Solar Boat Museum at Giza

Review

of an Exhibition

by Mary Marcussen

Published on June 30, 2008

  • Description:

    My first impression was that of a space ship landing in the middle of one of the World’’s Wonders: the Great Pyramids of Giza. This curious, rather extra-terrestrial structure at the base of the Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) contains the actual, reconstructed Solar Boat that was used in the funerary ceremonies of the Pharaoh Khufu 4,600 years ago. After carrying the Pharaoh’’s body across the River Nile for burial, the boat had been carefully disassembled into organized pieces and buried next to the Pharaoh’’s pyramid, ready to take him to the afterlife. The discovery of the boat in 1954 is considered to be the single most important archaeological find in Egypt since the Tomb of Tutankhamun.

    The idea of this bizarre pod-shaped museum was to create a building following the general outline of the boat itself and with interior walkways on three levels to provide visitors with visual access to the boat from all angles. The vessel was rebuilt at the center of the museum, directly above the stone pit in which it was found, to give visitors an overall view of how it was preserved through the ages. The building’’s outer façade of transparent glass allows visitors to keep a visual link with the nearby pyramid, and thus removing any sense of isolation from the archaeological site.

    At the entrance, visitors are required to don cotton shoe mitts to reduce the amount of desert sand tracked into the museum. Several sparse exhibits contain photographs of various stages of the boat’’s discovery, retrieval, and reconstruction. It took 14 years to reassemble the boat’’s 1,224 separate parts using only original Egyptian materials of wooden pegs and rope made from grass, like the original rope, whose remains were found in the pit. The original rope is exhibited under glass along with photos taken while the rebuilding of the boat was in process. Leaving the ground floor exhibits, visitors follow a series of staircases and walkways to view the boat.

    The Solar Boat is exceptionally beautiful. Stretching almost 150 feet in length, some of the boat’s timbers are made from whole cedars, most likely from Lebanon. The stern sweeps upward, with a papyrus end, while the bow curves inward and is tipped with a magnificently carved papyrus blossom. There are hand carved oars and ropes that might have been made today. The boat’s state of preservation is remarkable.

    At the same time, the boat is suffering from exposure to an uncontrolled environment, and from the hundreds of visitors who pass close by it each day. The peculiar design of the museum does not provide the proper environment for preserving the wood. The glass walls allow the sun rays to enter without any filtration. The space between the glass panes also does not prevent rainwater, pollution, or insects from entering the boat. The air conditioning system is so antiquated that it depends on Freon gas to function. I shudder that my breath had likely contributed to the boat’’s demise.

    There are various rumors floating around about a new building for the Solar Boat, or about plans to move the boat to the nearby Great Museum of Egypt when it opens in 2010. Several people I spoke to had heard that a renovation of the Solar Boat Museum was in the “possible plan” stage. But in Egypt, that could take years to happen. There were bread riots while I was there due to a shortage of wheat, and for good reason protection of the Solar Boat may not be first on the minds of Cairo’’s more than seven million inhabitants. Cairo is Africa’s most populous city, and the second most densely populated city in the world (second to Dhaka, Bangladesh). With a population similar to that of New York City, Cairo is nearly four times as dense. Food, water, health, jobs, and transportation are dire issues.

    But imagine this beautiful boat. Such amazing ingenuity by an ancient people so entirely devoted to its construction, and subsequent deconstruction and purposeful burial next to its powerful owner. And unfathomable that it was discovered 4,600 years later and once again painstakingly assembled for us to ponder and enjoy today.

    I found a somewhat dizzying video posted on YouTube that gives a 3-D view of the Solar Boat Museum. Click on the High Quality option to better see details of the boat’s construction (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrifJdrMO7c). Next time you are in Cairo, this museum is a must see, if it is still there.

Latest Comments (1)

Competing Priorities

by Carey Tisdal - July 28, 2008

Thank you for bringing us the story of such a fabulous artifact. Your explanation of the competing priorities related its preservation are very clear . . . and painful. Thanks for the review!

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