A century ago this November, Howard Carter’s water boy stumbled on the top step to the biggest stash of buried treasure in the history of Egyptology. The complete, never-seen-together Tutankhamen Collection will be the crown jewels of Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum, a modern architectural wonder overlooking the Great Pyramid of Giza that has taken nearly as long to build. essential finds out how this GEM of a museum plans to live up to its acronym.


A century ago this November, Howard Carter’s water boy stumbled on the top step to the biggest stash of buried treasure in the history of Egyptology. The complete, never-seen-together Tutankhamen Collection will be the crown jewels of Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum, a modern architectural wonder overlooking the Great Pyramid of Giza that has taken nearly as long to build. essential finds out how this GEM of a museum plans to live up to its acronym.


“The Grand Egyptian Museum is a gift from Egypt to the whole world.” Khaled el-Enany, Minister of Tourism & Antiquities

A colossal statue of Ramses ll stands in greeting at the entrance to the GEM, as awesome in stone as the ‘Exodus pharaoh’ of biblical fame was in life. It has survived the real Ramses by over 3,000 years and miraculously, every February 22 and October 22 on his coronation day and birthday, the dead King’s likeness will seem to come to life as the sun lights up his face – a trick of solar alignment used by the pharaoh himself for his temple at Abu Simbel.

The largest archaeological museum in the world dedicated to one civilisation is also pretty miraculous: Toblerone-shaped, 800 metres long, clad in triangular slabs of translucent alabaster celebrating the pyramidal form and a 46-metre feature wall of hieroglyphics spelling out the names of pharaohs from 32 dynasties. The design unfurls from the Nile valley floor to the Giza plateau on three levels, encompassing a 50-metre height differential. Visitors will walk beneath the world’s first Hanging Obelisk and up a sweeping Grand Staircase flanked by stone pharaohs and Gods with animal heads to a glass lobby framing the pyramids 2km in the distance, a view that goes widescreen as they ascend.

And that’s just the prelude to a chronological, 12-gallery tour through three millennia of the world’s second oldest civilisation. The Tutankhamen Hall will be the highlight: a chance to see 5,398 priceless artefacts displayed in a tomb-like setting just as Carter found them 100 years ago. A Nile river park, 3D cinema and children’s museum are other attractions on the sprawling 500,000m2 site.

Built to take pressure off Egypt’s ancient sites and provide a safer haven for its treasures than Cairo’s antique Egyptian Museum, the GEM has space to showcase 50,000 pieces and store a similarly mind-boggling number, as well as 17 labs for restoring ongoing finds. The operation to crate up and crane in objects of Titanic scale has not been seen since Pharaonic times and Egypt turned the most epic transfers into televised extravaganzas with laser lights and marching bands. Cleopatra would have approved!

Opening dates and Egyptian Presidents have come and gone but November was still scheduled as essential went to press. Launched by Mubarak in 2002, mummified for four years following Egypt’s 2011 Revolution, and again during Covid, Giza’s Great Pyramid, last of the Seven Ancient Wonders, didn’t take much longer to complete (circa 25 years). The final bill has come in at $1billion, double the original budget. But if the current President has his sums right, the GEM will attract 15,000 visitors a day – annually, nearly twice the number of travellers to the entire country during 2020’s pandemic.

The GEM’s Director General, Dr Tarek Tawfik, promises ‘a museum of the 21st century’ with all the techy bells and whistles. “More than looking at artefacts, it’s about feeling why they were made and understanding how ancient Egyptians thought, their relationship to their Kings and how it fed into their beliefs concerning the afterlife. You’ll be moving from one exciting story to the other. If you have the time you can go really deep into them.”

The Original Indiana Jones

Howard Carter was as lionised in his day as Harrison Ford’s cinematic swashbuckler and, like Indy, a fan of the fedora hat.

A talented artist, he landed his first assignment in Egypt at 17 reproducing drawings on archaeological digs and became Inspector of Antiquities for the Egyptian government. In big demand for his advanced techniques in excavation and restoration, on November, 1922 he was working on a dig for the Earl of Carnarvon in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings when his water bearer literally fell over the underground stairway to the tomb of King Tut.

“Can you see anything?” inquired the Earl later that month as Carter chipped a spyhole in the tomb wall to peer into the first of four treasure-stacked chambers. “Yes, wonderful things!” he replied, noting later of being ‘struck dumb with amazement’ as he peered through the gloom to see ‘strange animals, statues and gold, everywhere the glint of gold.´

It was another three years before he raised the lid on the last of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoahs which was nested like a Russian doll inside three coffins within a stone sarcophagus inside four box-shaped shrines. He found the shrunken and bandaged body wearing his splendid solid gold death mask, the penis wrapped separately in the erect position. Even dead pharaohs had their pride!

