The inauguration of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) will have a significant impact regionally and internationally, according to Ghaith Fariz, Director of UNESCO Cairo Office.
“Egypt is in the heart of the Arab region. We always say that Egypt is the mother of the world, and it is certainly the mother of the Arab nation, so subsequently this museum [GEM] will help in supporting and consolidating the faith in this heritage and its appreciation,” he said.
Daily News Egypt interviewed Fariz to learn about UNESCO’s projects to preserve the Egyptian heritage, and how they see the ongoing and recent archeological projects in Egypt, including the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC), (GEM), and the Royal Mummies parade. The interview also touched on the UNESCO Director-General’s first official visit to Egypt and her impressions.
UNESCO has been cooperating with Egypt since 1947. How do you assess this 74-year-long relation? What distinguishes Egypt from your organisation’s other places of operation?
The headquarters of UNESCO was established in Paris in 1945. The second office around the world was founded in 1947 in Cairo, and it was a regional office for the Middle East. Egypt is, therefore, one of the founding countries of this organisation. This shows the strength of the relationship between UNESCO and Egypt. As a founding country, Egypt certainly contributed to setting all the regulations, laws, and charters that were dealt with and sponsored by UNESCO. The relationship between UNESCO and Egypt is historical.
Egypt is rich with many cultural monuments, and it has a distinct role in science both in the Arab region and the world. Egyptian heritage has been in history for thousands of years, as well as with regard to science, as well as education and educational systems in Egypt. Egypt’s educational system was one of the first educational systems in the Arab region, and so on. These are all issues that UNESCO is concerned with.
Perhaps one of the most important events that prove the strength of the relationship between Egypt and UNESCO is the campaign to rescue the Nubian heritage in which several countries have participated. This campaign not only saved Egyptian monuments and made Egypt a culturally important country, but it also helped to forge UNESCO’s good reputation around the world. After this campaign, the World’s Most Notable Sites list was created, and currently, there are over 1,000 sites on this list. Egypt occupies an important place there.
So our relationship is, therefore, a historical one that is ongoing and relates to various fields, whether in education, education, culture, in the preservation of tangible or intangible material heritage, as well as in the ICT sector and the humanities and social sciences. It is a deep-rooted and always renewed relationship.
UNESCO has not added a single archaeological site in Egypt to the World Heritage List since 2002, why? How could you help the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities convert its heritage sites included in the tentative list of UNESCO to the permanent list?
Egypt has multiple archaeological sites of great value, but the inscription of a site on the World Heritage List follows specific criteria. The state must make an official request and then submit the necessary documents showing the importance and outstanding of the site in question. So the Egyptian side is the one who is responsible for preparing and presenting this dossier and is the one who chooses which sites it wants to place on the UNESCO list.
We play a supporting role by providing technical aid and training, or raising the capabilities of the creators of these files or documents.
What are UNESCO’s goals and role in Egypt?
First of all, we always say that UNESCO’s primary goal is to support the Egyptian development agenda. The areas of UNESCO’s support for Egypt are various, including technical support through which we provide technical advice on many issues and provide specialists and experts.
We also train personnel in various fields, whether administrative, technical, or other. Sometimes, for example, we implement projects on the ground. So the support has different forms; perhaps, as I mentioned, the hub incapacity support, providing support expertise, and sometimes direct implementation, but of course, in cooperation with the relevant Egyptian entity.
What are the projects that UNESCO is currently participating in its establishment in Egypt?
Our projects and programmes in Egypt are numerous. We have educational and heritage programs aimed at preserving nature reserves, as well as tangible and intangible heritage.
In terms of preserving the heritage, we are currently working, for example, on a major project to document Egyptian intangible heritage with the Ministry of Culture. We also have a major rehabilitation and redevelopment project for the village of Al-Gorna El-Gedida, created by architect Hassan Fathi in Upper Egypt, which features the simple architecture. We aim to revive and rehabilitate this village, with the aim of preserving and promoting this exceptional urban architectural heritage.
In addition, we have worked with Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities on the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization since the idea for its creation germinated and until its founding. We are also partners in restoring and rehabilitating the Museum of Islamic Art after the terrorist attack in 2014. Today, thanks to a fund from the Italian government, we are aiming to transform this museum into a unique centre. We aim also to restore and preserve Islamic monuments not only in this museum but throughout all museums in Egypt.
