This week the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is celebrating its 116-year anniversary since it first opened its doors to the public on November 15, 1902. Since then it has become a must-visit destination for any tourist coming to Egypt. On the blog this week, the Nile Scribes take you to visit a hidden monument that museum-goers often miss in the museum’s garden: the Auguste Mariette Memorial. On your next visit to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, be sure to stop at the Mariette Memorial – it not only pays homage to Mariette’s role in establishing the museum but also honours many other Fathers of Egyptology.
In 1858, Khedive Said Pasha established Egypt’s Antiquities Service (now the Ministry of Antiquities) and selected French archaeologist Auguste Mariette to be its first director. Mariette had made a name for himself with the discovery of the Serapeum at Saqqara at 1851. He advocated for a location near the Giza plateau, although when the first iteration of the museum finally opened in 1863, it would do so just north of its present location in Bulaq, Cairo. In 1887, when the Bulaq Museum collection had outgrown its original home, a new museum was opened at Giza in the Palace of Ismael Pasha. The Cairo collection remained in the Giza Museum until the completion of a new Egyptian Museum in 1902, when Gaston Maspero, then director of the museum, was tasked with moving the artefacts to their current home on Tahrir Square.
When visitors enter the museum gates off of the busy Tahrir Square, they are most often drawn immediately into the museum and make haste through the garden toward the entrance doors. The museum’s garden contains some especially large pieces, including the hawk-headed stone sarcophagus of Horsiese and the pyramidion from an obelisk of Hatshepsut. To the left of the entrance “hides” a monument that attests to the history of the museum’s establishment: the Auguste Mariette Memorial. Auguste Mariette was the first individual to head the Antiquities Service, which he helped establish in the mid-nineteenth century, and the founding director of the Bulaq Museum. After Mariette’s death, he was interred beside the Bulaq Museum but in July of 1902 his tomb was moved to its final resting place in the Egyptian Museum’s garden.
The Fathers of Egyptology
Mariette’s tomb forms the centrepiece of the memorial, but his image atop the sarcophagus is kept company by 24 busts that honour individuals who helped to shape the beginning of Egyptology, many of whom served as directors or curators at the Egyptian Museum during their careers. On the lower register sit the images of ten Egyptologists – five Egyptians and five Europeans: Labib Habachi, Samy Gabra, Selim Hassan, Ahmed Kamal, Zakaria Goneim, Jean-François Champollion, Amedeo Peyron, Willem Pleyte, Gaston Maspero, and Peter le Page Renouf.
Labib Habachi (1906-1984)
Born in Mansoura in the Egyptian Delta, Labib Habachi was an Egyptologist and Coptologist who was among the first to graduate from Cairo University’s new Institute of Egyptology. During his thirty-year career in the Egyptian Antiquities Service, Habachi excavated at the Delta sites of Kom Wasit and Tell el-Daba’a, and was the first to propose that Tell el Daba’a should be identified as Avaris, the Hyksos capital. He is best known for his publications on Egyptian obelisks and the sanctuary of Heqaib in Elephantine. Habachi was buried at the Saint Tawdros Monastery in Luxor, beside Malqata.
Samy Gabra (1892-1979)
Samy Gabra’s interest in Egyptology and archaeology only took off during his later life. Born in 1892 in Asyut, his studies took him from Asyut via Beirut to Bordeaux in France, where he completed his degrees in law. Gabra then returned to Cairo to teach law, but would eventually pursue Egyptology. Studying first under Ahmed Kamal, he would go on to obtain his doctorate in archaeology at Sorbonne (with a stop at Liverpool) and launched several important archaeological projects. Remembered for his fieldwork at Tuna el-Gebel, where he uncovered the expansive cemeteries over the course of 20 years, Gabra also made very important contributions in the field of Coptic Studies.
Selim Hassan (1887-1961)
Well known for his extensive excavations at Giza during the 1930s, Selim Hassan was an assistant curator at the Egyptian Museum during the early parts of his career. Hassan was born in the Delta town of Mit Nagi and later studied in Paris at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and received his PhD from Vienna University. He published extensively during his lifetime, including ten volumes relating to his Giza excavations and a sixteen-volume series, The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyptian History, which took him twenty years to complete. Later in life, he served as deputy director of the Antiquities Service and became the first Egyptian to hold the position of Professor of Egyptology at Cairo University.
