Egyptian production designer Mohamed Attia says mummies parade a career highlight

The 48-year-old worked with the greats of Egyptian cinema, but last month's unique event presented a new challenge

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Egyptian architect-turned production designer Mohamed Attia has worked with many of the country’s acclaimed film directors, including the late Mohamed Khan, Yousry Nasrallah, Tarek Alarian and Marwan Hamed.

But he never expected the brief given to him a year and a half ago: design the visual aspects of a parade that will transport 22 royal mummies from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo's Tahrir Square to their new resting place at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation.

"I was very happy that the officials trusted me to do such a job. But at the same time, I was so worried about the big responsibility and it was something I've never done before," Attia, 48, tells The National.

It was something I've never done before

The monumental task included transforming army trucks into climate-controlled floats decorated in pharaonic style, recreating ancient Egyptian boats and carriages, lighting the parade route and designing majestic gates.

He need not have worried; the spectacular Pharaohs' Golden Parade that took place on April 3 garnered positive reviews from around the world and instilled nationalistic pride among Egyptians.

Attia is an example of the homegrown talent that was showcased to a global audience on that day, as Egypt highlighted its ancient heritage and signaled to the world that its was open to tourists.

“It was one of the highlights of my career,” he says.

From dentistry to cinema

The journey that led Attia to the mummies parade was a winding one.

As a university student he spent five months studying dentistry at Cairo University before deciding it was not for him.

“It was the dream of my family for me to become a doctor, but I love architecture,” he recalls.

He transferred to the Faculty of Fine Arts in Zamalek and in his first year did an internship on the set of Al Mohager (The Emigrant), a 1994 film directed by Youssef Chahine.

He “started falling in love with cinema” but finished his studies in architecture in 1995 and began work as a draftsman in France.

“I believe that any production designer in the cinema has to have an architectural background through education or experience,” he says.

Still, architecture was not his true calling.

“I suffered working there. It was so depressing for me.”

After over three years of producing drawings, he jumped on the opportunity to return to Cairo to help renovate buildings at the 1930s-era production complex Studio Misr.

It was there that he met production designer and art director Salah Marei, who encouraged him to make a career change and introduced him to film director Khan.

In parallel Attia established his own film production design company called 35 Champollion Studio, named after its address in Downtown Cairo.

“I was so lucky,” he says. “My first chance was with Mohamed Khan, who was one of the biggest names in the 80s and 90s.”

Attia worked on three films with Khan followed by two films with Nasrallah.

More recently, Attia has been the production designer on four films by Palestinian-Egyptian director Tarek Alarian and another four from young director Marwan Hamad.

A new challenge

For Attia, the parade presented a unique challenge: creating an event that is not “kitsch” or “cliché” and reflects the prestige of a royal procession.

“We didn’t have a zero line based on references. The closest thing one could compare it to is the Rio de Janeiro carnival or Venice carnival, but this was more of a celebration of a deep history,” Attia says.

“There is a sense of respect and magnificence, more than a colourful party for the masses.”

He emphasises that the production design was a team effort, including his entire events company Kokoro and 35 people outsourced from elsewhere.

Other challenges included contending with delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and operating within a limited budget.

“Army trucks are not the best solution for a designer – they’re bulky. But we didn’t have the budget to buy or rent 22 cars just for the parade,” he says.

Decorated in black and gold, each lorry included the name of the king or queen written in English, Arabic and hieroglyphics. The mummies were protected in nitrogen-sealed capsules.

Pharaoh's car designed by Mohamed Attia, the production designer behind Egypt’s Pharaohs Golden Parade. Courtesy Mohamed Attia
Decorated in black and gold, each vehicle included the name of a king or queen written in English, Arabic and hieroglyphics. The mummies were protected in nitrogen-sealed capsules. Courtesy Mohamed Attia

The event “renewed the link between contemporary Egyptians and their pharaonic ancestors”, Attia says, and the positive reviews gave Egyptians a “confidence boost”.

“We have this assumption that Egyptians can’t put on a big event like this – that we have to get foreigners from abroad. But I believe there was pride and joy that Egyptians can do this.”

Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El Anany said there are plans to hold another royal parade later this year to transfer King Tutankhamun to the yet-to-be-opened Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza.

Would Attia take part again if asked?

“Of course,” he says, without missing a beat.