Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 February 2002
Issue No.574
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A Diwan of contemporary life (430)

Dr YunanThe Awakening of Egypt, arguably the country's most famed statue, embodies, perhaps more than any other symbol, the national liberation struggle. Sculped by Mahmoud Mukhtar in 1928, the work, which stands to this day, specifically epitomises the spirit of the 1919 Revolution. Al-Ahram followed the story -- from the statue's inception to how it was built, its unveiling and how it was used to serve more than one political agenda. Through the pages of the newspaper, Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* explains why The Awakening of Egypt has continued to revebrate so powerfully among Egyptians.

Egypt incarnate

Perhaps no other work of art in contemporary Egyptian history has received as much acclaim as The Awakening of Egypt. The statue, which first stood on Ramsis Square, now stands in the avenue leading up to Egypt's oldest university, the University of Cairo.

The statue earned its place in history for a number of reasons. Although its creator sculpted many other works, among the most famous of which are the two statues of Saad Zaghlul that tower over major squares in Cairo and Alexandria, The Awakening of Egypt stands out because it does not represent an individual. Rather, it embodies a symbol.

Secondly, its creator was an ordinary Egyptian from the heart of the countryside, unlike most other sculptors in modern Egypt up to that time. Those were primarily foreigners -- for the most part Italians -- commissioned to sculpt statues and busts of the royal family. But the work of Mahmoud Mukhtar was intimately associated with the nationalist movement and, specifically, the spirit of the 1919 Revolution.

Al-Ahram of 20 May 1928 features a short biography of Mukhtar which reveals, perhaps better than any other source, what a unique personality he was:

"He grew up in Tambara, a village near Mehalla Al-Kubra. Although he worked in agriculture, like every Egyptian he had a passion for beauty. Fate was fortuitous, enabling him to enroll in the School of Fine Arts, where he quickly proved an astute student who understood the distinction between truth and fantasy." The newspaper goes on to relate a little-known chapter in the life of the young artist. For four years, the Italian dean of the School of Fine Arts kept Mukhtar secluded from the environment in which he grew up in. Following this period of intensive study, the dean introduced Mukhtar to Prince Youssef Kamal and recommended that he be sent to Paris on an artistic study mission.

In the City of Light, the young Egyptian was taken under the wing of Monsieur Coutin. Under the French sculptor's tutelage, Mukhtar's talent bloomed, as was manifested in his statue of Aida. This work, Al-Ahram writes, was lauded in the French press, which "extolled the young artistic genius coming from the land of the Pharaohs." Soon after, Mukhtar was appointed curator of a Paris museum, for which he created a number of statues of war heroes.

Mukhtar's artistic development was profoundly linked to developments in Egypt following World War I. Not long after the 1919 Revolution, the Egyptian sculptor left his work at the French museum in order to "devote himself full-time to an Egyptian work, the concept of which had been germinating for two years." The account continues, "He sketched it out on paper, then enlarged it. Whenever he wanted to work on his design, he delved into his imagination for an image to manifest the glory of the awakening." A model of Mukhtar's project was unveiled in the Paris exposition of 1920. The noted Egyptian politician Wissa Wassef, then in Paris, was on hand to wire the news back to Al-Ahram.

It was thus that, on 4 May 1920, under the headline, "Mahmoud Mukhtar: the famous Egyptian sculptor," Egyptians first heard of what has now become a familiar landmark. Describing the statue, Wassef wrote: "It is Egypt awakening the Sphinx, which opened its eyes to the sound of her voice. The Sphinx, to Westerners, is the symbol of muteness and deafness." He went on to urge Egyptians to "pave the way" for brilliant Egyptian talents, of the likes of Mahmoud Mukhtar, "so that they do not have to work in Europe and be ignored in Egypt, so that their nation can benefit from their talents and to enable them to convey their knowledge to the nation."

The article then describes the statue in further detail. The sculptor portrayed it, not with its eyes open, but with its eyes just opening as though awakening at that very moment from its centuries-long slumber. As for the woman symbolising Egypt, "every feature is depicted with painstaking detail. Her forehead shines and her long nose, which resembles that of Cleopatra, does not detract from the beauty of her face. Her lips are slightly parted as though pronouncing noble words; her chin suggests a righteous tenacity and her hands evoke the generosity of her ancestry." Coupled with the report was an appeal to the Egyptian people to donate towards the purchase of this work of art.

