Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 August 2004
Issue No. 703
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Colossal find

The largest seated statue of the 19th-Dynasty Pharaoh Ramses II yet found is being unearthed in Akhmim, reveals Nevine El-Aref

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"SPLENDID DISCOVERY": The head of the 700-ton colossus of a seated Ramses II, uncovered in Akhmim, revealed here for the first time

The remains of a colossal seated statue of Ramses II, thought to be about 13 metres tall and weighing 700 tons, have been discovered in a shanty area of the Upper Egyptian city of Akhmim, adjacent to the open-air museum. The lower part of the limestone statue is seated on a throne, to the right and left of which are figures of two of the pharaoh's daughters and princess- queens, Merit-Amun and Bint-Anath. The statue and the throne are carved from a single block and stand on a huge limestone base covered with carved hieroglyphic texts. The base also carries a register of captured enemies surmounting rings that bear the name of their home cities. Remains of colours are still visible. A colossal face that matches the base of the statue, showing the pharaoh wearing a false beard, has also been found. A splendid colossus of Queen Merit-Amun found here is already on display in the open-air museum.

This splendid discovery will not only attract archaeologists but visitors, and the media as well.

"It really is a very important discovery that reveals the largest seated limestone statue ever found of Pharaoh Ramses II," Zahi Hawass, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), told Al-Ahram Weekly. Hawass said early studies revealed that the statue might have stood in front of the entrance to the pylon of a great temple of Ramses II at Akhmim, and that this suggested the existence of a second statue on the other side which could still be buried in the sand.

First traces of the discovery were made in early 1991 when the Akhmim city council decided to build a post office 50 metres from the open-air museum. A pre-building archaeological inspection revealed the base of a statue inscribed with the names and titles of Ramses II and surrounded by mud brick walls. Also unearthed were votive stelae that had been set up in the temple, statues of individuals who may have worked there, and royal crowns carved in granite.

However, a large modern cemetery obstructed any further exploration, and excavations were put on hold. The site was backfilled with sand and the statue base was packed with debris for protection. To resume the excavations and preserve what Culture Minister Farouk Hosni called "an important part of Egyptian history" a presidential decree was issued stipulating that the cemetery be transferred to a site in New Sohag.

Culture Minister Hosni said President Mubarak had allocated LE5 million from the government budget to help fund the move, with the SCA providing an additional LE15 million. The relocation of the cemetery continues alongside the archaeological excavation.

One result of the discoveries at Akhmim was that unlicensed diggers -- modern tomb robbers -- had already found their way onto the site, Sabri Abdel-Aziz, head of the SCA's ancient Egyptian antiquities department, told the Weekly. It was actually the illegal excavators exploring a tomb in the modern necropolis who stumbled upon a huge head of Ramses II. The head was 2.60 metres in diameter and was wearing the royal nemes head-dress. "The [illegal] excavators were caught red-handed, but only after they had revealed another important part of the magnificent statue," Abdel- Aziz said.

Excavations resumed in January 2003, led by Mansour Breck, chief inspector at the Giza Plateau, who was assigned to oversee the excavations in Akhmim. Breck had two main goals: the first to determine the size of the statue, and the second to explore its connection with the temple. Hawass said that along with unearthing the statue of Ramses II, archaeologists were able to examine the area around the statue. They determined that it was divided into two main levels, the top stratum containing Islamic features with a Coptic layer below.

The site lies on the east bank of the Nile about 100 kilometres north of Luxor. As well as being the hub of Egypt's ancient weaving industry, Akhmim was the capital of the ninth nome of Upper Egypt and the religious centre of the fertility god Min. The town yields remains dating from prehistoric times and all through the Pharaonic period, including the Old Kingdom cemetery of Al-Hawawish, which contains 848 rock-hewn tombs.

There is little data in Akhmim about the Middle Kingdom, but rather more material remains from later periods of history. It is known that a great temple dedicated to the god Min was built during the ninth century BC -- the structure impressed Arab historians who passed through Akhmim and who mentioned a gigantic temple larger than the Karnak complex. One even reported that the sun had time to rise and then set again before he had finished exploring the ruins.

Akhmim was also a centre of Christianity in Upper Egypt. During the Christian era temples were destroyed and the modern town was erected over the ancient ruins. Akhmim now perches on a high mound, with an archaeological wealth beneath its foundations, about to be further explored, with potentially significant results.

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