Look ahead 2023: How the Grand Egyptian Museum aims to reclaim the country’s ancient past

Special Look ahead 2023: How the Grand Egyptian Museum aims to reclaim the country’s ancient past
The Grand Egyptian Museum complex in Giza, Cairo will house the country’s ancient treasures. (Supplied)
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Updated 01 January 2023

Look ahead 2023: How the Grand Egyptian Museum aims to reclaim the country’s ancient past

Look ahead 2023: How the Grand Egyptian Museum aims to reclaim the country’s ancient past
  • After delays, opening slated for 2023 will help Egypt to revive its pandemic-hit tourism industry
  • New museum represents symbolic cultural victory for a region whose ancient history was looted

LONDON: Hit by endless delays, political upheavals and, most recently, the curse of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grand Egyptian Museum has been a long time coming.

But 2023 is the year that the modern complex billed as the world’s largest museum devoted to a single civilization is finally due to open, just in time to help Egypt to revive its badly missed tourism industry.

The opening of the building will be more than an opportunity to kickstart the country’s battered economy. It represents a symbolic cultural victory, not only for Egypt but also an entire region whose ancient history was looted by generations of Western adventurers.

No one knows how the young pharaoh Tutankhamun met his death at the age of 18, around 3,344 years ago. Theories — none of them proven — include malaria, a chariot accident, a bone disorder and even murder.

One thing we do know, however, is that when the “boy king” approached his untimely end, he would have done so comforted by the belief that he and the many possessions that would be buried with his mummified body would soon be on their way to the afterworld, and a glorious afterlife spent in the company of the god Osiris.

But that eternal journey was rudely interrupted in 1922 when the British archaeologist and part-time antiquities dealer Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb.

The only place to see all 5,400 of the artifacts in the Tutankhamun collection from now on will be at the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (AFP)

Like all Western archaeologist-adventurers of his time, Carter’s plan was to ship the bulk of the treasures back to Europe and sell them to museums.

That this plan was par for the course during the heyday of heritage looting posing as scientific research is attested to by the countless thousands of artifacts, statues, funerary goods, coffins, sarcophagi and mummies from ancient Egypt that today can be found scattered about the Western world, in museums large and small.

In Carter’s case, however, such was the significance of the find that, even though Egypt was a British protectorate at the time, Egyptian officials managed to foil his plans — more or less. In recent years it has emerged that Carter and his colleagues managed to smuggle various items out of Egypt, which they sold to a number of museums in the West.

In 2010 Egypt welcomed the return by the Metropolitan Museum in New York of 19 items taken from Tutankhamun’s tomb. “These objects,” said Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Met at the time, “were never meant to have left Egypt, and therefore should rightfully belong to the Government of Egypt.”

Regardless, since the 1960s, it seems as though the Tutankhamun collection has spent more time out of Egypt than in, circling the world in a series of endless tours.

The first touring exhibition, “Tutankhamun Treasure,” was seen in 24 cities in the US and Canada between 1961 and 1966. Between 1961 and 2021, much of the treasure spent 30 years outside Egypt — three decades during which generations of young Egyptians were denied access to some of the most totemic elements of their heritage.

The existence of the long-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum will bring this disgraceful state of affairs to an end.

All 5,400 of the artifacts entombed with the king more than 3,300 years ago, including the iconic golden mask, have finally been reunited for the first time since they were unearthed by Carter in the Valley of the Kings.

Rosetta Stone at the British Museum. 

From now on, the only place to see them will be in the correct place — in Egypt, at the Grand Egyptian Museum.

This is a museum like no other. Covering a site of almost 500,000 square meters, the building offers visitors a spectacular panoramic view of the nearby pyramids of Giza.

Besides the headliner, Tutankhamun, the museum houses more than 100,000 artifacts from Egypt’s rich past, dating from prehistory through pharaonic times to the Greek and Roman periods. An 11-meter statue of Ramses the Great dominates the museum’s vast, light-filled entrance atrium, which was built around the imposing 83-ton granite figure.

In the West, museum curators mutter about the superior abilities of Western institutions to protect the heritage of other countries, which, by inference, they deem incapable of doing so.

Egypt, however, has undisputed, and indeed unrivaled, expertise when it comes to protecting and conserving artifacts from its past. A conservation center at the museum has been operational since 2010, having made its mark with Tutankhamun’s outer wooden coffin, which has undergone eight months of careful preservation.

The British Museum argues it is “a museum for the world” — a place where the entire history of the evolution of global civilization can be seen by the whole world, all in one place.

