Monday, April 17, 2017

Alexandria in the spotlight - Ahram Weekly

Alexandria in the spotlight

The future of many of Alexandria's archaeological sites and museums is in the spotlight, writes Nevine El-Aref

The Graeco-Roman Museum
Nevine El-Aref
Alexandria, the Bride of the Mediterranean, still retains its charm, although many of its archaeological sites and museums are off the country's regular tourist map.

The Graeco-Roman Museum has been closed for restoration and development since 2005, while the Maritime Museum in the Stanley district and the Mosaic Museum in downtown Alexandria are still under construction. The Kom Al-Shokafa Necropolis is suffering from a high level of underground water.

Earlier this week, Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany and two delegates from parliament embarked on a tour of Alexandria's archaeological sites and museums in order to analyse problems standing in the way of the completion of suspended archaeological projects.

"The lack of a budget is the main problem that is halting the completion of the projects. Not only those in Alexandria, but several others in different cities as well," El-Enany said.

He went on to say that since the 25 January Revolution the ministry had been suffering from budgetary problems as its income from tickets to archaeological sites had decreased due to the decline in tourism to Egypt. "The ministry has had to borrow from the Ministry of Finance the amount of LE81 million in order to pay the salaries of its 83,000 employees," El-Enany pointed out.

He added that the ministry had suspended projects worth LE3.5 billion, which would now double due to the recent increases in prices. The prime minister had promised to provide additional funds to spruce up the work.

El-Enany said that Alexandria had three museums needing work, including the Graeco-Roman Museum, the Maritime Museum and the Mosaic Museum. The Graeco-Roman Museum has been closed since 2005 for development, and its closure has continued due to the lack of the necessary budget, now standing at LE120 million.

"It is inconceivable that Alexandria has not been able to enjoy the Graeco-Roman Museum for 12 years now," El-Enany said. He added that two years ago the Alexandria governorate had extended the size of the museum by offering the land behind it to the Ministry of Antiquities. This land had been the location of a governorate building burnt in 2013 during political turmoil.

Meanwhile, neither the maritime nor the mosaic museums has seen the light of day. Although the foundation stone of the Maritime Museum was laid in 1986, construction work has not been started. The museum is to be in an area next to the Prince Youssef Kamal rest-house in one of the best locations in Alexandria.  

As for the Mosaic Museum, El-Enany said, this was at present only "a large deep hollow on top of a hill".

"Antiquities are a way of promoting tourism to Egypt," El-Enany said, adding that Egypt had made the headlines of many newspapers and TV programmes following the discovery of the Matariya colossus in March. The income of the ministry had increased in 2016, which meant that the number of tourists to the country had augmented. The number of Egyptians who have visited archaeological sites and museum has also increased, which is a good indication that archaeological awareness has improved.  

In February, the number of Egyptians who visited the Giza Pyramids reached 241,000, half of them children. During the previous year, the area was visited by only 110,000 Egyptians.

Meanwhile, the Kom Al-Shokafa Necropolis in Alexandria is also suffering from a high level of subterranean water, as is the Abu Mina Monastery, which has been put on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger.  

THE GRAECO-ROMAN MUSEUM: Over the past 12 years, the museum has seemed to be in limbo as it awaits restoration and development.

It has a distinguished temple-like façade that reminds visitors of ancient Alexandria and how Greek culture melded with Egyptian influences after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE.

Behind its distinguished neo-classical façade of six columns and a pediment, built in 1895 by the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Botti, is the Greek inscription Moyóeion, or museum. The building consists of 27 halls and an attractive garden, and it offers an excellent introduction to Egypt's Graeco-Roman period. Since its construction, the museum has put on a display a collection of 40,000 priceless objects, including sculptures, mosaics, woodwork and coins.

"The museum has the largest collection of coins in Egypt," said Mona Haggag, head of the Antiquities Association, an NGO. She added that it had 150,000 coins, only 15,000 of which are on show. It also displays many pieces from the third century BC, such as a sculpture of the ancient Egyptian god Apis in the form of a bull in black granite, mummies, sarcophagi, tapestries and other objects offering a view of Graeco-Roman civilisation in its contact with Egypt.

