept, the building carries an enormous scientific value, since it is considered the museum with the largest ancient Egyptian collection in the world, and has thus always been the flagship of museums for the study, research, conservation, and exhibition practices related to ancient Egypt and the influence it exerted on many other historical civilizations. The Museum displays an extensive collection spanning from prehistory up to the Graeco-Roman period. The museum originally contained a library, conservation laboratories, and an extra piece of land that extends to the Nile-bank, that later became the headquarters of the National Democratic Party, which was burnt down during the 2011 revolution. This land used to provide the museum with direct access to the Nile.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Museums are institutions regarded as centres for education, research and leisure. Throughout the whole 20th century, they have grown to become one of the most indispensable spaces for cultural exchange and dialogue in our societies, as well as for the conservation and preservation of historic, scientific and artistic items. Although the idea of collecting extraordinary or ancient artefacts for contemplation and/or learning is not new, the concept of designing a building in which specific elements (such as organisation of space, lighting, ventilation, etc.) are thought out precisely for the purpose of exhibiting those artefacts is relatively recent. Before the construction of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir, many international museums, such as the Louvre Museum, the Britsh Museum, and many other major museums were housed/located within historic palaces and buildings, while the Egyptian Museum was designed specifically to house a large collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. While it is not the first purpose-built museum in the world, it is the first in the Middle East and North Africa, and certainly the earliest one dedicated entirely to the ancient Egyptian civilization.

Besides the design and structural aspects of the building, the tangible heritage that is housed within its walls is universally recognized and fundamental in the development, since the end of the 19th century, of the field of Egyptology. The contributions of ancient Egypt to modern civilization are undeniable, and the Egyptian Museum played a very important role in the unveiling of many mysteries about ancient Egypt. Egyptologists from all over the world consider it to be their second home. No research on ancient Egypt would be complete without multiple visits to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Criterion (iv): Through the competition established in 1895, the French architect Marcel Dourgnon was able to come up with a model of a building which was not only original but one that became an important reference for museum design. Besides its beautiful 19th century Beaux-Arts architecture, his project was chosen as the winner because of some specific elements that have proven their functionality and genius.

The building consists of a basement and two floors. The main façade divides the museum into two identical parts, which is useful for managing the flux of visitors. The basement consists of a number of intersecting vaults supported by pillars and bearer walls designed to lessen the heavy load created by the huge objects above. Therefore, it is the perfect place for storing the museum's major antiquities. uncovered during archaeological excavations. The first floor consists of one large corridor and 51 halls, while the second floor consists of one large corridor and 55 halls. Those were purposely designed with the idea of improving the arrangement and distribution of the artefacts along the space. It is designed as a sequence of rectangular and circular spaces from east to west, with a rotunda in the centre, located right after the museum’s main entrance. These are double-height rooms topped by a skylight and connected by an outer and inner ring gallery on both floors, which surrounds the whole edifice.

The double-height rooms, with mezzanines and sunlight penetrating through a glass ceiling, gave Dourgnon an edge over his competitors in the eyes of the jury, since these distinctive architectural features allow natural light to sufficiently illuminate the two-floor building, enhancing the viewing potential of what’s on display. Moreover, the ventilation system was designed to allow the natural flow of air and wind without the need for further additions. In constructing the museum, attention was paid to ensuring ease of movement and smooth access between the various sections.The visitor enters the museum through a handsome porch in the center of the main facade. A well-proportioned archway is flanked by two Ionic columns and decorated with a head of the goddess Isis. Set into the wall on either side are two high-relief female figures representing Upper and Lower Egypt (the Nile Valley and the delta). Likewise, adorning the facade are marble panels inscribed with the names of prominent Egyptologists and other individuals who contributed to the preservation of Egypt's antiquities

Unlike his competitors, Marcel Dourgnon did not design the museum as a duplicate of an ancient Egyptian tomb. On the contrary, he proposed a conceptual building to house the precious artefacts without obscuring them. By combining practical needs with aesthetics, the Egyptian Museum became a prototype of design, organization of space and exhibition method for many museums around the world, wonderfully illustrating the ideals of education and conservation of artefacts.

