In a factory near Cairo, a man leans over a bust of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti, carefully dabbing with a brush. Next to it, two men inspect a life-size replica of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s famous gold chariot.
These experts in the restoration of objects sometimes dating back thousands of years have turned to the creation of new products as part of a government initiative to fill Egyptian gift shops with locally made souvenirs.
The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities owns and operates Konouz, a factory on a 10,000 m² site, installed at a cost of 100 million Egyptian pounds ($ 6.36 million). The staff of around 150 includes restoration experts from the Ministry and Supreme Council of Antiquities, as well as fine arts students in training.
“Why catering experts? Because they have the know-how both in the technical aspect of the work as well as in the artistic and cultural aspects ”, explains Mohamed Noseir Ahmed, head of restoration at Konouz.
The factory currently has a range of around 70 replicas, including miniatures of King Tut’s funeral mask and a fiberglass model of the bust of Alexander the Great, and plans to expand.
Replicas are primarily for decorative purposes, so they are made of lightweight materials and painted in bright colors, making them attractive additions to the coffee tables of historically inclined people.
While most of the replicas produced are artifacts from ancient Egypt, the factory’s talented staff also explore other civilizations that influenced Egypt’s long history, including Greco-Roman, Coptic, and of course. , islamic.
The project is part of an overhaul of the Egyptian tourism industry that includes overhauling parts of historic Cairo, particularly Fatimid Cairo, and opening museums.
In April, a live, singing and dancing parade of 22 mummies from their former home in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to the New National Museum of Egyptian Civilization drew millions of viewers from around the world. Now the authorities are ready to cash.
Riding the wave of interest, the first Konouz store opened at the museum in early April. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi received a large decorative gold inlaid necklace, made by Konouz, at the opening of the museum.
“We thought that with Covid-19 keeping foreign tourists away, there wouldn’t be much interest in our replicas, but we actually sold a fair amount of stuff in our store inside the National Museum of Egyptian civilization, ”Ahmed said.
“It proves that Egyptians, as well as foreigners, are definitely interested in buying this stuff. They just need to be of good quality. “
The plant produces around 200 to 250 finished replicas each day, but its officials hope to increase that number to 500 to 800 once tourism recovers from the pandemic.
All replicas made by Konouz carry a seal of approval from the Supreme Council of Antiquities as a sign of good quality. Buyers can scan a barcode on the product to learn more about the original artifact online.
One replica that has proven to be popular is a miniature sarcophagus, about seven centimeters long, which, when opened, reveals a gruesome cartoonish mummy inside. The sarcophagus comes in multiple colors and sells for around 50 Egyptian pounds ($ 3).
In addition to making scale models that can be displayed in homes, the Konouz team makes life-size replicas of bulky items that can cost up to 12,000 Egyptian pounds. They can also be purchased online.
“It was important to open an online store to sell our products. I am personally very proud of their quality and I think people will see right away that they are of a higher quality than any other replica sold in Egypt or abroad, ”Mr. Ahmed said proudly.
The replicas reflect all of the physical flaws with which the originals were found. For example, a replica of a pair of slippers unearthed with the treasures of King Tut includes a visible crack in the wooden base. The crack is the result of the slippers being buried for many years, and is reproduced for greater authenticity.
“We want people to buy replicas that look as similar as possible to the originals they see on display in a museum,” Ahmed said.
The factory only employs people with the skills to faithfully reproduce even damaged aspects of famous objects, he said.
At the heart of Konouz’s philosophy is a nationalist refusal to allow Egyptian cultural heritage to be appropriated by other countries. The sentiment is shared by many factory workers, who appear to be motivated by the factory’s mission statement.
“We are Egyptians and the ancient Egyptians are our ancestors. So I find it personally embarrassing to see an ancient Egyptian artifact and it says “Made in China” on the bottom, ”said Hossam El Gawy, a sculptor with over 30 years of experience.
“I believe we are responsible for paying homage to our great heritage and I believe we can do a better job than anyone.”