That is fine, provided one lives in London, or has the means and inclination to travel there. But for most Egyptians, that is not an option.

English egyptologist Howard Carter (1873-1939) working on the golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1922. (Apic/Getty Images)

In 2003, the last time Egypt made a determined but ultimately futile attempt to persuade Britain to part with the Rosetta Stone, one of the icons of Egyptian heritage, the British Daily Telegraph remarked sniffily that “if the stone were to be moved” — at that stage, to the Cairo Museum — “it would be seen by far fewer people than is the case today, about 2.5 million visitors a year, compared with the 5.5 million who visit the British Museum annually.”

Again: How many of those 5.5 million are Egyptians, and how many more people from around the world might travel to Egypt to see the stone if it were in the Grand Egyptian Museum?

The opening of the museum comes a century since the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and 200 years since the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone, the ancient stele that held the key to the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

In the past, Egypt has made repeated attempts to have the Rosetta Stone returned. Looted by Napoleon’s troops during his Egyptian campaign of 1798 to 1801, it was seized from him in turn by the British and shipped to the UK in 1802, where it was presented to the British Museum by King George III.

In 2003, Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass, then director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo and a future minister of antiquities, told the British press that “if the British want to be remembered, if they want to restore their reputation, they should volunteer to return the Rosetta Stone because it is the icon of our Egyptian identity.”

In 2020, Hawass renewed his campaign, broadening Egypt’s claims to include the return of the bust of Nefertiti from the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, and the Zodiac of Dendera and several other pieces from the Louvre in Paris.

The pressure on international institutions to do the right thing increased in December, when Germany returned to Nigeria 21 artifacts that were among thousands looted by British troops from the west African kingdom of Benin 125 years ago. More than 100 of the so-called Benin bronzes are also held by the University of Cambridge, which last month also agreed to return them to their homeland.

Egypt’s former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass, who campaigned for the return of Egyptian artifacts. (AFP)

However, the bulk of the Benin artifacts are in the possession of the British Museum, which says it has “excellent long-term working relationships with Nigerian colleagues and institutions,” but nevertheless has so far refused to return the items. 

The museum also shows no sign of willingness to part with its Egyptian artifacts. In addition to 38 items “found or acquired” by Howard Carter of Tutankhamun fame, it holds more than 45,000 other artifacts from ancient Egypt — of which fewer than 2,000 are on display.

In February 2020, Dr. Khaled El-Anany, minister of tourism and antiquities, said Egypt was “in direct negotiations with the British Museum and other museums,” insisting that “any objects which left Egypt in an illegal way will return to Egypt.”

As ever, the museum plays its “museum of the world” card.

“At the British Museum, visitors can see the Rosetta Stone alongside other pharaonic temple monuments, but also within the broader context of other ancient cultures, allowing a global public to examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected human history,” a spokesperson for the British Museum told Arab News.

An 11-meter statue of Ramses the Great at the Grand Egyptian Museum. (Supplied)

The British Museum also points out that it is one of four European museums collaborating with Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities to renovate the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square as part of a €3.1 million EU-funded project. But does this really compensate for centuries of looting?

Whether any of the world’s museums harboring artifacts taken from Egypt during the imperialist era will take this golden opportunity to return them, boosting their reputations in the process, remains to be seen.

But if ever there was a good time for Egypt’s heritage to be restored to its rightful home, it is surely now, so it may be displayed in the country’s vast new temple to its past, for the benefit of all Egyptians and the many tourists from all over the world who will surely journey to see it. 

Twitter: @JonathanGornall

It’s no joke: club helps Jordanians win comedy gold

It’s no joke: club helps Jordanians win comedy gold
Updated 55 min 20 sec ago

It’s no joke: club helps Jordanians win comedy gold

It’s no joke: club helps Jordanians win comedy gold
  • Since its 2019 inception, Amman Comedy Club has trained people in stand-up comedy, sketch shows, satirical writing

AMMAN: When life gave them lemons, two Jordanians launched a club to train people in the art of comedy in a country where years of economic woes have left little to laugh about.

Since being founded in 2019, the Amman Comedy Club has been training aspiring comics, offering free, three- to four-month workshops in stand-up, improv, comedy sketches and satire writing.

Aided by foreign institutions such as the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and with the help of Chicago-based comedy club The Second City, the club has already trained more than 140 people.

The new comedians hoping to put a smile on Jordanian faces range in age between 18 to 40 and include students, doctors and lawyers among others, keen to learn the art of comic timing and delivery.

“Comedy is a message, and our message is to make people laugh,” said Moeen Masoud, one of the club’s co-founders. “If you come to this place and spend two hours laughing and forget about your problems and worries, this means I have fulfilled my message.”

