An orchestra ushers pharaohs through Cairo — and Egypt to world stage
Few city dwellers would not remember at least one instance in which they had to wait for a presidential, royal or other dignitary motorcade to pass before normal traffic resumed. In the Middle East, where security is typically a high priority, such occurrences are rarely announced in advance. Still, they hardly go unnoticed, especially when they instigate beautification efforts to routes the important visitors might traverse. Only five weeks ago, central Cairo’s Tahrir area was a virtual construction site. It was getting the ultimate makeover, in preparation for an unprecedented set of visitors — 22 of Egypt’s most celebrated mummies. They were moved out of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square with unprecedented fanfare and dense layers of social and political symbolism.
The regal floats were accompanied by drumbeats and live music. Unlike most parades, however, the 18 kings and four queens of ancient Egypt were neither surrounded nor followed by instrumentalists. A full orchestra — a philharmonic orchestra no less — was the unexpected star of the night. The 100-member-strong ensemble, accompanied by a choir of 80 singers and three prominent soloists, shared the stage at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in the Fustat district of Old Cairo. A 54-minute work by Egyptian composer Hisham Nazih, commissioned especially for the occasion, ushered the mummies to where they will reside for the foreseeable future.
The procession involved multiple ensembles, as well as hundreds of Egyptians in military and pharaonic-inspired costumes performing together in real-time. The live event interfaced with recorded scenes from a multitude of archaeological sites also recently attended to. This is the age of satellite communication and a new moment of virtual togetherness across places and times. At the destination, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who was watching almost 200 of Egypt’s finest musicians perform on stage, got up at one point and left the concert hall. He walked alone behind the camera, through long corridors, and stood at the entrance as his nation’s ancient, legendary rulers entered the enormous museum site. In 22 custom-made, gold-gilded, tank-like vehicles, some of the world’s most prized treasures of cultural and material heritage were not mere mummies at this moment. The display was unmistakably befitting kings and queens.
Before the music started, the world was treated to an inaugural tour of the museum. Cameras followed the president, along with UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay and World Tourism Organization Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili, as they were guided by Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Anani. El-Anani explained to his guests why this is a museum of civilization, noting the curatorial choices showcasing Egypt’s hybrid cultural and historic heritage in the Main Gallery’s 1,600 items. Objects from predynastic ancient Egypt are juxtaposed with Greek, Roman, Coptic, Islamic, modern and contemporary artifacts. Prehistoric figures are represented alongside modern kings and recent presidents.
In a similar spirit, the orchestral performance brought seemingly disparate elements together. The new work included modern music set to song lyrics in Old Egyptian, one of the oldest languages of the Nile Valley. The instruments included a replica of an ancient Egyptian stringed instrument and a traditional nai, alongside the philharmonic ensemble. In addition to the choir, the work incorporated three different vocal techniques by featuring three distinguished singers — all female — from different musical styles who, nevertheless, sang together. Music critics usually have differing views on such fusions, but certain qualities of this work can hardly be disputed.
The deliberateness with which the various elements were combined, the precision of execution and the level of professionalism in pulling together such a massive work were impressively on display. This is true of both the compositional and organizational elements of the whole parade as well as the curatorial decisions behind the music performance. Particularly noteworthy were the women — mostly young women — whose showcasing as soloists and key players in this major national production was the explicit purpose of Nader Abbasi, creator and conductor of the United Philharmonic Orchestra.
But when mummies are involved, talk of spirits does not stop early. One of the musicians, timpani player and percussion section leader at the Cairo Opera Symphony Radwa El-Behery, who shouldered a significant part of the underlying bass line that sustained this long performance, was dubbed by her new fanbase as the “Granddaughter of Hatshepsut.” Daughter of Thutmos I, Hatshepsut is thought to be the most successful female pharaoh. Watching this display of high craft, one can almost forget the negative images that abound in news on Egypt.
Still, Egypt’s problems are real, and funds are desperately needed, especially in the sectors of health, transport and education. Unknown death figures from increasingly frequent train crashes and a global pandemic have only been part of the negative local and global press on the country.
Beautiful music, good professional work, a world-class performance and top-grade female musicians who not only enthralled and captivated audiences but also empowered and impressed: These are all useful elements to a country attempting to regain a spot on the world stage.
When Egypt sets its mind to something, it achieves it. Just ask Hatshepsut, or her granddaughters.
Supporters of the “Pharaohs’ Golden Parade” praised it as a proper and long-overdue expression of Egyptian human and cultural richness. Skeptics, inevitably, saw a different side. To internal critics, the carnivalesque was not missed in the modern parading of pharaonic might and culture that spared no expense while the country’s masses suffer from shortages. External critics read in the symbolic marrying of culture and might reminders of recent, less covert displays of power by oppressive regimes in the region and beyond.
To this spectator, a well-orchestrated parade makes for an enjoyable watch in any event — especially so in a pandemic year. Whether Egyptians deem it a necessary reflection of national pride or a reminder of what could be done, one thing seems undeniable: When Egypt sets its mind to something, it achieves it. Just ask Hatshepsut, or her granddaughters.
- Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo.” She is a visiting research fellow at King’s College London and an associate fellow at Yale College.