Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 May 2006
Issue No. 796
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Farewell to Ramses

The date when Ramses II will bid a last good-bye to the traffic, fumes and noise of Cairo's busy Ramses Square has at last been set, reports Nevine El-Aref

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Three months from now and Ramses Square will be void of its most visible and best known patron. Suffering from the ravages of pollution, the 124-year-old Ramses II must be moved from the hubbub of city life to the tranquility of Cairo's outskirts

On Friday 25 August, at 6am, when Cairo traffic is at its quietest, the colossus of the 19th Dynasty Pharaoh Ramses II will begin its journey from outside Bab Al-Hadid train station to its new home at the site of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) overlooking the Giza Plateau.

The decision was announced two days ago by Culture Minister Farouk Hosni. Delaying the move until the completion of the museum's first phase would, he said, leave the statue exposed to unacceptable levels of threat given that the square is scheduled for massive redevelopment by the Cairo Governorate.

Hosni added that archaeological, geological, architectural and geophysical studies have now been completed and a special storehouse is under construction to house the statue until the GEM's first phase is complete.

Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Secretary-General Zahi Hawass said the red granite statue would be transferred in one piece, supported by an iron cage on two vehicles specially adapted to carry the 83-tonne statue on its 30-kilometre journey.

The transport process will be handled by the Arab Contractors company, in collaboration with German experts. The route has been determined in collaboration with the Cairo and Giza governorates as well as the army, police and other concerned ministries. All obstacles will be removed from the designated route.

"Moving the magnificent statue of Ramses II from the chaos that usually defines Ramses Square is the best decision that could have been taken to protect the statue," said Hawass.

Abdel-Hamid Qutb, head of the SCA's engineering department, told Al-Ahram Weekly that in order to guarantee the successful dismantling, transportation and re-erection of the statue the Arab Contractors company would be adopting some of the same techniques used by the Ancient Egyptians during the construction of the Giza Pyramids. In addition the statue will be covered in foam rubber and its sides supported by wooden scaffolding.

The final decision to move the statue comes after a decade of discussions characterised by indecision. The statue, which has been deteriorating in its present location, mainly due to exposure to exhaust fumes and the vibrations caused by traffic, has been the subject of numerous decrees issued since 1994. Past suggestions for a new home have included Mit- Rahina, 30km from the Giza Plateau and the statue's original home. Giza's Al-Rimayah Square, and the grounds of the Cairo Opera House have also, at one time or another, been suggested as possible alternative sites.

"Moving the statue out of such a polluted atmosphere is the best possible decision," said Hosni. "And after 50 years of suffering, hidden behind a jungle of flyovers... the most appropriate location is within view of the new Grand Egyptian Museum."

Though environmental conditions on the relatively remote plateau where the GEM is being constructed are much more suited to preserving the statue, it will also be accorded additional protection.

At the Ramses Square intersection of three major thoroughfares and Cairo's main rail and underground metro lines, the Pharaoh had long looked lost.

The red granite statue of Ramses II was found in 1882, broken into six pieces, at the Great Temple of Ptah at Mit-Rahina. Attempts at the time of the discovery to restore and re-erect the statue in situ all failed and the colossus remained as it was until February 1955 when the then minister of governmental affairs, Abdel-Latif El-Boghdadi, decided to move it to Bab Al-Hadid, now Ramses Square, where it was restored and reassembled by inserting iron bars inside the body. It soon became one of Cairo's most famous landmarks, and has provided the backdrop for scenes from some of Egyptian cinema's most popular films.

Not everyone thinks the statue needs to be moved. Abdel-Halim Nureddin, dean of the Faculty of Archaeology at Fayoum University, argues that in its current location the statue has become one of Cairo's most recognisable landmarks.

"The LE6 million it will cost to transfer the statue could have been used to finance other restoration projects, or build a museum or storehouse," says Nureddin. The square itself, he adds, has calmed down significantly since the taxi and microbus stops that caused so much pollution were moved.

Problems arising from the statue being partially concealed by the tangle of flyovers could, says Nureddin, have been solved by raising the height of the base on which Ramses stands. He points out that other cities, such as Paris, that have ancient obelisks prominently displayed at busy traffic intersections, deal with the problems that ensue by conducting specialised bi-annual cleanings.

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