It took about 20 years to build the Great Pyramid of Giza, archaeologists believe. It will take about the same amount of time for the Grand Egyptian Museum to be completed. Given the scale of the project, it is not entirely surprising. Conceived in 1992, the US$550 million (Dh2.02 billion) museum is an undertaking worthy of the Pharaohs: a vast, stone-roofed structure that will extend from the edge of the Giza plateau across an area the size of 11 football pitches. The museum will house more than 100,000 ancient artefacts, chief among which are the contents of King Tutankhamen's tomb.
"Egypt's heritage is very important for its tourism, and so although we have to protect it, we also have to sell it in some way," says Professor Alaa al Din Shaheen, the dean of Cairo University's faculty of archaeology and a member of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. With a project manager due to be announced this month, tendering due in September and a new opening date set for 2013, the museum project cannot come too soon for Cairo. Tourism is integral to the Egyptian economy, with receipts from visitors growing four-fold over the past decade to reach more than $11bn last year. The industry accounts for 11 per cent of Egypt's GDP.
Crucially, for a country of 78 million people where poverty is widespread, tourism also employs about 12 per cent of the Egyptian workforce. The antiquities council has some 30,000 people on its payroll. The Grand Egyptian Museum is being built with mass tourism in mind. Henighan Peng, the Dublin-based architects, have designed the terraced building to accommodate up to 15,000 visitors a day. The aim is to attract three million visitors a year, equivalent to about 25 per cent of the tourists who visited Egypt last year.
Yet tourism and archaeology do not mix easily. Asked what keeps him awake at night, Dr Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of the council, does not hesitate. "The single biggest threat to Egypt's archaeological wealth is tourism," he says. Just the breath of thousands of visitors is damaging the painted tombs of the Valley of the Kings, for example. "If we do not take serious measures, the tombs will disappear within 100 years."
Where once a hired bicycle and a handful of baksheesh was all it took to see the Valley of the Kings, from this summer only a handful of tourists will be able to visit the royal tombs, and then by appointment. Sites will alternately open and close to limit foot traffic. Vehicles have been banned from most sites. Yet these are only a small part of the overhaul of Egypt's antiquities and tourism sector. Another 20 local museums are now planned besides the grand centrepiece in Giza, drawing the masses but keeping them away from the sites.
"Our aim now is to balance the needs of tourism with the protection of the monuments," says Dr Hawass. Charismatic and media-savvy, the 62-year-old Dr Hawass has made it his life's work to track down stolen Egyptian antiquities from abroad. Recent successes include the recovery in April of more than 450 antiquities from Eton College. After failing to establish the provenance of the items, donated in the 1990s, the English private school decided to return the objects to Cairo.
The frequent appearances in National Geographic and on the Discovery Channel have not always endeared Dr Hawass to colleagues. "He has a knack of rubbing up other archaeologists the wrong way," says a London-based Egyptologist. "But his showmanship does get results. There wouldn't be as much awareness about the illicit trade in Egyptian antiquities without him." Regularly seen sporting an Indiana Jones-style fedora, Dr Hawass is clearly conscious of his media persona. "My greatest success with regards to recovering stolen objects is not the 5,500 objects I have managed to return to Egypt, but the awareness that I have raised around the world about the stolen artefacts," he says.
Other officials in the Middle East have begun to follow his lead. Thanks to an extensive media campaign, archaeologists and Iraqi officials have successfully undermined the trade in stolen Iraqi antiquities since the US-led invasion in 2003. Gulf states have also realised the tourism potential of their ancient sites, with listings pending from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and new museums planned in the UAE Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Oman.
With more than 5,000 years of civilisation compressed into a narrow strip of fertile land, Egypt is the regional doyenne of heritage tourism and the first to experience its worst effects. Temples in Luxor still bear the graffiti of European visitors from the 18th and 19th centuries. With nearly five years to go until the Grand Egyptian Museum opens, the task is to prevent any further damage. Security has been redoubled on Egypt's network of antiquities warehouses, a common target for thieves. Their contents are now being catalogued, as are the thousands of items gathering dust in the basements of the stately but shabby national museum in downtown Cairo, built in 1902.
"The museum is very important for the preservation of Egypt's heritage," says Dr Hawass. "It will be the first time that objects such as the King Tut collection will be shown in such a beautiful way." Many of the items destined for the Giza museum have not been seen in public since they were excavated more than a century ago. "The new museum is one of the best ways of preserving these antiquities and showing them to the people at the same time," says Prof Shaheen. "Our hope is it will be the greatest museum in the world."