- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 3, 2002

The National Gallery of Art's new exhibit of ancient Egyptian art may lack the megahype and pizazz to say nothing of the glittering jewels and precious metals of "Treasures of Tutankhamen," the renowned blockbuster that attracted more than 835,000 visitors in 1976. Nevertheless, there were enough gold, ebony, ivory, bronze, lapis lazuli and stone items of Pharaonic provenance to make various rather sophisticated jaws drop in amazement at the gallery's private preview reception for "The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt" last Thursday night.
Their outstanding quality was hardly surprising. After all, one would expect nothing less of a major National Gallery exhibition. What was truly mind-boggling was that the vast majority of the statuary, funerary masks, canopic jars, furniture, jewelry and other artifacts representing the ancient Egyptians' fascination with the afterlife have never been displayed publicly before, not even in the land of the Nile.
"Most of it is from the cellars of the Cairo Museum. It's stuff that never makes it upstairs," exclaimed Marc E. Leland, a member of the gallery's collectors committee, as he stood in fascination before the magnificently preserved gilded coffin lid of Queen Ahhotep I, dating from the beginning of the 18th dynasty (circa 1550 B.C.).
"We've got thousands of things in storage, artifacts no one knows anything about," affirmed Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, before explaining that his country is committed to bringing as many of the objects as possible to public view with the construction of eight new museums.
First and foremost will be the Grand Egyptian Museum, located near the pyramids and Sphinx at Giza, where 100,000 pieces will be displayed over 148 acres of floor space.
The $350 million, 20-building complex will be the largest museum in the world when it is completed two years from now "bigger than the Vatican, the Louvre and the Metropolitan in New York," as one of Mr. Hawass' deputies crowed to Egyptologically minded listeners near the bar.
The other seven museums, all much smaller, are planned for various sites throughout the country, including several likely tourist destinations outside of the well-known Cairo-Luxor-Abu Simbel route.
Egyptian Ambassador M. Nabil Fahmy is hoping the exhibition will "help rekindle interest and fascination in Egyptian culture" as it makes its way through 13 U.S. and Canadian cities over the next five years. Although overall tourism is "back to 65 percent to 75 percent of what it was before September 11," Mr. Fahmy said he remains all too aware that American visitors "are still way down" since the terrorist attacks.
"Egypt is safe, safer than many cities in the U.S.," Mr. Hawass insisted, his voice rising as he pitched his cause beside an exquisite display of lotus flowers shooting up incongruously toward a giant Alexander Calder mobile slowly circulating overhead.
"We are a peaceful people who love Americans," he said, "and we can offer magic in your heart you will never find anyplace else."
Kevin Chaffee


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