A temporary exhibition of 70 artefacts, seized at Egyptian ports and prevented from being smuggled out of the country, has opened at the capital’s Prince Muhammad Ali Museum.
The antiquities were retrieved by the Central Administration of Ports and Archaeological Units over the last decade or so, but were kept in museum storage.
They belong to the Muhammad Ali Pasha Dynasty, the ruling dynasty of Egypt and Sudan from the 19th to the mid-20th century, and most are on display for the first time.
The exhibition was inaugurated on Sunday by Mostafa Waziri, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, as well as museum officials and other representatives from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. The pieces will be on display until January 25.
The occasion marks 119 years since Prince Muhammad Ali Tawfik, the cousin of King Farouk, began construction of the former palace.
“There are two ideas behind it: the first is that people know that 119 years have passed since this palace was established and the second is that people know that the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and political leaders are concerned with not letting antiquities get smuggled out of the country,” the museum's director, Mohamed El Bardiny, told The National.
Egypt has intensified efforts, particularly over the last decade, to prevent antiquities from leaving the country and to repatriate those that have gone abroad unlawfully.
Between 2011 and 2021, Egypt recovered 29,300 illegally smuggled artefacts, according to Shaaban Abdelgawad, director of the ministry’s antiquities repatriation department.
Items that are recovered are distributed to museums around Egypt but many remain in storage for years.
The Prince Muhammad Ali Museum — also called Al Manial Palace — alone has approximately 25,000 objects in its store rooms that only come out during temporary exhibitions and special celebrations, Mr El Bardiny said. The museum is planning to display these items permanently in 15 halls that are currently being renovated, he added.
Muhammad Ali Pasha, the founder of the dynasty, autonomously ruled Egypt between 1805 and 1848 although the country remained nominally part of the Ottoman Empire.
Prince Muhammad Ali was born in Cairo in 1875 and became the crown prince between the death of King Fuad I, who ruled Egypt between 1917 and 1936, and ascension of King Farouk to the throne. He was regent to his younger cousin, who had not yet reached the legal age to rule.
The prince drew the architectural plans and designs for the palace on a 14-acre plot of land on the Nile island of Al Manial, which is now a largely residential area. Construction began in 1903 and was completed in 1937.
King Farouk was overthrown and the monarchy toppled following a 1952 coup by nationalist army officers. Prince Muhammad Ali died while in exile in Switzerland, in 1955.
Upon his death, the Manial Palace and estate, including its furnishings, collections and historical gardens, were given to the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. The buildings include a reception hall, clock tower, mosque, hunting museum, residence hall, throne hall and private museum.
The pieces shown in the seized antiquities exhibition include the golden cradle of King Farouk, made of gilded wood and engraved with his monogram. It was seized in the cargo village at Cairo International Airport in 2010.
A painted European-style porcelain table depicting two women watching three men playing musical instruments was discovered in a furniture container at Damietta seaport.
Also on display is a hunting rifle and pistols that a passenger tried to smuggle out of Cairo airport in 2018. Dating back to the end of the 19th century, the rifle is made of wood and inlaid with ivory and silver, while the pistols are inlaid with seashell and bound with copper.
Wooden crutches inlaid with seashell and ivory with the emblem of King Farouk were seized at Cairo airport in 2020.
Several intricately-detailed porcelain vases were recovered, including two from Damietta seaport in 2018 and two from Cairo airport in 2021.
Two very large statues of African servants wearing turbans were seized at the airport in 2014.
Various medals and insignia were prevented from leaving the country by the Egyptian Postal Customs in Ramses and Ataba, as well as at the airport.
Scattered among the seized antiquities are other pieces from the museum’s collections, such as a white marble bust of King Fuad I and a painting of the prince.
Mr El Bardiny said the museum gets an average of 600 visitors per day, including groups of schoolchildren, Egyptians and tourists.
“Foreigners want to know the history of Egypt, whether that is Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic or Islamic,” he said.
Other museums in Egypt, including the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir, have displayed retrieved artefacts in past exhibitions.
Bassam El Shamaa, a historian and tour guide, said there needed to be more efforts to get items out of storerooms and suggested that small museums should be established in governorates across the country.
“The whole population of Egypt will be educated by their regained history and it will give a very positive vibe for Egyptians who always say ‘all are monuments are abroad, all are smuggled’,” Mr El Shamaa said.
High-profile campaigns to repatriate Egyptian artefacts include Zahi Hawass’ recent petition to the British Museum to return the Rosetta Stone.
Mr El Shamaa has led a similar campaign that resulted in 200 people e-mailing the museum directly to appeal for its return.
But Egypt should start by unveiling the treasures it already has, he said. It was at a temporary exhibition in Room 44 at the Egyptian Museum that he found a statue that “proves that the Sinai script influenced the European alphabet”.
“I was so happy that I saw a statue I was dying to see the last 15 years … I found it finally in Room 44”, he said.
“Every piece, every statue, every piece of history that comes out of a store room into an exhibition, I support.”
The 500,000-square-metre Grand Egyptian Museum, which partially opened for private events, is expected to fully open in 2023 and will display more than 50,000 artefacts.