After 4,600 years buried beneath the sands of time and 28 more years trapped in Egyptian bureaucracy, the world's oldest and best-preserved wooden boat has gone on public display alongside the pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo.
Whether it was the funeral bark of Cheops, the builder of the Great Pyramid, or a boat for his restless spirit to wander about in the nether world, it is a breathtaking piece of Pharaonic antiquity serving to remind one that the ancient Egyptians were master shipbuilders as well as stone cutters and architects.
The gondola-shaped 35-ton bark, built almost entirely of Lebanese cedarwood, measures almost 132 feet in length and was literally sewn together with ropes strung through slits on the inside of the hull. Criss-crossed over it are 10 long oars with two others serving as rudder guides attached to the stern.
Except for a few replacements and support parts in one of the 12 oars, the 1,224 dismantled pieces in which the bark was found in its own hermetically sealed tomb are all original and seemingly still in excellent condition for their age.
From its discovery on May 26, 1954 until March 6 when it finally went on display, the great funeral bark of Cheops has been the victim of a bitter Egyptian and international controversy. The issues have ranged from who should be given credit for the discovery and the measures taken to preserve it to the design of the museum now housing it and the alleged indifference of Egyptian antiquity authorities to its plight for 28 years.
"The boat, the way care of it was done and the opening of the museum are all a saga," admitted Dr. Abdelaziz Fadek, the director who has worked eight months to get the museum open.
Feuding over Cheops' bark began the day of its discovery with a dispute in Egypt's antiquities department over whether Kamal Mallakh, the Egyptologist who claimed credit for finding it, deserved the honor bestowed on him abroad.
Mallakh was for a long time discredited by jealous Egyptian colleagues and only recently rehabilitated officially as the discoverer.
Mallakh, now editor of the Cairo newspaper Al Ahram's cultural page, recounted in an interview the circumstances of what is widely regarded as the most important archaeological find in Egypt since the unearthing of Tutankhamen's solid gold coffin in 1922.
He admits that he benefited from more than one stroke of luck, beginning with an accident in which a student stumbled into a hidden pit on the east side of the pyramid. This, he said, touched off the hunt that led him to the bark hidden beneath hundreds of tons of limestone on the south side of the pyramid.
At noontime on May 26, 1954 when the sun was directly over the pyramid, he first laid eyes on the bark after chiselling through one of the 41 great blocks covering the narrow rectangular pit. With the help of a shaving mirror, Mallakh reflected the light through the hole he had made down into the darkness below.
"At first, I closed my eyes and could smell the scent of the wood's aroma," he reminisced in his office at the Al Ahram building. "Then, I opened my eyes and saw the corner of an oar of the boat."
The feud over Mallakh in the antiquities service dragged on for more than two decades while the mystery of how to put together what one official called a "jigsaw puzzle in three dimensions" was solved by the skillful restorer put in charge of the project, Hag Ahmed Youssef Mostafa.
It seems this feat was accomplished several times for questionable reasons as the bark was transferred from one temporary warehouse to another until the museum was built in 1961. Throughout, little thought was given to protection of the ancient boat from the extremes of humidity or temperature to which it was subjected for 28 years.
"The wood is very sensitive," explained Mallakh. "The air is dry and hot during the day and very chilly at night. I asked for air conditioning, but they only turned it on for VIPs like President Carter."
As the neglect and indecision continued, international pressure mounted on the Egyptian government to do something to save the rare bark from disintegration. Nancy Jenkins, an archaeological journalist, wrote a book about its plight and several members of British royalty took up its cause privately.
Much criticism was leveled against the museum itself, an odd boat-shaped, glass- and tin-walled modernistic bubble that collected the desert heat like an oven in which the boat was left baking.
Fadek, museum director, does not try to defend the Italian architect, whose name he says he no longer remembers, or the style of the museum, which he readily admits is totally out of keeping with its surroundings dominated by the desert and the three famous Giza pyramids.
But he insists Cheops' bark is finally being looked after properly and is protected from the elements.
The museum has two 75-ton air conditioners going full time to keep both the temperature at 22 degrees Celsius and humidity at 55 percent.
Measures have been taken to prevent the bark from fire. Wiring in the museum has been held to a minimum, smoking is prohibited and there will shortly be two independent fire extinguishing systems.
The museum is extremely functional and well arranged to show off the bark fully in all its incredible beauty and workmanship.
The visitor enters the ground floor beneath the boat. On one side is the pit where it was found; on the other are pictures of the discovery and samples housed in glass cases of the original rope, sailors' knots and matting that were buried together with the 1,224 pieces of the ship.
A staircase takes the visitor to two levels of balconies alongside the bark but far enough away so that no hands can touch it.
Visitors have complained, however, about the entrance fee. Foreigners are being charged about $7.25, to defray the cost of electricity for the air conditioning, according to Fadek. This may explain the small number of visitors so far.
Fadek also says little effort has been made to publicize the opening.
"I prefer people to get to know it bit by bit and not to have a big rush on it," he said, adding, "I am studying the effect the number of visitors will have on the temperature and humidity. Maybe we will have to limit them to 50 at a time."
But the main thing, he stressed, was to get the museum open and put an end to the scandal surrounding its long closure.