Why has UNESCO shown a remarkable interest in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization since its inception?
It is an exceptional and distinguished museum. It is not a museum in the traditional sense, not just an exhibition space where you see monuments, but it is a cultural complex. It is a place for restoration, a social and cultural centre and an area for entertainment. I think this concept has been and continues to be an evolving and renewed concept in museums. It was far from the traditional concepts of museums.
We are honoured at UNESCO to work with the Egyptian side in the rehabilitation of this museum. We have worked in rehabilitating some halls. We also worked in the process of rehabilitating cadres and building the capacity of cadres concerned in technical capabilities and many other issues. The inauguration of the museum was very honourable.
I must pay tribute to the development of the area that surrounds the museum. Honestly It became in a much better condition, and maybe this concept that we are trying and I personally see it as a concept, I mean, it must be discriminatory to make museums interact with society that are not separate from society, so that museums are available to everyone and interact with society, even because the goal is to respect and promote this heritage, we preserve it because, first and last, our heritage represents us. It also will be the solid base until we proceed to the bright future.
How did you see the Royal Mummies Parade? How far could this event promote Egypt’s tourism?
It was distinguished in a way beyond imagination. I have taken part in various occasions worldwide, but I have never seen such a glorious event. From all perspectives, it featured extraordinary artistic abilities. This parade showcased the civilization of Egypt spanning over 7,000 years in an hour. This event was remarkable and will remain in everyone’s memory for years. And of course, it will have a positive impact on tourism because the whole world is talking about it.
UNESCO Director-General made her first official visit to Egypt in early April. Could you brief us on this visit?
At the invitation of the Egyptian authorities, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay made an official visit to Egypt from 2 to 6 April, and she attended the Royal Mummies Parade. She was so impressed by the parade like the whole world. Her comments were very, very positive as I told you all who watched the parade were impressed. She praised the distinguished Egyptian efforts in preparing and making this event.
Her impressions in general about Egypt during the visit were very positive. During her visit, she met with President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, where the meeting was very fruitful and excellent. In Addition, she visited many important sites both in Aswan and Cairo. She also visited Alexandria. Her impressions of the visit, in general, were very excellent in general, especially on parade and the meeting with Egypt’s President.
How do you see the progress of construction works in the Grand Egyptian Museum? How do you expect the impact of the long-awaited inauguration of the museum on the world heritage in general and in Egypt in specific?
The GEM is a huge museum that is very distinguished in its architecture and location. Construction work in the museum progressed in leaps and bounds. I was honoured to visit the GEM more than once. I think it is a milestone in the Egyptian museum system. In the recent period, many museums have been opened in Egypt, and there is a system, and the GEM stands out among archaeological museums in Egypt, like a diamond in a necklace. I believe that it will be an essential station for anyone who wants to know about the Egyptian civilization. It will also be an important station for archaeological tourism and an essential place for research and studies.
When non-Egyptians visit the GEM, it will help them understand and appreciate Egypt’s heritage and civilization. While it will help the Egyptians consolidate their identity. I think the GEM’s inauguration will have a significant impact locally, regionally, and internationally.
Egypt has adopted a strategy to develop its historical places, how do you see this strategy? How could your organization contribute to carrying out this strategy?
As I mentioned earlier, our goal is to support the development agenda in Egypt. The support forms vary from technical advice, suggesting plans to renovate historical places, raising capacity and training personnel in various fields, direct implementation not alone but with the Egyptian concerned body.
From my perspective, Egypt’s strategy to develop its historic places has had stunning results, especially in recent years.
UNESCO used to set conditions or specific criteria for the development of archaeological sites, such as Historic Cairo and Giza Plateau. Could you brief us on these conditions?
First, Egypt is full of many distinguished heritage sites, and a number of them are listed on the UNESCO World Heritage under the relevant treaties. These treaties include obligations for the Egyptian government and UNESCO to preserve historical sites.
Second, many of the archaeological sites are located within residential areas, which require development projects which do not contradict with heritage preservation. We could carry out development projects without harming heritage sites. The Egyptian side is already keen on this issue.
Today, we are witnessing a remarkable development movement in Egypt, which I believe is magnificent.
In my opinion, Egypt will find balanced solutions to preserve archaeological areas without disturbing the sustainable development process.