King Tut is certainly more famous now than in his own time. The boy king died suddenly at the age of 19, before he could make a monument, or even a name, for himself. But just look at him now. He, or at least his stuff—the gilded masks, the lapis lazuli necklaces, the ornate thrones—is on a second blockbuster tour, traveling the world displayed safely behind glass in grand museums. Meanwhile, the pharaoh himself lies mummified in a decidedly unroyal-looking tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.
You could line up with the throngs and plunk down about $28 to see a few of Tut’s treasures, or you can hop a plane and see the royal mummy—and thousands of other ancient artifacts—on their home turf, where they have context, relevance, and meaning. There’s never been a better time to visit the cradle of civilization: Egypt is on a tear to open newly restored antiquities. Beginning now, and for the next three years, the government will inaugurate an impressive 22 new museums and attractions throughout the country—all in anticipation of the vast sums of tourism money likely to flow into the country as a result.
This month sees the opening of the mind-boggling Avenue of the Sphinxes on the east bank of the Nile River, a promenade of 1,350 lionlike statues that once linked the opulent temples of Karnak and Luxor. Though archeologists weren’t able to unearth the entire avenue—it would have destroyed much of the modern town of Luxor built atop the ruin—a sizable portion of the alleyway was uncovered, exposing 900 original statues. Also on view are the remains of a Roman village on the site, complete with a large-production bakery, a wine factory, and a residential neighborhood, as well as several unearthed cartouches of Cleopatra, which experts believe prove she visited the grand avenue.
Also this month, Abusir, situated just outside Cairo between Giza and the vast burial ground of Saqqara, will open, showcasing a collection of 11 pyramids that have long been off limits to tourists. Just south of Saqqara, less than an hour’s drive from Cairo, the NK Cemetery has been revealed, allowing access to its painted tombs of the less-famous (though not less extraordinary) royal family members Maya and Horemheb.
Saqqara itself deserves a serious visit. It’s home to the stunning 4,700-year-old step pyramid of Djoser, which will also open late this summer for interior tours. There are 16 pyramids on the site, in varying degrees of dilapidation. Even those that look like piles of rock can offer good examples of pyramid advancement. There’s early graffiti painted on a tomb wall, likely left by hoodlums during Jesus’ time. Most impressive, though, is the hewn-stone building complex—once used as gathering spots and administrative offices for the pharaoh and his cronies—considered to be the oldest of its kind remaining anywhere on earth. Strolling through the complex, you can easily imagine what the village must have looked like abuzz with robed ancient Egyptians instead of today’s fanny-packed sightseers.
A visit to Saqqara and Abusir could also include a look at the 4,600-year-old bent pyramid of Dahshur, thought to be the first true flat-sided pyramid. The bent pyramid’s interior chambers will finally be opened to tourists this December. That same month, visitors to the very recognizable pyramids of Giza will find that the touristy camel and horseback rides, along with the trinket salesmen and most of the panhandlers, are gone, replaced by wide-open spaces and slender paved roads to accommodate electric trams. “We’re cleaning up the site,” says Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. “We are finally giving these great pyramids the respect they deserve, and changing them from a zoo to a preserved park.”
For those who can’t make it to Egypt this year, there is still plenty of opportunity to catch upcoming debuts. The Grand Museum, opening near the pyramids of Giza in three years, will be the largest museum in the world, with 100,000 objects, including 4,500 objects from King Tutankhamun’s tomb.
There’s also a lot going on in the city of Alexandria, founded 2,300 years ago along the banks of the Mediterranean by Alexander the Great. The restored Royal Jewelry Museum is now reopened with hundreds of royal Egyptian jewels, portraits, and furnishings, housed in a grand Belle Époque palace. Nearby, several museums are currently under construction, including properties that showcase mosaics, ancient textiles, Greco-Roman culture, and maritime artifacts. The Egyptian government is working with UNESCO to construct an underwater museum to reveal the many treasures that lie submerged just off the coast due to the rising sea. Interested visitors can stay on top of current museum and attraction openings by visiting Egypt’s official Supreme Council of Antiquities Web site: sca-egypt.org.
Perhaps most exciting is the archeological dig 186 kilometers west of Alexandria to find Cleopatra and Marc Antony’s tombs. The exploration has centered on a temple built, in part, by Cleo herself. So far the site has yielded remarkable treasures, including several gilded mummies and so many fragments of sphinxes that Hawass, the country’s chief Egyptologist, believes the temple was lined with its own avenue of sphinxes. The dig is closed to the public but can occasionally be accessed by savvy tour operators. And there’s more to come; Hawass is currently negotiating for the return of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum and for the bust of Nefertiti from a museum in Berlin. Stay tuned; on your next visit you may get to view these, too.