Ahmed Kamal (1849-1923)
Born in Cairo in 1851, Ahmed Kamal is regarded as the first Egyptian Egyptologist and greatly increased the profile of Egyptian scholarship in the mid-nineteenth century. Having trained under Heinrich Brugsch, he was very active within the Antiquities Service in the early stages of his career before being named Assistant Curator at the Egyptian Museum – a post which he held for over 25 years. He was the first among several Egyptian Egyptologists whose busts were finally added to the memorial in the early 1950s.
Zakaria Goneim (1905-1959)
Zakaria Goneim is lauded for his years of work at Saqqara where he worked as an assistant archaeologist on the Unas causeway. During World War II, Goneim was appointed Chief Inspector of Antiquities for Upper Egypt and worked in Luxor. After the war, Goneim returned to Saqqara where he discovered a lost step pyramid of the Third Dynasty belonging to Sekhemkhet, Djoser’s successor, which he described in his book The Lost Pyramid. Goneim’s story has an unfortunate end – he was found dead in the Nile River in 1952 after being falsely accused of theft.
Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832)
Jean-François Champollion was born in 1790 in Figeac, France and is known as the “Father of Egyptology” as the first individual to read Egyptian hieroglyphs since antiquity. In 1799, when Champollion was only nine, the Rosetta Stone was discovered in the Delta, sparking the interest of the child prodigy. By the time he was eighteen years old, Champollion had compiled a Coptic Dictionary and had studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic. His famous race against British scholar Thomas Young to ‘crack’ the ancient code culminated in 1822 when the young professor deciphered the alphabet by using the names of Ptolemaic rulers Cleopatra and Ptolemy on the Rosetta Stone. He later was appointed the first Chair of Egyptology at Collège de France, although he died at the young age of forty-two.
Willem Pleyte (1836-1903)
Pleyte is well remembered for his publications of important hieratic papyri in various European collections (notably those published together with Francesco Rossi in Turin). Born in the Netherlands in 1836, he studied theology before he got a position with Leiden Museums as conservator. In 1891, he would rise to the top of the museum rank as its Director. His major contribution to Egyptology is his creation surrounding metal plates for the printing of hieratic characters – a technology prominently used by the eminent Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde.
Amedeo Peyron (1785-1870)
Most likely not well known outside scholarly circles, Amedeo Peyron was born in Turin in the late eighteenth century. Like many European scholars after him, he was educated in the Classics with a clear proficiency in Greek and then also ordained as priest. Over the course of his career, he became a member of the Turin academy and would eventually become an expert in Coptic. He is celebrated in Egyptology for his 1835 publication of the Lexicon Linguae Copticae, a project which he started early on in his life and for which he collected extensively.
Gaston Maspero (1846-1916)
Born in Paris, Gaston Maspero was the first person to earn a PhD in Egyptology in France. He arrived in Egypt in 1881 only days before the death of Auguste Mariette and was subsequently appointed the new director of the Antiquities Service as well as the director of the Bulaq Museum. Later, Maspero was tasked with transferring the Egyptian collection from Bulaq to Giza and eventually to Tahrir. Well-known for his extensive excavations in Luxor and Saqqara, Maspero also published the first guide to the Egyptian Museum, then located at Bulaq, and continued Mariette’s project of publishing the collection in its entirety in the Catalogue Général.
Peter le Page Renouf (1822-1897)
Renouf is well-known in Egyptology for his contributions in philology as he continued the work started by Champollion. Born in England in 1822, his life took him on several journeys: first, studying theology at Pembroke College, then taking up a position at the Catholic University in Dublin, where he would first teach French, then becoming Professor of Ancient History and Oriental Languages. His work led him to the study of Egyptian hieroglyphs through Coptic which he put into practice by examining several Egyptian papyri in the collection of Trinity College. Eventually, he would go on to become keeper of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian section at the British Museum, where he had close access to the Papyrus of Ani. He is well-known in this context for his publication of the Book of the Dead based on Ani’s papyrus.