Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 December 2005 - 4 January 2006
Issue No. 775
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Pharaohs on the move

Ramses stayed put, while a fragment of the Great Pyramid fell off. Nevine El-Aref explores a few of this year's significant cultural and archaeological events

Click to view caption
Preparing to move the gigantic statue of Ramses II

Suddenly, as the second half of 2005 began, what had been a relatively sluggish year in the cultural sphere picked up with a vengeance. The culture minister found himself at the centre of at least two major controversies in July and September. First, he received the Israeli ambassador to Egypt, inspiring much criticism, as well as rumours of an impending cultural normalisation that didn't actually occur. Then he tendered his resignation -- subsequently revoked -- in response to the tragic death of 55 people in a fire that erupted during a theatrical performance at the Beni Sweif Cultural Palace, a ministry- owned and operated venue (see 'Staging dissent'). As usual, the year was also filled with battles on the antiquities front, as Egypt continued to pay greater attention to its treasure trove of monuments, and seek out new ways to keep them from harm.

RELOCATION DELAYED: After much fanfare and publicity, the decision to move the huge statue of Ramses II from in front of the Bab Al-Hadid central Cairo train station in downtown Ramses Square, to the site of the Grand Museum of Egypt being built on the Giza Plateau, was delayed until the start of 2007. Antiquities officials say they opted to wait in order to spare the statue the harm that would befall it on a busy construction site. The international bid for the museum project will be made in October; and since the first phase -- to be complete by the end of 2006 -- includes enough space for Ramses II, it will be safe to undertake the move shortly afterwards.

In preparation for Ramses's dramatic departure, the Arab Contractors Company has removed the scaffolding introduced in 2002 for purposes of restoration and documentation, allowing city dwellers to behold it as it stood for so long, before they are deprived of it forever. The move requires the construction company charged with the task to manufacture two vehicles to carry the 100-tonne colossus, as well as produce an exact replica of Ramses II -- of identical weight and shape, down to the broken parts of the structure -- with which to test the vehicles in question prior to making the 30km journey. According to Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Secretary-General Zahi Hawass, the trial run will take place two months before the relocation -- in the small hours of a Friday when Cairo traffic is at its quietest, with the specialised vehicles moving at 5km per hour. The journey will require the Arab Contractors to dismantle a pedestrian bridge in Old Cairo, the only obstacle along the way; it should be a relatively minor hiccup, considering they were the original builders of the bridge.

The colossus' condition has been deteriorating as a result of exposure to pollution during its 50-year stint in Bab Al-Hadid, much of it spent between a jungle of flyovers. Much debate took place before the best possible re- location site was chosen.

CATCH THE PHARAOH: The People's Assembly is currently reviewing the draft of a new antiquities law. Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly that the current law is no longer effective, since it does not mandate severe enough penalties for trafficking, and does not ensure the best possible environmental protection.

The legal developments at stake concern five points: identifying the inviolable area around each monument, the land on which it stands and the nearest permanent SCA committee; prohibiting ownership of antiquities (all owners must hand in their possessions within a year of the law being approved); SCA officials to replace the police as the party responsible for dealing with encroachments on archaeological sites or relocating monuments; the minister of culture having the right to assign any qualified party to undertake such work under SCA supervision; finally and perhaps most importantly, an increase in the penalties for antiquities smuggling from 15 years jail time and fines of LE50,000 to life imprisonment and fines of LE100,000-500,000.

"Nor does the new law omit penalties for those who write their names or affix advertising billboards on monument walls," SCA legal consultant Ashraf Ashmawi told the Weekly ; indeed the penalty for such "violations of Egyptian heritage" will range from six to 12 months in prison, and incur a fine of LE150,000.

GREAT FALL: Tighter security and more effective protection notwithstanding, the collapse of a fragment of the Great Pyramid two weeks ago hurt no one, but prompted another round of the periodic dual campaign to inspect and restore both the outer body and inner corridors of the Pyramids.

Culture Minister Hosni has dismissed the incident as representing no genuine threat: "The Giza Pyramids, which have lived for over 4,600 years now, are at no risk. We will allow nothing to harm these monuments, if any damage happened to them, we would be prosecuted not just by Egyptians, but by the whole world." He referred the collapse to environmental factors -- like erosion -- pointing out that such incidents had occasionally also taken place as a result of people illegally climbing up the Pyramids. The block that splintered is in fact one of more than a million building components weighing 0.5-5.2 tonnes each.

A NORMAL VISIT: When Israeli ambassador to Egypt Shalom Cohen asked to meet Minister of Culture Hosni, observers though the visit was meant to lodge an official complaint against comedy superstar Adel Imam's latest film, Al-Sifara fil-Imara (The Embassy in the Building), an oblique take on the issue of normalisation with Israel, which was described by a member of the Israeli Knesset as an insult.

To Hosni's surprise and the intellectual community's outrage -- the latter also took issue with Hosni agreeing to meet Cohen in the first place -- it was to promote a cultural exchange programme. Cohen presented Hosni with a long agenda, including an Um Kulthoum song recital by an Israeli singer at the Cairo Opera House, expressing the hope that such activities would result in greater acceptance on the part of Egyptian intellectuals of their counterparts across the border. Hosni declined the offer, asserting that such acceptance remains impossible in the light of the Israeli policy in the occupied territories. "Cultural normalisation," he later told the Weekly, "is a very sensitive issue, and the ministry is well aware of the intellectuals' unified stance on it."

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