Egypt unveils rare whale fossil museum

Friday 29/01/2016
Fossilised whale bones are on display outside the Wadi Al-Hitan Fossils, on opening day, in the Fayoum oasis, on January 14th.

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.

The Valley of the Whales museum also houses prehistoric tools used by early humans and various whale fossils exhibited in glass cases cor­roborating the evolutionary transi­tion of the early whales from land to water creatures.

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.”

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