Mahmoud Mukhtar, top, dressed in white and in inset, gives a guided tour of his creation, The Awakening of Egypt, while it was still beeing built. His audience included noted politician Wissa Wassef, to his left, and to his right, nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul, who posed next to the imposing figure.

Mukhtar then decided to return home, encouraged perhaps by his newly-found fame. He was not to be disappointed by the welcome he received. An official committee was formed to greet him upon his arrival, and shortly afterwards the Cairo Club hosted a huge reception in his honour. Al-Ahram reports, "It was held in Shubra, in an elegant marquee, in the centre of which had been erected a model of the Awakening. Presiding over the ceremonies was Ahmed Hishmat Pasha. Women sat in one row and men in another. The speeches that were delivered expressed the great appreciation felt by the Egyptian people for the statue and its creator."

Among those to speak was Mansour Fahmi, who explained why this work reverberated so powerfully among the Egyptian people: "Since ancient times, Egypt has always preferred to inscribe its mysteries and its hopes on stone. Today, God granted one of Egypt's sons the ability to follow in the footsteps of his great ancestors, and this man fixed in stone Egypt's national aspirations. The statue's message, moreover, reaches both the learned and the unschooled, the literate and the illiterate. It reaches all people of the nation."

Following this, a committee was created to oversee the donations drive to cover the costs of the commission and the eventual placing of the statue in one of the capital's squares. Mukhtar announced that he wanted to make the statue not out of bronze but out of the native stone of his country, "because this stone is a national element." Al-Ahram reports, "Cutting out the blocks of stone in Aswan and transporting them to Cairo was, in itself, a major undertaking. Some of the pieces weighed up to 35 tons and had to be transported using the methods adopted by Egyptians thousands of years ago. Finally, 12 huge pieces of granite reached Cairo, and from these the statue will be created according to the existing model," Al-Ahram wrote.

On 8 June 1922, Al-Ahram announced to its readers that within a week Mukhtar would begin work on the statue. "Its base will consist of a 14-metre-tall block of black granite; the stones used, lined up end-to-end, are between 180 to 200 metres in length and it will stand on an area of 180 square metres."

Naturally, Al-Ahram dispatched a reporter to Mukhtar's workshop to follow this great work in progress. It was a large wooden room with burlap lining its walls. The artist's assistants were "toiling industriously at the preliminary sculpting of the massive blocks of stones, which weigh in the tons. Alongside them were plaster casts of the various parts of the statue which they were copying. The plaster model was three-and-a-half metres tall whereas the completed statue will be seven metres in height."

The reporter took the occasion to inform his readers that it would be another three years at least before the statue would be completed. But to finish it on time, the sculptor needed to double the number of his assistants. Not only that, but the LE7,000 that had been collected for the project had almost run out. "We must, with some anxiety, ask what will be the fate of this statue if the rest of the money runs out and no more funds are forthcoming to see it through completion? Will Mukhtar leave his country and return to Paris, to that milieu that appreciates works of art and where he will continue to build the splendid future that awaits him? Or should it not be our duty to study this problem, as of this moment, so we can guarantee that progress on this project proceeds rapidly, all the sooner to enjoy the sight of the statue in the best square?"

In a letter to the editor, an Al-Ahram reader shed further light on the financial question. It cost LE3,000 to ferry five of the granite stones from Aswan to Cairo, he wrote, and the remaining pieces cannot be transported by rail. Then there was the question of transporting the stones from the dock in Boulaq to the desired location, "which would require a crane to lift them from the boats and load them onto special transport vehicles." The writer then quoted the contractor in charge of procuring the stones from Aswan as saying, "The blocks were cut from a single layer of rock in the mountain from which the ancient Egyptians used to quarry the stones for their statues. It is astounding that they had the skill, the power and the machinery to undertake such a task."

