In the shadow of the pyramids, a new museum arises

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GIZA, Egypt -- The modern world has not been kind to the pyramids of Giza. Just a generation ago they were out in the desert, which is how they still look in the postcards, shot from carefully selected angles. But rampant development has hemmed them in with the accoutrements of the tourist trade -- cafes, restaurants, souvenir workshops, stables for horses and camels, tacky little establishments of every sort, and slummy accommodation into which tourist hawkers are crammed.

Then comes the Cairo ring road and the undistinguished modern hotels that line it; the road itself is solid with traffic. Forty-five centuries of history -- that's how long the oldest of these pyramids has held sway here -- look down on our contribution and are not, one suspects, greatly impressed...

It's unforgettable, all right. But apart from the papyrus workshops and the like, the experience is strangely lacking in depth. What are the pyramids all about? Who built them and how and why, and what came next? You can ask your guide as you plod along on horse or camel, but don't expect much enlightenment.

All that is about to change. On a desert site within view of the pyramids, an immense museum, built by the Chinese-American architect Shih-Fu Peng, is about to rise which will transform the Giza experience. The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) will be the biggest museum of Egyptology in the world, and (it is claimed) the largest archaeological museum of any sort. It is designed to become the modern complement the pyramids have always lacked.

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