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The Gold of the Pharaohs

A gold bracelet from the 21st Dynasty featuring the symbolic scarab. © Egyptian Museum in CairoGold and Ancient Egypt: both together and apart, these are two subjects that have long beguilded people around the world. Ten years after the Queens of Egypt exhibition, one of the Grimaldi Forum’s most successful ever events, the cultural centre has returned to this fascinating theme. 

In the Gold of the Pharaohs curator Christiane Ziegler explores 2,500 years of the goldsmith’s art. 

“I didn’t want to just do an exhibition merely about beautiful objects,” says the Honorary Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Department of the Louvre Museum and Publication Director of the Archaeological Mission of the Louvre Museum in Saqqara. “Egypt was the original Land of Gold and the Ancient Egyptians were the first modern humans to really work the metal. I wanted to investigate the techniques and the different ages of gold, from the Early Dynastic Period to the treasures of Tanis, which were undiscovered until 1939.”

The exhibition, which runs from 7th July to 9th September, contains nearly 200 unique pieces. Some have never been seen before outside of Egypt.

The timing of the event has worked to Ziegler and the Grimaldi Forum’s favour: at the end of 2018, the brand new Grand Egyptian Museum will open in the shade of the Giza pyramids. It will be the biggest museum of its kind in the world at over 100,000m². In the course of preparing the new site, a number of ‘forgotten’ wonders have resurfaced and been exclusively loaned to the principality.

The silver sarcophagus of Psusennes I of the 21st Dynasty, which was unearthed with the Treasures of Tanis. © Laboratoriorosso SRLThese include: the death masks of Amenhotep III (reigned 1388 to 1351BC) and Psusennes I (ruled 1047 to 1001BC) as well as the latter’s stunning silver sarcophagus and that of Shoshenq II (pharaoh from 887 to 885BC); rings, pendants and bracelets, such as one early piece from over 5,000 years ago; statues; furniture and decorative pieces.

Alongside the ‘beautiful objects’, Ziegler has coordinated a series of authentic papyrus that scribes used to document the gold industry. It would certainly have been a major operation across the entire territory that involved many thousands of slaves and workers at all levels.

The exhibition also details the prospection of gold in the desert. The areas around the Nile and the Red Sea were the traditional hot spots for finding gold, but North Sudan also emerged as a rich site during the Middle Kingdom (roughly 2050 to 1710BC). Other favoured materials were sourced further afield, such as the deep-blue gemstone of lapis lazuli, which would have been mined in Afghanistan. If gold had links to the divine for the Ancient Egyptians, the reds of carnelian and jasper stood for the blood that coursed in their veins while turquoise represented the vegetation and natural health on which their daily lives depended.

“Each piece of jewellery or décor would have held symbolic value,” says Ziegler.

A budget of 2.5 million euros

The primitive papers reveal a side of Ancient Egypt that is unfortunately not far from our own. Corruption and robberies were common occurrences, and Ziegler has dedicated an entire part of the exhibition to recounting stories of tomb robbers and their pillages: “These writings indicate just how much of the gold is missing and thus how important the remaining pieces are.”

Very precious indeed. The Grimaldi Forum has allocated a budget of around 2.5 million euros to the exhibition, a large portion of which will go towards the delicate transportation of the works and their insurance. Security personnel will also be present day and night during the length of the event.

“It was very difficult to select which pieces would go on display,” says the centre’s Nathalie Varley, who spent two weeks touring Egypt and its leading museums with Ziegler at the start of the year. “More items and histories are being uncovered every day, which adds to the fascination with Egypt. The number of sites that are currently being excavated is astounding.”

Ziegler counts herself among those archaeologists lucky enough to have made a discovery. Two decades ago, while on an expedition in Saqqara, she found a grave that dated back over 3,000 years.

“An archaeologist never finds what they’re looking for,” she jokes, “it’s always something else.” Ancient Egypt is Ziegler’s life work. Today she splits her time between Paris, Provence (her family has a holiday home in the hills above Saint Raphaël) and Egypt, where she spends up to three months a year. In addition to her roles at the Louvre, Ziegler is also the President of the Archaeology Centre in Memphis and admits: “A lot of my time these days is taken up applying for permits and getting authorisations.”

Still, a visit to Egypt is something she highly recommends.

“Tourism in the region has dipped, drastically even, in the last few years, but the levels of security for the public are excellent. Now is a wonderful time to visit as you can tour many of the principle sites in relative tranquillity. Plus,” she adds as a side note, “once the pieces we have on display go back to Egypt, they’ll almost certainly never leave again.” 


The Gold of the Pharaohs: 2,500 Years of the Goldsmith’s Art
Grimaldi Forum, Monaco
7th July to 9th September
Open from 10am to 8pm (until 10pm on Thursdays) Admission €11