After almost two decades of planning, construction of the long-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum near Cairo finally looks set to start this year.

In early February, a joint venture of US-based Hill International and the local Ehaf Consulting Engineers was awarded the contract to provide project management services during the design and construction of the $550m museum. The client is the Supreme Council of Antiquities at the Culture Ministry.

The project site, covering 120,000 square metres is located adjacent to the Pyramids of Giza world heritage site, and the museum is intended to be the largest and most important Pharaonic museum in the world.

It is also designed to be one of the world’s leading scientific, historical and archaeological study centres.

The museum will cover 3,500 years of ancient Egyptian history and ultimately house 100,000 artefacts, including some 4,000 pieces of King Tutankhamen’s treasure. It will also feature a children’s museum, conference centre and a workshop. The building has been designed by a consultancy team including Ireland’s Heneghan Peng Architects, and two UK-based firms, Arup and Buro Happold.

In numbers:

  • 1,500: Number of entries submitted by architects to design the museum
  • 120,000sq m: Size of the site that will house the museum
  • $316m; Value of the loand provided by Japan Bank for International Co-operation

Source: Culture Ministry; MEED

Construction contract

At the time of the contract award, Egypt’s Culture Minister Farouk Hosny said: “With the selection of a project manager, we have achieved yet another milestone in the development of the Grand Egyptian Museum. In Hill/Ehaf, we have the expertise of a world-class project management team to ensure that this project will be completed successfully.”

Contractors were expected to be invited to prequalify for the main construction contract in March. But according to Raouf Ghali, president of international operations, project management group at Hill International, the prequalification invitations have yet to be finalised.

There are only a handful of firms, that are up to the standard expected for this museum

Contractor source

Tenders are expected to be issued in the summer, with construction starting in October.  The fast-track project involves completing 15 per cent of the construction work by January 2011, with a phased handover starting in 2012. The museum is expected to be open to visitors by the middle of that year.

Firms line up

Local contractors are already lining up to bid on the scheme. Osama Bishai, a director with the local Orascom Construction Industries confirmed the company is keen to get involved in the project.

“We are currently talking to a number of international firms as we definitely want to be part of it. We shall be looking to submit [bids for] prequalification,” he says.

“We are looking at a number of international partners as the criteria set out in the prequalification demands it, also the nature of the project suggests the need for an international experienced partner. The scope of the project is not in itself a challenge. It is the schedule that represents the biggest difficulty.”

Another contractor with interest in the project suggests the scheme would be unlikely to feature established Gulf contractors due to their lack of experience. “There are only a handful of local firms, that are up to the standard expected for this museum. And few Middle East firms can do this alone without international companies with experience in such work. Look at all the museum work going on in the region – they are all being done in partnership. Even in Saudi Arabia on their educational projects, they are not being carried out alone,” he says.

In addition to the main construction deal, the museum project will require a host of other services to be provided, for instance, the exhibitions, information technology and communication systems will need to be designed and tendered in several packages. 

Despite the slow progress to date, some work has already been carried out on site.

“Although the project manager tendering was a long process, the project activities have progressed,” says Ghali. “There has been significant construction of the back of the house, including one of the largest restoration laboratories for artefacts, and the design of the shell and core of the main building is close to completion.”

Firms that will eventually win work on the project will be taking on a complex scheme. The main challenges will include the practicalities of constructing a new museum in an exposed location, as well as the need to shift priceless artefacts around the site.

“There are several technical challenges including the alabaster free-standing wall, interface of the high-tech components with artefacts for the exhibitions, MEP [mechanical, electrical and plumbing] systems to maintain temperature control during peak temperatures, as well as the security and logistics in moving the artefacts,” says Ghali.

Reduced costs

Despite the scheme mobilising during a period of extreme economic uncertainty, Ghali is confident that it will not have an adverse impact on the project.

In fact, he argues it will present better opportunities for the client, since there will be greater competition between firms keen to secure work on the project. At the same time, construction costs will be reduced as there is less pressure on raw materials. “We are expecting a lot of interest due to the nature of the project and the decrease in construction activities in the region,” says Ghali.

A new, more suitable home for Egypt’s vast historical collection has been mooted for some time. The idea of the museum was conceived in 1992, but suffered a number of false starts in the subsequent years. On 5 January 2002, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak laid the foundation stone for the project.

We are expecting a lot of interest due to the nature of the project and the decrease in construction activities

Raouf Ghali, Hill International

In 2003, MEED reported that an international jury had convened in Cairo to evaluate 20 shortlisted designs for the world’s largest Pharaonic museum to be built in the shadows of the pyramids at Giza.

A technical committee set up by the Culture Ministry had spent eight months finalising the list from 1,500 entries submitted by architects from around the globe. Fifteen local and international companies were also prequalified for the project management contract (PMC).

A nine-member jury, selected by the International Union of Architects then announced a winning design and two runners-up on 2 May 2003. Following this, however, little progress was made.

In 2004, five firms were shortlisted from the original 15 to bid for the PMC contract; Hill International, Fluor Corporation and Turner Construction International, all from the US; Australia’s Bovis Lend Lease and the UK’s Mace International. The successful bidder was to draw up tenders for the main construction and technical consultancy packages for the complex. However, the tender was delayed and then cancelled in 2005, with no
explanation given.

A year later, however, the Culture Ministry invited 16 shortlisted firms to bid for the PMC contract. This development followed an agreement by the Japan Bank for International Co-operation (JBIC) to provide a $316m loan for the project (MEED 12:06:06).

Boost to economy

The museum is expected to act as a catalyst to further investment in the area and provide a boost to Egypt’s tourism industry and the wider economy.

“The location of the new museum will spur new development around it,” says Ghali.

“The surrounding area, which has had very little development, is expected to offer tremendous opportunities for small businesses that will spill over from the visitors and employees. [The project] adds another tourist attraction to be visited in Cairo as the existing museum will continue to operate housing other artefacts. The new museum will also provide for hundreds of new jobs for the local community.”

The Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, which was opened in 1902, currently displays about 120,000 artefacts, but a large percentage of its collection is locked away in storerooms.

The Grand Egyptian Museum is designed to accommodate up to 15,000 visitors a day and the Culture Ministry is hoping to attract some 5 million visitors a year.

Tourism is a key industry in Egypt and the sector employs about 12 per cent of the country’s workforce.