It is part of the founders’ broader social mission. “In our daily lives, we face a lot of economic, social and psychological pressures, and the best way to relieve these worries is to laugh,” the other co-founder Yazan Abu Al-Rous added.

Jordan’s deep economic difficulties were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to official figures, unemployment rose in 2021 to about 25 percent — and up to 50 percent among young people.

With public debt exceeding $47 billion, or more than 106 percent of the gross domestic product, the poverty rate also increased to an unprecedented 24 percent that year.

Shining a light on social issues through comedy could also help the country as societies need criticism “in order to grow and be able to fix their defects,” added Abu Al-Rous.

Masoud lamented that “comedy did not get the attention it deserves in Jordan.” “We have great ambitions, beyond Jordan. We aspire to have a tour in the Arab world and the wider world for Jordanian comedians and hope to train many people around the world.”

The duo has also spearheaded efforts to dispel one lingering notion about their compatriots.

“There is a stereotype that Jordanians do not laugh,” said Abu Al-Rous, who has a master’s degree in business administration.

“We at ACC wanted to challenge this idea and prove the opposite to the world, that we love laughter and jokes.”

So far, the club graduates have performed shows across Jordan and are also training students at private schools in stand-up comedy.

The club also runs psychological support courses for children in areas that host Syrian refugees.

Among the club’s graduates are now well-known comedians, who have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on social media and perform weekly shows in Amman.

Graduate Abdullah Sobeih, 25, said his training taught him “how to choose topics that affect people’s lives, how a comic story is built.”

With over 340,000 followers on Instagram, the business graduate hopes his new career can help fellow Jordanians “make them forget their worries.”

“We know that people suffer from problems and pressures ... we are trying to bring them to this place in order to offer some relief,” Sobeih said.

He is among four of the club’s better-known alumni, alongside Kamal Sailos, Abdulrahman Mamdouh, and Yusef Bataineh, who are slowly establishing themselves as household names in Jordan.

In the 350-seat Al-Shams Theatre, the trio perform separate stand-ups to an audience of mostly young men and women.

“Our country is the only country in the world that when you google its name the results would show Michael Jordan,” said Yusef Bataineh to roars of laughter at the comparison of the Hashemite kingdom with the legendary US basketball player

Sudan coup leader urges troops to back democratic transition

Sudan coup leader urges troops  to back democratic transition
Updated 27 March 2023

Sudan coup leader urges troops to back democratic transition

Sudan coup leader urges troops  to back democratic transition
  • Army has a long history of staging takeovers and has amassed substantial economic holdings

KHARTOUM: Sudan’s army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan called on troops on Sunday to “end” support for authoritarian leaders as talks begin on military reforms, part of a prolonged transition to civilian rule.

Burhan seized power in a 2021 coup that had derailed a short-lived democratic transition following the 2019 ouster of Gen. Omar Bashir.

“During our history, the armed forces have supported dictatorial governments, and we want to put an end to that,” Burhan, a career soldier during Bashir’s three-decade rule, said in a speech to soldiers.

Reform of the security forces in a key point of tension in discussions on a two-phase political process launched in December, envisaging generals’ exit from politics once a civilian government is installed.

Critics have decried the deal, agreed by Burhan with multiple factions including a key civilian bloc, as “vague.”

The proposed reforms include the integration into the regular army of the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by Burhan’s deputy Mohamed Hamdan Daglo.

Created in 2013, RSF emerged from the Janjaweed militia that Bashir unleashed a decade earlier in the western region of Darfur against non-Arab rebels, where it was accused of war crimes by rights groups.

While experts have pointed to worrying rivalries between Burhan and Daglo, the two men took turns speaking on Sunday in the capital Khartoum, pleading for a successful integration.

Daglo said he wanted “a unified army,” while Burhan called for “a professional army that stays away from politics.”

The December deal came after near-weekly protests since Burhan’s October 2021 takeover, which had also triggered international aid cuts, adding to the deepening political and economic troubles in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Daglo, the RSF commander also known as Hemeti, said earlier this month he was against “anyone who wants to become a dictator,” and that he opposed those “clinging on to power.”

He said the latest coup had “failed” because it had not brought change but rather the return of the “old regime” of Bashir loyalists.

The talks this week follow a framework deal agreed in December between the military and the civilian Forces for Freedom and Change alliance, which aims to turn the page the coup which led to mass protests and cut Sudan off from much international financial support. 