The collection is the product of donations from wealthy Alexandrians, as well as of excavations led by successive directors of the institution, both within the city and in its environs. Certain other objects have come from the Organisation of Antiquities in Cairo, now the Ministry of Antiquities, particularly those from the Pharaonic period and from various digs undertaken at the beginning of the last century in Fayoum and Benhasa.

The institution started life with 11 galleries, but was gradually enlarged in later stages. The 25th gallery was inaugurated in 1984, and this contains a variety of coins from different countries, chronologically arranged and dating back to 630 BC and continuing through to Egypt's Ottoman period in the 19th century.

"This collection is a fascinating record of civilisation in the process of change as religions merged and society evolved," Haggag said.

In 2005, the museum was closed for restoration and made off limits to tourists. Its building was hidden beneath iron scaffolding and large green sheets as it awaited its fate.

According to the restoration and development plan, noted Elham Salah, head of the Museums Sector at the ministry, the façade of the museum would be kept as it is and changes would be made inside the building. A conservation laboratory, children's facilities, lecture hall, cafeteria and bookstore were planned. Under the plans, the museum will include halls for the display of its permanent collection, a section dedicated to archaeological study and research, and a museum for children, as well as a library and a garage.

The museological project is divided into three parts: the main hall, the exhibition sections, and the "multimedia isle". The main hall will be dedicated to artefacts related to the main theme of the museum, which is the city of Alexandria. Within this section there will be a "multimedia isle", Salah said, conceived as a space for voices and images that will start with descriptions of the city in the writings of ancient authors, first and foremost the Geography of the ancient Greek writer Strabo, and it will include a reconstruction of the ancient city and a kaleidoscopic narrative of images of the monumental ruins of the city and its monuments.

The exhibition sections will show the history of the museum itself as well as the history of Alexandria and the Delta before and after Alexander the Great, with the focus on the Pharaonic site of Canopus and the Greek emporium of Naucratis. The life of Alexander the Great, as well as his worship and images, will be among the collections on display in the multimedia isle.

A gallery of portraits of Egypt's Ptolemaic rulers in the forms of portrait busts, coins and other artefacts will also be among the collection on display, as well as images of the relevant Roman emperors and their images with a gallery of statues and portraits of the emperors and members of the Roman imperial court.

A gallery of important Alexandrian deities, whether combined or syncretistic, such as Serapis, Isis, and Hathor, or Greek figures like Dionysus and Heracles, will also be presented. The sacred topography of ancient Alexandria will be presented through two cult locations: the Serapium, where some of the most famous masterpieces of the museum were found, and the Ras Al-Soda Temple, probably dedicated to Isis, with its rich sculptural decoration.

A special section on the cult locations of Fayoum will be dedicated to the region's crocodile gods and the other important archaeological items preserved in the museum. It will include the remains of the limestone temple dedicated to Sobek from the reign of Ptolemy III (246-221 BCE) at Theadelphia and a collection of basalt statues of priests from the Temple of Soknopaiou Nesos.

Funerary collections from the oldest Ptolemaic necropolis in Alexandria, the Al-Shatbi Necropolis located in the east of the city, and from the Greek necropolis of Al-Qabbari located outside the western gate, will also be included. To illustrate the fact that the original mouseion and the famous Alexandria Library were the centres of intellectual life in the city in antiquity, a large selection of literary papyri preserved in the museum will be put on show and these will be exhibited along with various objects illustrating school activities and scenes of intellectual life.

Music and dance will also be illustrated through the display of a collection of Alexandrian terracotta statuettes and marble statues representing musicians and dancers. These will be further illustrated through the "multimedia isle", conceived as a space of sound, images and 3D replicas of musical instruments. This will be set up in cooperation with the European Music Archaeology Project, a partner of the Universita della Tuscia in Italy.

As a result, it will be possible to listen to music produced on replicas of ancient musical instruments, of which 3D reproductions will be put on display and made available to visitors.

