Egyptian treasures go back on display

The acrid odor of chemicals permeated the laboratories of the National Archaeological Museum. It was the unmistakable odor of the substances being used to restore dozens of objects in the museum’s Egyptian collection. For anyone lucky enough to visit the conservators’ lab, it was an unforgettable sight as a mummy was undergoing treatment by the experts who also tended to his elaborate sarcophagus with its collar of turquoise Egyptian faience beads. That was before the Egyptian collection went back on display on May 14. The mummy’s apron bears a scarab design. The conservators repaired it, bead by bead, to restore it to its original form, then fixed it in place with thousands of pins before opening it to see what repairs were needed. Not only the beads have been saved, but even the thread originally used to attach them. The star of the show is Takushit, the bronze princess who recently returned from the Metropolitan Museum of New York, where she figured in a poster for its exhibition of Egyptian antiquities. Also known as Aithiopis (due to some connection, possibly by marriage, with Ethiopia), this statuette of a noble priestess was found in 1880 on the hill of Qom-Turuga, south of Alexandria. One of the treasures of the National Archaeological Museum’s collection, it is on display in the second room of the exhibition, accompanied by depictions of gods and hieroglyphs. The museum doesn’t have a lot of space to display its vast array of objects. Work on the underground extension, presently awaiting approval by the Culture Ministry, needs to be expedited. The Egyptian collection is in two rooms on the ground floor that have been painted the color of desert sand to display mummies, sarcophagi, columns with hieroglyphs, figurines, jewelry, vases, scarabs, Fayum portraits and burial caskets, some 1,200 exhibits in all. They are just a sample of the 7,000 objects (including 20 mummies) which the museum has in storage. It is not the quantity but the quality that makes this exhibition stand out, showcasing one of the finest collections of Egyptian antiquities. The museum’s director, Nikos Kaltsas, and Lena Papazoglou, head of its Prehistoric Collection and Egyptian treasures, explained that the exhibits cover the history of Egyptian civilization from the Predynastic period to Roman times (4000 BC – 4th century). They noted that its range and quality and the rarity of the objects give the collection international significance. The collection started in 1880. The first Greek collector of Egyptian antiquities was Ioannis Dimitriou from Lemnos, who lived in Alexandria. He was the first to donate his collection to the museum, even before it had been built. The second was Alexandros Rostovich from Cairo, who donated 2,237 items to the Greek state in 1904. Those two donations became the core of the museum’s collection, which grew with donations from the Greek Archaeological Society, the Egyptian government, and other individual donations as well as items from excavations and confiscations on Greek soil. The enhanced collection aims to acquaint visitors with the everyday life of the ancient Egyptians. Objects are described in terms of their use, with special emphasis placed on burial practices and religion. The connection between the Greek and Egyptian civilizations in antiquity is also highlighted. A large array of visual material provides the «small, informative texts» wanted by the public, according to responses to a survey conducted by the museum.