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Indiana Jones Fantasy Thrives in Dank Basement

Egypt: Cairo Museum sorts through dusty recesses and finds antiquities that curators forgot. An exhibition is set for December.

September 29, 2002|DONNA BRYSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

CAIRO — Gaston Maspero, the first director of Egypt's national storehouse of ancient treasures, is said to have believed that his museum should resemble pharaohs' tombs -- crowded with paintings and statues, furniture and jewelry.

One hundred years after the Cairo Museum opened, its basement, at least, is everything that the French Egyptologist could have hoped for. Wandering through its shadowy maze is like exploring the inside of a pyramid.

Here, a flashlight beam picks out a 3-foot-long bearded stone bust of a pharaoh resembling those at Luxor and Karnak that date back some 4,600 years. There, a trio of cupids straight out of a Victorian cemetery form an incongruous honor guard for a dark stone Pharaonic figure in the familiar pose -- arms straight at the sides, left foot forward, face imperious. A corner devoted to stone pedestals and capitals could be a spare-parts shop for a classical architect.

For the most part, the basement is off-limits to all but museum staff and researchers. A reporter recently was permitted a rare visit. Once inside, it is something of an Indiana Jones fantasy, minus the snakes.

Just getting here was an excavation of sorts through several layers of skeptical bureaucracy before a curator opened a safe's heavy door and handed a set of keys to an assistant. Another assistant grabbed a pair of cutters for the wire and lead seal on the basement gate.

Permissions granted, seal snipped, gate and door unlocked, and then it is down a sloping cement floor, under a low arch, a sharp right past three dusty fire extinguishers to another locked door, this one iron and guarded by an empty stone sarcophagus. A pause while a member of the party goes back to the office for more keys.

Once inside the main chamber, the honking, tire-squealing cacophony of downtown Cairo is muffled. The first stop is an area cleared to store the 150 or so items of "Hidden Treasures of the Egyptian Museum," an exhibition set to open Dec. 9 to showcase objects long hidden in the basement and other storage sites.

The "Hidden Treasures" include two sphinxes the size of beagles, one headless, standing chest-to-chest on the cement floor under cowls of bubble wrap. On shelves behind sheets of clear plastic are a graceful, shallow stone vessel marbled in gray and charcoal, and delicately detailed funerary statues of workers doing tasks for the royal dead -- offering beer, grinding grain. They haven't been dated yet, but resemble those found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, who ruled more than 3,300 years ago.

For years, museum curator Elham Salah had seen the basement as merely a place for leftovers. Then came an order from the irrepressible Zahi Hawass, director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, to choose items for "Hidden Treasures." That opened her eyes.

"It was a discovery," she said. "We conducted an excavation inside the basement itself."

Adding to the sense of intrigue, most items in the basement are what Salah called "unpublished objects" -- those yet to be studied and placed into the context of Egypt's history. Curators are contacting excavation leaders and others, and comparing the no-longer-hidden treasures to pieces about which more is known to prepare to tell their stories for the exhibition.

Many of the basement treasures are tagged, although dust and time have obscured some information. Pieces from the museum's holdings are cataloged, but the basement has also become the resting place for items from excavations and overflow from other museums for which there's no central registry. Until planned cataloging of the entire basement begins in earnest, it will be difficult to determine how complete the basement records are, and how many pieces may remain mysteries forever.

As they explored in preparation for the "Hidden Treasures" show, scholars grabbed whatever caught their eye. "It could take days and days" to find a specific object, Salah said. With each step deeper into the basement, it became clear why.

Wires snaking along the brick walls feed bulbs, their light penetrating the gloom just enough to reveal a scene of orderly neglect: Wooden crates sprouting straw, cardboard boxes that once held bottled water, suitcases of treasures arranged on shelves and covered with dust that looks as if it has been collecting there since the museum opened on Nov. 15, 1902.

A crate that had lost its lid revealed beach-ball-sized terra-cotta vessels nestled in crumpled paper and dust. Unboxed larger pieces include a life-size prone human figure on a high shelf. The eerie figure, arms thrust to the ceiling in what looks like rigor mortis, set off a debate among a museum guard and assistant curators. A mummy? A flashlight revealed that it was a wooden statue.

The mummy was farther on, resting in a richly carved and painted wooden sarcophagus, its lid ajar enough to allow a glimpse of dust-blackened wrappings.

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