Sudan’s army has a long history of staging military takeovers and has amassed substantial economic holdings. It wants to see the RSF, which by some estimates has up to 100,000 fighters, integrated under its control.

The two sides are expected to formally adopt the deal on April 6 and launch a new civilian government on April 11.

The agreement had left several sensitive issues, including the security reform and transitional justice, for further discussion.

Power jostling between Dagalo and Burhan, along with uncertainty over how and when the RSF could be merged with the army, has been a source of recent tension.

Dagalo has put himself at the forefront of the planned transition toward democracy, unsettling fellow military rulers and triggering a mobilization of troops in the capital Khartoum in recent weeks.

Burhan asserted on Sunday that the country’s army would be brought under the leadership of a new civilian government, restating pledges that it would withdraw from politics.

“The process of security and military reform is a long and complicated process and one that cannot be bypassed,” he said.

Child marriages in Jordan down 27.5% in 2022

Child marriages in Jordan down 27.5% in 2022
Updated 26 March 2023

Child marriages in Jordan down 27.5% in 2022

Child marriages in Jordan down 27.5% in 2022
  • Total number of marriages in kingdom down 15.2% compared to 2021
  • Economic conditions cited as a reason for the unwillingness to marry

AMMAN: The number of child marriages in Jordan decreased by 27.5 percent last year compared to 2021, Roya News reported on Sunday, citing the Sisterhood is Global Institute.

Last year, the number of child marriages decreased to 5,824 from 8,039 in 2021. 

According to a report released by Jordan’s Supreme Judge Department, there was a 15.2 percent decrease in the total number of marriage contracts last year, with 63,834 contracts compared to 75,360 in 2021. 

SIGI cited Jordan’s economic conditions as one of the reasons for the unwillingness to marry. 

It added that the same economic conditions limited women’s labor-force participation and increased their unemployment rates, Roya News reported. SIGI said child marriage is a form of abuse that must be stopped.

Quake-hit Syrians get electric wheelchairs from Emirates Red Crescent

Quake-hit Syrians get electric wheelchairs from Emirates Red Crescent
Updated 26 March 2023

Quake-hit Syrians get electric wheelchairs from Emirates Red Crescent

Quake-hit Syrians get electric wheelchairs from Emirates Red Crescent
  • ERC also distributed medicines and provided psychological support

DUBAI: The Emirates Red Crescent is distributing medical aid including electric wheelchairs to people affected by the February earthquakes in Syria.

The Emirates News Agency said aid included medicines and nutritional supplements for people in homes for the elderly, and “psychological and material assistance” to a number of families. 

All programs were conducted in coordination with the ERC’s Syrian counterparts.

The wheelchairs were distributed in the Latakia Governorate. Beneficiaries expressed their gratitude for the UAE’s efforts to alleviate the suffering of Syrian people.

“This wheelchair is like two new feet to me,” Zain Al-Abidin said. “It helps me go wherever I want and move faster. Thank you to the United Arab Emirates and to the Emirates Red Crescent.”


Protests erupt after Israel’s Netanyahu fires defense minister Yoav Gallant

Protests erupt after Israel’s Netanyahu fires defense minister Yoav Gallant
Updated 26 March 2023

Protests erupt after Israel’s Netanyahu fires defense minister Yoav Gallant

Protests erupt after Israel’s Netanyahu fires defense minister Yoav Gallant
  • Tens of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets in protest after Netanyahu’s announcement
  • Netanyahu’s government pushing ahead for parliamentary vote on centerpiece of judicial overhaul

JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly fired his defense minister on Sunday, a day after he called on the Israeli leader to halt a planned judicial overhaul that has fiercely divided the country and prompted growing discontent within the ranks of the military. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tel Aviv, blocking a main highway, following the announcement.
The dismissal signaled that Netanyahu will move ahead this week with the overhaul plan, which has sparked mass protests, angered military and business leaders and raised concerns among Israel’s allies. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant had been the first senior member of the ruling Likud party to speak out against the plan.
In a brief statement, Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister had dismissed Gallant. Netanyahu later tweeted “we must all stand strong against refusal.”
Tens of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets in protest after Netanyahu’s announcement, blocking Tel Aviv’s main artery, transforming the Ayalon highway into a sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags and lighting a large bonfire in the middle of the road. Demonstrations took place in Beersheba, Haifa and Jerusalem, where thousands of people gathered outside Netanyahu’s private residence.

Israel’s consul-general in New York said he was resigning on Sunday in protest after the firing. “I can no longer continue representing this Government,” Asaf Zamir said on Twitter. “I believe it is my duty to ensure that Israel remains a beacon of democracy and freedom in the world.”