Thus, Egypt’s first state museum owes its fame not only to its rich contents but also to its splendid architecture, which is also a manifestation of the western imperialism that characterized the time in which it was constructed. The building is designed in a Beaux Arts, neo-classical design that closely met the requirements outlined in the competition programme. The façade includes images of Egyptian goddesses, yet they are executed in the late classical Greek style. The inscriptions on the marble panels are in Latin, which most Egyptians could not read, and for a long time, the only busts that were included adjacent to the sarcophagus of Mariette were those of European Egyptologists.

Criterion (vi): The Egyptian Museum is not only the first purpose-built museum edifice in the region but also stands as the mothership of Egyptology in terms of the breadth and significance of its collections. Egyptology is a field of study dedicated to the research and preservation of ancient Egyptian culture and is recognized as one of the oldest and most important branches of historical, archeological and cultural studies in the world. The development of Egyptology is a crucial step in the history of humanity since it allows us to have deeper understanding of the past, the legacy and the identity of one of the most influential civilisations that has existed. Because of its key geographic location and because of the many years of cultural exchanges with nearby kingdoms and empires, ancient Egypt has directly influenced the development of many other African and European civilisations in Ancient History. Therefore the Egyptian Museum serves as a universal symbol for the development of Egyptian museology in the 20th century (inspiring other important collections such as the ones in Turin, Paris and Berlin).

Moreover, at the same time that the site has occupied this internationally recognised position in the field of Egyptian Museology, it has also been strongly associated with ideological beliefs, historical events and artistic works that are continuously helping to shape the Egyptian cultural identity and its society.

The site was also at the epicentre of the 2011 Revolution in Egypt, during the Arab Spring. It is situated adjacent to what used to be the ruling National Democratic Party’s building, which occupied the land that used to belong to the Egyptian Museum, and was set ablaze by protestors. Looters have managed to enter from the roof and vandalize and steal some of the historic artefacts within it. However, there was also a great number of Egyptian citizens who mobilised themselves in solidarity and created a human shield to protect the museum (a gesture which has inspired and moved many other heritage communities around the world. The image of this human shield has become a symbol of devotion to a people’s own national heritage).

The Egyptian Museum has also appeared in numerous national and international films. Most documentary films on ancient Egypt include scenes shot at the museum. such as: David Macaulay: Pyramid (Unicorn Projects, 1988); Im Schatzhaus der Pharaonen (2007); Secrets of the Dead: The Silver Pharaoh (PBS, 2010); The Man Who Discovered Egypt (BBC, 2012); A History of Art in Three Colours (BBC, 2012); Duels (France 5, 2014); Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy (BBC, 2013), numerous National Geographic documentaries and the Finish documentary Ramses ja unet (Partanen & Rautoma, 1982), to name but a few. Popular movies such as the horror film The Awakening (EMI Films and Orion Pictures, 1980) and the classic Cairo (Metro Goldwyn-Mayer, 1962) also feature the Egyptian Museum. Literary works, such as the The Seventh Scroll, by Wilbour Smith and the Dutch novel Art Theft in Egypt, by Huub Pragt, that tells the story of the looting of the Egyptian Museum in 2011, also feature the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. All of those examples emphasize the iconic status and importance of the Egyptian Museum, not only for Egyptians, but for the world as a whole.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The Egyptian Museum still includes all elements needed to express its exceptional value as a remarkable and original building. Reinforced concrete material and specific Italian construction methods were used for the first time in Egypt for the museum, allowing its structure to survive the many challenges it has faced over the past 100 years. The full restoration of the original walls, floors and skylights in these halls is currently being carried out by two initiative projects namely “Transforming the Egyptian Museum” and “Revival of the Egyptian Museum”, that are meant to present the museum as it was originally intended to be seen, so that it remains a reference destination for both national and international visitors. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is thus to remain a museum of museums.