In spite of the enthusiasm surrounding the project, The Awakening of Egypt was not immune to political winds. Not least were those that blew from the direction of the Ziwar government (1924-1926). That the statue and what it symbolised were intrinsically connected with the figure of Saad Zaghlul was a prime incentive for the pro-palace government to put hurdles in its path. It is likely that the nationalist leader met with Mukhtar in Paris, admired his work and seized that opportunity to shower him with praise. He congratulated him on his fertile imagination, fine aesthetic taste and magical artistry, and extolled the statue as an embodiment of Egypt's aspiration for independence.

King Fouad, on the other hand, met the artist upon his return to Cairo and urged him to create a bust of himself. Could it be that His Majesty believed that he, himself, personified the "awakening of Egypt?" Mukhtar was too absorbed in his project to respond to the royal request. Whether because of this or because of the association of the statue with the figure of Zaghlul, the palace's enthusiasm for the statue and the young artist began to fade. Not that the king would display such displeasure publicly. Rather, he simply pledged to lay the cornerstone for the Awakening.

But this was nothing compared to what was to come next. Just as the project reached its final stage, Egyptians woke up one morning to read that Minister of Public Works Hussein Sirri announced that he "knew nothing of this statue before today," and that "the remaining funds are insufficient to cover its completion." Al-Ahram was dumbfounded by the minister's statement, particularly as Sirri had been a member of the Senate when it voted to approve the allocations for the commission. Compounding the problem, it was announced that the deputy minister of public works had formed a committee to study whether it was appropriate to put a statue on the square in which Cairo's train station was located. The argument ran, "Traffic in this square has become so congested that reducing jams and bottlenecks requires taking advantage of the space that is currently being prepared for the statue." Eventually, the committee concluded that the selection of the location of the statue had to comply with the condition that "it does not obstruct the movement of traffic in the train station square and takes into account the future needs of roads and the like."

The decision outraged Egyptians, and with them Al-Ahram which charged, on 18 April 1925, "The will of an individual or a handful of individuals is seeking to undermine the will of the entire nation!"

Government foot-dragging on the question of the statue continued for another two years -- the life span of the Ziwar government. However, the drive to complete the statue again picked up steam with the elections of 1926 which brought in an overwhelmingly Wafdist parliament and the Adli Yakan cabinet that consisted of a majority of members of the Wafd Party. The death of Saad Zaghlul in August 1927 did not put the brakes on the project; on the contrary, the death of the national leader seemed to make its completion more urgent than ever. The growing impatience was voiced in the Senate on 16 February 1928, when a member took up the subject with the minister of public works:

"It is the hope of every Egyptian to see the statue, Egypt Awakening, which the government has decided to erect on the square of the capital's train station, completed as soon as possible, all the more so now that a large portion of the park in that square has been dotted with wooden barricades that are an eyesore to the residents of the capital and the first sight one encounters when arriving from abroad."

The senator did not have to wait long. Within two months, a new government was in place, headed by Wafd leader Mustafa El-Nahhas who was keen to demonstrate his nationalist credentials. Thus, preparations went into high gear for the statue's imminent unveiling. On 29 March, Al-Ahram published two front-page photographs: one of the statue resting on its base, with workers bustling around it. The second had a woman's face figuring in the statue.

To confirm reports that all was proceeding smoothly, Al-Ahram dispatched a reporter to the site. His report was favourable. Under Mukhtar's supervision, his assistants were busy polishing up the basalt base and putting the final touches to the statue itself. "For the polishing, they are using a type of very hard rock affixed to the end of an electric-operated machine," the reporter wrote, adding that this process should be completed within a matter of days. "By mid-April," he predicted, "all should be ready for the unveiling of this glorious national monument. The first of its kind in the modern world, this statue will revive the era of ancient Egyptian sculpture and art."

The Al-Ahram reporter was a little off in his prediction, not because of delays in the work, but because King Fouad kept putting off the day when he could attend the unveiling ceremony. Egyptians, therefore, had to wait until His Royal Majesty "deigned" to agree on Sunday, 20 May 1928.

Al-Ahram of 21 May could be dubbed the Egypt Awakening edition. The tone was set by Editor-in-Chief Dawoud Barakat whose headline was "Egypt Awakening: a pause for reflection." This statue, he wrote, emanated from purely Egyptian traditions "which are preserved in the monuments of Saqqara, Karnak, Edfu, Dandara and Nubia, and which dictate that events and ways of life and civilisation should be perpetuated in stone."