The decision came less than a day after Gallant, a former senior general, called for a pause in the controversial legislation until after next month’s Independence Day holidays, citing the turmoil in the ranks of the military over the plan.
Gallant had voiced concerns that the divisions in society were hurting morale in the military and emboldening Israel’s enemies across the region. “I see how the source of our strength is being eroded,” Gallant said.
While several other Likud members had indicated they might follow Gallant, the party quickly closed ranks on Sunday, clearing the way for his dismissal.
Galit Distal Atbaryan, Netanyahu’s public diplomacy minister, said that Netanyahu summoned Gallant to his office and told him “that he doesn’t have any faith in him anymore and therefore he is fired.”
Gallant tweeted shortly after the announcement that “the security of the state of Israel always was and will always remain my life mission.”
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said that Gallant’s dismissal “harms national security and ignores warnings of all defense officials.”
“The prime minister of Israel is a threat to the security of the state of Israel,” Lapid wrote on Twitter.
Avi Dichter, a former chief of the Shin Bet security agency, is expected to replace him. Dichter had reportedly flirted with joining Gallant but instead announced Sunday he was backing the prime minister.
Netanyahu’s government is pushing ahead for a parliamentary vote this week on a centerpiece of the overhaul — a law that would give the governing coalition the final say over all judicial appointments. It also seeks to pass laws that would grant parliament the authority to override Supreme Court decisions with a basic majority and limit judicial review of laws.
Netanyahu and his allies say the plan will restore a balance between the judicial and executive branches and rein in what they see as an interventionist court with liberal sympathies.
But critics say the constellation of laws will remove the checks and balances in Israel’s democratic system and concentrate power in the hands of the governing coalition. They also say that Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has a conflict of interest.
Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets over the past three months to demonstrate against the plan in the largest demonstrations in the country’s 75-year history.
Leaders of Israel’s vibrant high-tech industry have said the changes will scare away investors, former top security officials have spoken out against the plan and key allies, including the United States and Germany, have voiced concerns.
In recent weeks discontent has even surged from within Israel’s army – the most popular and respected institution among Israel’s Jewish majority. A growing number of Israeli reservists, including fighter pilots, have threatened to withdraw from voluntary duty in the past weeks.
Israel’s military is facing a surge in fighting in the occupied West Bank, threats from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group and concerns that archenemy Iran is close to developing a nuclear-weapons capability.
Violence both in Israel and the occupied West Bank has escalated over the past few weeks to heights unseen in years.
Manuel Trajtenberg, head of an influential Israeli think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies, said that “Netanyahu can dismiss his defense minister, he cannot dismiss the warnings he heard from Gallant.”
Meanwhile, an Israeli good governance group on Sunday asked the country’s Supreme Court to punish Netanyahu for allegedly violating a conflict of interest agreement meant to prevent him from dealing with the country’s judiciary while he is on trial for corruption.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a fierce opponent of the overhaul, asked the court to force Netanyahu to obey the law and sanction him either with a fine or prison time for not doing so. It said he was not above the law.
“A prime minister who doesn’t obey the court and the provisions of the law is privileged and an anarchist,” said Eliad Shraga, the head of the group, echoing language used by Netanyahu and his allies against protesters opposed to the overhaul. “The prime minister will be forced to bow his head before the law and comply with the provisions of the law.”
The prime minister responded saying the appeal should be dismissed and said that the Supreme Court didn’t have grounds to intervene.
Netanyahu is barred by the country’s attorney general from directly dealing with his government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary, based on a conflict of interest agreement he is bound to, and which the Supreme Court acknowledged in a ruling over Netanyahu’s fitness to serve while on trial for corruption. Instead, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a close confidant of Netanyahu, is spearheading the overhaul.
But on Thursday, after parliament passed a law making it harder to remove a sitting prime minister, Netanyahu said he was unshackled from the attorney general’s decision and vowed to wade into the crisis and “mend the rift” in the nation. That declaration prompted the attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, to warn that Netanyahu was breaking his conflict of interest agreement by entering the fray.
The fast-paced legal and political developments have catapulted Israel into uncharted territory and toward a burgeoning constitutional crisis, said Guy Lurie, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.
“We are at the start of a constitutional crisis in the sense that there is a disagreement over the source of authority and legitimacy of different governing bodies,” he said.
Netanyahu is on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate affairs involving wealthy associates and powerful media moguls. He denies wrongdoing and dismisses critics who say he will try to seek an escape route from the charges through the legal overhaul. — — Associated Press journalist Tia Goldenberg contributed from Tel Aviv.