Earlier this month, Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced the release of five new virtual tours of historic sites, adding to the range of online adventures that you can now embark on from home.
The tours explore the tomb of Meresankh III, the tomb of Menna, the Ben Ezra Synagogue, the Red Monastery and the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Barquq. Each virtual experience features detailed 3-D imagery through which users can “walk” by clicking hotspots along the structures’ floors.
As James Stewart reports for the Guardian, the tours boast “beefed up” 3-D modeling made by experts with Harvard University’s Giza Project. Unlike their real counterparts, most of which charge a small entry fee, the virtual renderings are free to all.
“The virtual tours target both [international] tourists and Egyptians, a ministry spokesperson tells Al-Monitor’s Amira Sayed Ahmed. “They serve the double purpose of promoting Egyptian tourism nationwide and increasing Egyptians' awareness of their own civilization.”
Two of the tours—the tombs of Meresankh III and elite Egyptian official Menna—include background information accessible by clicking circles overlaid atop specific features. The former’s tomb, dated to some 5,000 years ago, is the oldest of the Egyptian sites available as a virtual walkthrough. Meresankh, a queen wed to King Khafre, was the daughter of Prince Kawab and Hetepheres II of the fourth dynasty, and the granddaughter of Great Pyramid builder Cheops, also known as Khufu.
Harvard archaeologist George Andrew Reisner discovered the queen’s tomb in 1927. He later stated that “None of us had ever seen anything like it.” Today, the burial place’s paintings and carvings remain well-preserved, showcasing hunters catching water birds, bakers making triangular loaves of bread and servants holding offerings.
In the northern chamber, along the wall furthest from the virtual tour’s starting point, ten statues of women stand shoulder to shoulder—an unusual sight among Gaza tombs. The statues “serve to emphasize Meresankh’s position among her queenly relatives,” the tour explains. Along the path to the 16-foot-deep burial shaft, users pass a pair of statues depicting Meresankh and her mother, Hetepheres II, with their arms around each other.
The path leads down a spiraling staircase into the burial shaft, where Meresankh’s black granite sarcophagus—originally created for her mother but re-engraved upon the queen’s death in 2532 B.C., according to the History Blog—was originally found. The tour includes a reconstructed image of the chamber with the sarcophagus in place, but the actual coffin is now kept at the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo.
The tomb of Menna, dated to the 18th dynasty (about 1549 B.C to 1292 B.C.), is “one of the most visited and best preserved” from the era, the ministry writes in a statement quoted by Live Science’s Laura Geggel. The tomb’s decorations suggest the elite official was a scribe in charge of the pharaoh’s fields and the temple of sun god Amun-Re.
Menna’s tomb also includes informational blurbs highlighting such features as paintings of the scribe’s family, including his wife Henuttawy and their five children. Curiously, all of the paintings of Menna have been defaced.
“The ancient Egyptians believed that the soul of a person inhabited paintings of them and destroying the face would ‘deactivate’ the image,” the tour notes. “Why would someone want to destroy the memory of Menna?”
The tomb also served as a point of communication with the dead. It once featured life-size statues of Menna and Henuttawy that family members could make offerings to, ask for favors or visit during festivals.
The other three tours do not offer information blurbs at this time, but they still have plenty of detailed 3-D imagery for virtual visitors to explore. The Red Monastery, a Coptic church in Upper Egypt, features ornate frescoes, while the 14th-century Mosque-Madrassa is known for its immense size and innovative architecture. The Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo is alleged to be the site where baby Moses was found.
“Experience Egypt from home,” says the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities on Facebook. “Stay home. Stay safe.”