On the Giza Plateau outside Cairo, thousands of Egyptians are laboring in the shadow of the pyramids to erect a monument worthy of the pharaohs.
The Grand Egyptian Museum has been under construction for well over a decade and is intended to showcase Egypt's ancient treasures while drawing tourists to help fund its future development. But the project has been subject to repeated delays, with a "soft opening" planned for next year scrapped in favor of a more triumphant inauguration in 2020. Costs have meanwhile soared from an initial $650 million to well over $1 billion, with most of the financing coming from Japan.
The museum is a series of towering concrete halls that will eventually hold some 50,000 artifacts, including the famed mask of Tutankhamen - popularly known as King Tut - and other treasures currently housed in the century-old Egyptian Museum in Cairo's congested Tahrir Square. The hope is that tourists will stay awhile, and provide the foreign currency Egypt needs to buttress its economy.
"It's a place where you can linger to enjoy ancient Egypt," project director Tarek Tawfik said on a recent tour of the site, which will also include a conference center, a cinema, 28 shops, 10 restaurants and a boutique hotel. Giant windows open onto the 5,000-year-old pyramids, and the museum will feature an intact wooden ship and a towering statue of Ramses II.
Tawfik describes it as "a fantastic experience of ancient Egypt in a very modern building that provides all kind of modern, comfortable functions."
That would mark a major change from the current setup, in which tourists visiting the pyramids and the Sphinx are routinely hassled by touts and camel-drivers.
Egypt's pharaonic heritage remains a major draw, however, Tawfik expects the museum to attract 8 million people a year once it opens. An estimated 8 million tourists will have visited Egypt in 2018, an increase from previous years.
Egypt's multi-national construction giant Orascom built the museum, with initial loans from the Japanese government of $320 million in 2006 and $450 million in 2016. The Japanese continue to advise on the museum's development and artifact restoration, but it is unclear who will provide the additional financing for the project, with costs now estimated at $1.1 billion. A bidding process is underway to find someone to operate the site.