Cataloguing the finds from tomb KV62, the 62nd and most intact ever unearthed in the Valley, took an entire decade. Although there had been two minor break-ins soon after the 19th Dynasty pharaoh’s burial, the sands of time covered all trace of Tutenkhamen’s existence for the next 3,000 years.

A media frenzy dubbed Tutmania was unleashed as photographs of the treasures hit news desks worldwide, influencing everything from literature to architecture and furniture to fashion. King Tut became the name of products, businesses and the pet dog of 31st U.S. President Herbert Hoover. Everyone saw the value of ‘pyramid-selling’.

Despite the significance of his find, Carter received no honour from the British government although he profited from writing books, conducting lecture tours and… tomb raiding! After he died in 1939, 18 uncatalogued Tutankhamen artefacts were found in his own antiquities collection. They were discreetly returned to their homeland to preserve Anglo-Egyptian relations.

During the previous decade alone, Egypt lost more than $3 billion worth of artefacts to tomb raiders.

The Mummy’s Curse

Within six months of Carter’s discovery, Lord Carnarvon contracted blood poisoning from an infected mosquito bite and died, fulfilling the prophesy inscribed on the door to the tomb: ‘Death will come on quick wings for those who disturb the King’s peace.’ Six others involved in the dig also met untimely ends. Carter, who lived to a respectable 64, dismissed rumours of a curse as ‘foolish superstition and tommy-rot’.

Mummies have been trafficked since medieval times for use in medical research, a shade of paint pigment called Mummy Brown and, Ra forbid, mummy unwrapping parties, popularised during the Victorian era by London surgeon Thomas Pettigrew who lived well into his 70s.

Inside Tut’s Tomb

The GEM’s Tutankhamen Gallery promises a more authentic experience than the original tomb which has been divested of most of its treasures.

In a world first, Tut’s golden chariots, thrones and chests of jewellery will be seen together, as Carter found them, in a space emulating the tomb’s four underground chambers with the aid of tricky special effects.

And not just the famous pieces. The empty boxes, baskets and scraps of fabric found by Carter may not have meant much at the time. Now, with the benefit of X-rays, CAT scans and DNA testing, they paint a more complete picture of the eight-year-old boy King with buck teeth who hunted ostriches, played chess, suffered from a foot deformity and died at 18 from a combination of bone disease and malaria.

“Suddenly you know what he was eating, you know what he was drinking, you know how he was dressed,” says Dr Tarek Tawfik.” You start to live with him, to run the country with him, you even start to mourn with him for his two little girls who died before they were born and buried with him.“

Tut’s OTT ‘going away’ trousseau for the afterlife included 47 pairs of orthopaedic sandals and 130 walking sticks; 100 finely-woven baskets now known to have contained wheat and barley, figs, dates, melons, and grapes; jars of wine labelled with the date, vineyard and winemaker; and four dozen wooden boxes that once held nine ducks, four geese, various small birds and choice cuts of beef on the bone. But no fish, not considered fine dining in those days when the Nile was teeming with them.

King Khufu’s Sunship

It is the largest and oldest object made of wood in human history: a 42-metre galley ship built 4,600 years ago that would be seaworthy today, though it was never designed for water.

The ancient Egyptians believed the sun God Ra sailed the skies between heaven and earth on a solar barque, bringing light to the world. No self-respecting Pharaoh was buried without one of these ancient Egyptian teleporters to beam their spirit to the afterlife via light shafts cut into the pyramids.

For decades this ship of the desert resided in its own museum at the foot of the Great Khufu Pyramid where it was discovered in 1954, buried in over 1,000 pieces with instructions for reassembly in hieroglyphics. Last summer the entire vessel was packed into a shock-absorbing shipping container lit up like the Blackpool Illuminations and transported to the GEM on track by remote-controlled vehicle. The 2km journey took 10 hours and the surreal sight of the ship-shaped container sailing slowly past the pyramids at night was filmed by the BBC.

Romancing The Stone

The French found it, the British laid claim to it and the Egyptians want it back. Although visitors can see a replica at the GEM, the original Rosetta Stone that cracked the code to hieroglyphics resides in the British Museum, the most visited exhibit since 1802.

The 2,200-year-old stone tablet inscribed with ancient script and Egyptian picture writing remained a riddle until 1822 when French linguist Jean-François Champollion realised that one of the scripts was ancient Greek. His transcription of Ptolemy V’s royal manifesto gave the world a dictionary for deciphering hieroglyphics. Champollion used it to determine the chronology of Egyptian Pharaohs, found the field of Egyptology and open the Egyptian antiquities department at the Louvre, all without ever seeing the real stone himself.

During September’s bicentennial of that eureka moment, Egypt renewed calls for the stone’s return along with other ‘purloined’ artefacts, such as the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin’s Neues Museum and the Dendera Zodiac ceiling, housed in the Louvre.