By most estimates, the Great Pyramid of Giza—one of the most enduring icons of architecture and a pinnacle of human achievement—took between ten and twenty years to build. While the method and circumstances of the pyramid’s construction are still a matter of spirited debate, it seems clear that the structure went up in a flurry, rising taller above Cairo with each passing day.
Less than a mile away, the Grand Egyptian Museum is on track to take significantly longer than the pyramid complex it celebrates. Kicking off in 2002, the ambitious project was originally slated to open back in 2011, but a series of financial challenges and logistical delays have hampered the project’s progress.
The new museum is envisioned as a significant upgrade to the existing Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo, which was built in 1902 and now lags behind in modern security, preservation, and curatorial practices. Compared with its Grand counterpart, the original museum now seems almost hopelessly quaint, a regional curiosity or a relic of another era.
Today, the $795 million Grand Egyptian Museum is hurtling toward an early-2021 opening date—though smart money would leave the door open for another postponement. While various 90-something “percentage complete” estimates have been tossed around by officials, the Coronavirus pandemic proved to be the final nail in the project’s 2020 sarcophagus.
Whenever it does open, the massive building will house some of the world’s most famous treasures, including the complete collection of Tutankhamun artifacts (together again for the first time since their excavation) and a 30-foot, 83 ton granite statue of Ramses II that used to stand above a Cairo roundabout.
The building’s initial design came from Dublin-based Heneghan and Peng, who won the project in an international design competition. While the aesthetics of the project have evolved over the past decade, the cumulative effect is still striking. A massive wedge of a building, the effect is somewhere between the Seven Wonders of the World and the Las Vegas strip.
Built on an incline from the Nile basin to the desert plateau where Giza’s pyramids sit, the 5.2 million-square-foot structure boasts an imposing, translucent facade that incorporates plenty of pyramid-shaped forms, creating geometric harmony with its neighbor. Built from insulated concrete to combat the harsh desert weather, the scale of the building is appropriately grand, with lofty exhibit halls bathed in natural light.
With room for 100,000 artifacts, the world-class museum is expected to see between five and eight million visitors a year. Hosting an unparalleled collection—on par with the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art—the Grand Egyptian Museum could prove to be a serious tourist driver for Egypt as a whole, as the museum’s extensive holdings are properly experienced as a multi-day affair. Consequently, Egypt is in talks to create a 52-acre hotel district near the attraction, ensuring that Giza is no longer just a tour bus stopover, but instead a destination in its own right.
As one might expect, the project is not without controversy. In a country characterized by regular political unrest, an enormous and opulent tourist attraction is bound to raise eyebrows, a symbol of a country torn between its international reputation and its domestic politics. It was on the doorstep of the original Egyptian Museum, in Tahrir Square, that a 2011 popular revolution ignited, capturing the world’s attention. And it was the target of that same uprising, Hosni Mubarak, who laid the foundation stone for the Grand Egyptian Museum back in 2002.
Ancient Egypt will always captivate us. When 59 sarcophagi were discovered in October, the story became world news—as did the news of where they’d end up on display: the Grand Egyptian Museum. For centuries, the cultural riches of Egypt have been scattered across the world, removed from their original context. It seems that “Egypt” has become a wing of every museum in the world instead of a real place.
While the Grand Egyptian Museum’s legacy might be a complicated one, it does at least provide a single spiritual headquarters for our fascination with a civilization that feels both impossibly distant and tantalizingly recent. And while the building itself may be breathtaking and impressive, its most worthwhile feature might just be the panoramic view it offers of the pyramids. As with all great museums, the artifacts are the star. The building is a frame to support them.