Wadi Al-Hitan, Egypt – Egypt has unveiled what it said is the Middle East’s first museum dedicated to fossils that showcases an early form of whales, now extinct and known as the “walking whale”.
The January 15th unveiling was part of government efforts to restore confidence and attract much-needed tourists, who are choosing destinations other than Egypt because of militant attacks in the country.
Security was tight as media toured the new museum at the Valley of the Whales, about 170km south-west of Cairo. Dozens of heavily armed military officers in black balaclavas stood guard alongside plain-clothes policemen, poorly disguised in Bedouin costumes short enough to reveal uniforms underneath.
Egypt’s tourist numbers have fallen sharply since the 2011 popular uprising ousted long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak. A long-running Islamic insurgency in the Sinai peninsula intensified after the 2013 overthrow by the military of Mubarak’s successor, Islamist president Muhammad Morsi, worsening tourism woes.
Egypt’s tourism industry was further shattered by the bombing of a Russian airliner over Sinai last October, killing all 224 people on board. The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack.
The construction of the Fossils and Climate Change Museum was helped by a $2.2 billion grant from Italy.
The sand-coloured, dome-shaped museum is barely discernible in the breathtaking desert landscape that stretches all around.
“When you build something somewhere so beautiful and unique, it has to blend in with its surrounding… or it would be a crime against nature,” museum architect Gabriel Mikhail said, pointing to the surrounding sand dunes.
“We are confident visitors will come,” he added, smiling.
The museum centrepiece is an intact, 37 million-year-old, 20-metre-long skeleton of a legged form of whale that testifies to how modern-day whales evolved from land mammals.
Environment Minister Khaled Fahmy cautioned, however, against interpreting the museum’s opening as a “full endorsement of the theory of evolution”, which conflicts with Islam.
“That is an entirely different matter,” he said. “We are still tied to our Islamic belief system.”