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Making and Housing History: Completion of the Grand Egyptian Museum Draws Nearer

Making and Housing History: Completion of the Grand Egyptian Museum Draws Nearer

The Grand Egyptian Museum

By Luke Carothers

Over two decades in the making, the end of construction draws near for the Grand Egyptian Museum

Egypt holds a special place in the history of the world.  Extending from the banks of the Nile River, Egyptian civilization is among the oldest in the world.  The story of this long, rich history is told in the artifacts left behind–from stone monuments to sewing needles and hair combs and everything in between–and in their massive structures that have stood the test of time.  Despite the richness of this tradition, Egyptian artifacts have been systematically removed from their country of origin for over two centuries and are now housed in museums across the world.  Because of this and a desire for a space capable of housing Egypt’s rich history, there has long been the idea for a new Egyptian museum–one built to celebrate Egyptian culture in its home.  The concept for the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) stretches back over two decades when funding discussions began in 1998.  

In the early months of 2002, the results of an architectural design competition were announced–in which over 1,500 architects submitted designs for the structure–and the design of the building was given to the winner Heneghan Peng Architects and Buro Happold and Arup.  A major consideration at this point in the project was selecting a building location.  In a direct nod to Egypt’s rich history, surveying began on a site just west of the Giza Pyramids (2-km) in 2005.  In this location, GEM is envisioned as an extension of the Giza Plateau, building on Egypt’s rich cultural heritage.  In 2007, the GEM secured funding through a $300 million loan from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation with an additional $147 million coming from the Egyptian government and $150 million from donations.  In 2010, Hill International was selected by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to provide project management services during the GEM’s construction.  Two years later, in 2012, earthworks began at the selected site, and the construction phase of the project was under way.

The Grand Egyptian Museum’s facade, meant to reflect the nearby pyramids. A design suggestion from Major General Atef Moftah

The scale and design of the Grand Egyptian Museum are, in no other words, breathtaking.  The design is meant to invoke the scale and grandeur of its ancient neighbors, with sloped terraces curating the nation’s antiquities before culminating in an unmatched view of the Giza Plateau.  Flanking these terraces are funicular elevators constructed of clear glass, which allows for a full view of the artifacts in an accessible way. Designed to be the largest museum in the world, the GEM encompasses 484,000 square feet of floor space.  This is enough space to house 12 exhibition halls and more than 100,000 artifacts. In addition to space to house artifacts, the GEM also houses a state-of-the-art conservation lab, which will help support the further restoration and distribution of artifacts to other museums in Egypt.

This colossal 83-ton statue of Ramesses II sits in the Grand Egyptian Museum’s atrium. Construction on the atrium began only after the statue was moved into place. Photo Credit: Megan Payne

Despite breaking ground in 2012, the project faced challenges stemming from the Arab Spring revolution the year prior.  Over a four year period from 2012 to 2016, approximately 20 percent of the overall work was completed, which prompted the Egyptian Government to seek new leadership for this culturally important project.  The person selected to lead the project was Major General Atef Moftah of the Egyptian Army, who is the General Director of the Grand Egyptian Museum.  At first glance, the Major General carries the typical demeanor one would expect from such a high ranking military officer–formal, quiet, stern.  However, as soon as he begins to speak of the museum, the attitudes of his station melt away into a passionate brightness in his eyes.  Maj. Gen. Moftah is an architect by training, and this shift in tone and face belies the tremendous pride and passion he places in seeing this important project to fruition.  This pride and passion also exudes through his influence on the building’s design, of which Maj. Gen. Moftah has designed a number of key elements including the hanging obelisk in front of the building’s public entrance and its unique facade. 

Under the Maj. Gen.’s leadership, there has been no shortage of important achievements leading this colossal, unique project to completion.  The first such achievement came in 2018 when the first artifact was moved into the GEM.  Simply moving this artifact to its final location served as a significant achievement, seeing as the artifact was an 82-ton, three thousand year old statue of Ramesses II.  So massive is the statue at the heart of the GEM that the atrium is in fact built around it, with work commencing soon after it was moved into place.  Despite achievements like moving the statue of Ramesses II and King Tutankhamun’s chariots, the construction of the GEM was again delayed by the outbreak of Covid in 2020.  The outbreak of a global pandemic slowed many aspects of the project, but progress was again renewed in 2021 when the Khufu ship was successfully relocated to its future exhibit in the GEM.  At a time when the project seemed most prone to delays, Maj. Gen. Moftah’s confidence in moving this treasured artifact slowly in one piece meant that the final works could begin on their housing structure.

With all the major pieces in place, the grand opening of the GEM seems to finally be drawing near, despite its past tendency to remain elusive.  When pressed to predict the opening date for the Grand Egyptian Museum, the Maj. Gen. again regains a small measure of the formality that preceded him, insisting that the only thing he can predict is what he can control.  Maj. Gen. Moftah is clear of his task, which provides some measure of clarity in his response: construction work on the Grand Egyptian Museum will be completed by the end of 2023.  This means that, while the project has historically been subject to construction delays, the pressure to open the project has shifted to the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.  As the last significant construction hurdles are being cleared, there is significant reason to believe the Grand Egyptian Museum will be open to the public within the next few months.

From L to R: Ashok Dutta (Hill International), Mahmoud Shalaby (Hill International), Luke Carothers (Civil+Structural Engineer Media), Megan Payne (Independent Photojournalist), Major General Atef Moftah (General Director of GEM), Colin Foreman (Middle East Economic Digest), David Rogers (Global Construction Review), Perihan Elwy (Hill International)