In addition to numerous other commentaries, this edition also featured a lengthy poem written for the occasion by the "Prince of Poets" Ahmed Shawqi. However, the greater portion of the newspaper was devoted to detailed coverage of the events the day before. The newspaper reported that at precisely 5.25pm, the "royal retinue" departed from Abdin Palace by automobile and arrived at the site of the statue at 6.00. "Policemen and soldiers encircled the square of the train station and lined up along the streets through which the procession passed." The ministers, headed by El-Nahhas, were already at the site awaiting the king's arrival. "When His Royal Majesty's' automobile arrived, it passed through the doorway and drove directly to the royal box. Here, the king descended, at which point all present in the pavilion rose."

The marquee set aside for palace and government officials had been set up so that the king would preside over the proceedings from an elevated position.

When Fouad sat down, El-Nahhas rose to deliver the opening address which, according to Al-Ahram, was inspired by the memory of the rise of the nationalist movement and Saad Zaghlul. The newspaper also noted that the speech was one of patriotic pride. Referring to the 1919 Revolution, El-Nahhas declared, "Egypt arose as one to demand freedom and independence for its citizens and entry into the fold of nations on the basis of equality and friendship. From the first day, the dearly departed Saad Zaghlul, the advocate of national resurgence and the bearer of the banner of our awakening, established these eternal truths through his force of persuasion and power of oratory, enabling the idea of resurgence to shine forth and the nation to emerge triumphant."

Elsewhere in his speech, El-Nahhas addressed the impact of the political revival on life in Egypt in general. "Freedom is indivisible and cannot accept fragmentation in any domain it is exercised," El- Nahhas said. "Therefore, all Egyptians, men and women alike, gathered around the sweet font of freedom and drank their fill, thereby liberating their minds and spirits and opening bigger horizons for their hopes and aspirations. This has had a profound effect on all aspects of social, economic, academic and artistic life."

One suspects that the pro-palace elements in the audience had feared that El-Nahhas would take advantage of the occasion to transform the unveiling of the statue into a commemoration of Zaghlul. Therefore, they prevailed upon the organisers to play one of those subtle tricks that politicians sometimes resort to. In Al-Ahram, we read from the correspondent who was on hand that most of the audience had great difficulty following the prime minister's speech. The podium had been positioned so that most of the audience could do little more than contemplate the back of the respected speaker without hearing him well.

As in all such events, certain segments of society were offended, in this case women's rights advocates. In a letter to the newspaper, one reader protested against the exclusion of women from the event. She asked, "Is Egypt's revival for men alone and did men alone produce it? Or did every Egyptian, man and woman, take part in this noble and glorious endeavour? I wonder whether those who held that women should be barred from attending the ceremony thought about the Egyptian peasant woman whose determined gaze is set upon the future. I wonder if they realised that this woman, standing at the head of the Sphinx in order to wake him up, is indeed a woman and that woman is Egypt."

Also offended were conservative religious elements who felt that the making of statues violated the tenets of Islam. Some did not voice this objection directly, but rather criticised the statue aesthetically, arguing that it lacked harmony.

Responding to this criticism, an Al-Ahram reader, who signed himself "senior engineer," observed that any impression of disharmony was due to the fact that the spotlights surrounding the statue were poorly placed, lighting only the lower part of the statue while leaving the rest in shadows. "There is a vast difference between street lighting and the technology of using lights to cast into relief the features of a statue," he wrote. He then urged the Ministry of Public Works to readjust the spotlights so as to negate the arguments of the enemies of art.

Another attempt to pour cold water on the occasion was made in the British press. A reporter for the Near East wrote that when he consulted experts about the statue, he was told: "It is wrong to attach value to something that does not testify to the excellence of Egyptian aesthetic taste. This (statue) is not an event that warrants commemoration."

Nevertheless, such voices were a small and ineffective minority. To the present day, Egyptians associate The Awakening of Egypt, as it is carved in stone, with "awakening" as it applies to social and political movements. It is no small wonder, therefore, that many national institutions have adopted this monument as its emblem, the most recent being the National Council for Women.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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