Although the original design of Dourgnon - which gives the place its OUV - was not directly affected by the transformations that happened throughout the years, it is also important to address some issues. For example, the implemented projects in its vicinity which in some instances have impacted the museum’s structure. Vibrations caused by tunnel-boring activities during the construction of metro lines and from traffic passing nearby - Tahrir Square and/or the 6th of October Bridge - have caused cracks in the museum’s walls, as well as in some of the artefacts.

To this end, the Revival Initiative team has carried out a series of physical rehabilitation works inside a limited section of the museum’s display galleries, notably in Halls 30, 35, 40 and 45, in the east wing of the Tutankhamun Gallery. Their methodology was to create an "initiation zone” designed to serve as a living example for what the full museum renovation and rehabilitation will look like in later stages. Within this zone, sustainability issues, such as preventive conservation of the museum’s priceless artefacts and the maintenance of the display galleries are being thoroughly addressed. Those rehabilitation strategies are light-touch, causing minimal disturbance of showcases. There will be no heavy works where large numbers of showcases have to be moved. The proposed works will be carried out without necessitating closure of the rooms under rehabilitation. As much as possible, the Revival Initiative is designed to avoid having to interrupt the visits and to demonstrate that Egyptians are taking care of their cultural heritage.

The site's architectural style presents a mix of different artistic influences used by Marcel Dourgnon: 19th century French Beaux-Arts architecture, Italian Renaissance references, the classic “Greco-Roman" columns and arches in the large halls and the reproduction of ancient Egyptian temples in the entrance of the inner halls. All of those elements are still visible and testify to the authenticity of the place.

However, it is undeniable that the museum has suffered some alterations in the past century. Within the museum’s original enclosure, new facilities were built, modifying the layout of its gardens from the original plans. Physical changes were also made to the museum building, both from within and without. Such changes include the addition of bomb shelter structures that have impeded the natural lighting from the skylights and increased the load on the museum building, the partitioning of some exhibition halls for the creation of storage spaces and the modification of its interior design in some places. The architects leading the Revival Initiative team have set the restoration of the site’s original lighting scheme, wall colour schemes (through the removal of multiple layers of invasive paints and the application of differently coloured, naturally abundant Egyptian oxides) and terrazzo floors as their goal.

Comparison with other similar properties

The uniqueness of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo comes both from its original architectural design and its meaningful place as a leading institution for Egyptology and Egyptian museology. The site can easily be compared to the Neues Museum in Berlin, which is inscribed in the World Heritage List since 1999 and also has a dense collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts. While the Neues Museum is the first one in Europe dedicated specifically for such a purpose, the museum in Cairo is the first national museum in the Middle East. Such a statement proves the regional importance of the site among its neighbouring states/countries, as well as its global role as the leading institution for Egyptology in Egypt itself.

At this point, it is also important to recognise that the Neues Museum was built in Neoclassical and Renaissance revival styles as an extension to house collections that could not be accommodated in the Altes Museum (first one to be erected on the Museum Island, unable to accommodate the Egyptian collection). The Egyptian Museum in Cairo, on the other hand, was built under a competition to find the best design possible for a museological building, which shows the social and cultural value of its architectural features and sets it apart from other institutions with similar purposes.

While there are many World Heritage Sites that include museum buildings within their core zones, most of them were not originally designed as museums, being mainly part of historical palaces, citadels, ancient settlements and archaeological sites. That is why criterion (vi) is so relevant in this nomination, since it brings forward the genius behind Marcel Dourgnon’s design. From this perspective, we believe that the museum could be compared with the Bauhaus Sites in Weimar, Dessau and Bernau. Although completely distant in terms of chronological period, design style and references, both of the sites converge on the idea that their architectural features embody the principle of purpose-built edifices. The Bauhaus style is considered to be a revolutionary movement because it proposed a rupture with the trends of its time by going back to primary basic forms. What brings it closer to the concept of the Egyptian Museum is that the desired aesthetic had to be brilliantly combined with functional matters in term of space occupation, financial resources, functionality and use of the construction material, just like the original plan of Marcel Dourgnon.