The Christian and Arab eras of Alexandria will be on show at the museum through a collection of artefacts illustrating the city's history from the seventh century CE onwards.

THE MOSAIC MUSEUM: This museum, located to the west of the Roman temple of Ras Al-Soda on Horeeya Avenue, is still awaiting construction.

Salah told Al-Ahram Weekly that the aim of the planned museum was to put on display the mosaics found at archaeological sites in Alexandria. The ancient Alexandrians, she said, carpeted their floors with these compositions of tiny stones in geometric, floral or figurative designs. Mosaics are uncovered during almost every excavation in Alexandria.

The ancient Greeks used mosaics to decorate floors in public areas and private dwellings by using tesserae in many ways. Greek floor coverings became complete tableaux depicting plants, animals, geometrical designs and Greek and Hellenistic motifs.

The Romans adopted mosaics to cover floors in homes and temples, as well as in tombs. They applied the same techniques as the Greeks, but introduced innovations in the manufacturing process.

All the discovered mosaics in the new museum were restored by French specialists. Salah said that among the most important to be put on show were the two mosaic pavements, one of the classical mythological figure the Medusa that was previously on display at the Graeco-Roman Museum and one from the Macedonian House.

The Medusa mosaic was discovered in 1994 during excavations of the former Theatre of Diana by the French Centre d'études alexandrines in Alexandria. The pavement originally decorated the floor of a dining room of a wealthy household from the Roman era. It depicts the head of the Medusa facing the entrance of the house in order to fend off the evil eye. This motif of a polychrome shield of scales with a central Gorgon figure belongs to a series attested in Alexandria from the Hellenistic period onwards that then spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin.

The Macedonian House mosaic depicting a sitting dog is also to be shown. This uses minute stone cube tesserae ranging from one to four millimetres in size using the opus vermiculatum technique. The central medallion shows a dog resting on its hind legs close to an upturned Greek vessel.

THE MARITIME MUSEUM: Almost 31 years since the laying of its foundation stone, the Maritime Museum has not yet seen the light of day.

When it does, it will aim to put on show a collection of artefacts related to the maritime life not only of Alexandria but also of Egypt as a whole, as well as the industry and tools depending on sea life, such as models of ancient boats, oars, fishing nets and sailors.

Mohamed Abdel-Meguid, director of underwater archaeology in Alexandria, told the Weekly that until the construction of the Maritime Museum had finished the Qaytbey Citadel could be the venue of a maritime museum as well as a diving centre to enable divers to plunge into the Mediterranean and dive around the ancient sunken city of Alexandria where the ancient royal district was submerged.

"This promotes another kind of tourism to Egypt, diving tourism. A glass-bottomed boat can be provided for people who do not dive," Abdel-Meguid said.

He suggested using the void open spaces in the citadel as a display area for the colossi and blocks that have emerged from the seabed, while small items could be put on show in the citadel's towers or vaulted passages. A display section could be created highlighting the relation of people with the sea, such as models of boats like the one in Dahshour now under restoration at the laboratory of the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza. A centre for ethnic handicrafts depending on sea life could also be established.

"This would be a temporary solution to take the artefacts out of storage until the construction of the proper Maritime Museum," Abdel-Meguid said. He said that a plan was drawn up in early 2008 to construct a glass-walled underwater museum and approved by UNESCO and Egypt. A feasibility study was conducted in 2009, but the political turmoil in the country since 2011 had not helped the museum's establishment.

The aim of the project is not only to put on show Egypt's sunken treasures and provide an opportunity for visitors to admire the remains of the sunken Alexandria Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as well as the royal court of Queen Cleopatra's palace, of which over 60 pieces have survived, including a sunken sphinx.

It also aims to protect the treasures from underwater threats, including pollution in the bay and damage by fishing boat anchors.

Alexandria is the second-largest city in Egypt and the country's main seaport and industrial zone. It was once the capital of Egypt and the hub of world culture, science and literature, a position it occupied after its foundation in 331 BC until at least the early first or second centuries BC.

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