The fate of a square
What will become of Ramses Square following the removal of its landmark statue of Egypt's most famous Pharaoh, asks Nevine El-Aref
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Sweepers clean up after the departure of Ramses II on the way to a makeover (top); 1954, when the statue of Nahdat Masr ruled over the square
Earlier this week, while the red granite statue of Ramses II was making its slow way to its new home at the Grand Egyptian Museum overlooking the Giza Plateau, rumours were already flying through Cairo about the fate of Ramses Square where the statue has stood for more than five decades. Some expected that the name of the square would be changed to Mubarak Square like the Cairo Metro Station beneath it, while others believed the statue itself would come under private ownership or sent on exhibition abroad.
Cairo Governor Abdel-Azim Wazir at once denied all the rumours and announced that Ramses Square would not be renamed. The 1,116 square metres where the statue stood from 1954 until last Friday, along with the fountain in front of it, would be temporarily planted with grass and trees complete with wooden seating. This, Wazir said, would attempt to create a small garden of rest for pedestrians until the completion of studies now underway by Egyptian experts to draw an accurate development plan for this chaotic point of the city. Wazir explained that the aim of the study was to relieve Ramses Square of its massive traffic congestion by providing more space for pedestrians and a wider area for the flow of vehicles. According to a Traffic Department study, 280,000 pedestrians and nearly two million cars and microbuses traverse the square every eight hours.
Nevertheless, rumours still abound. Some have even described the move as a pro- Israeli step taken under pressure from the United States. They suggest Ramses II is perceived as an anti-Israeli symbol since it is believed he was the Pharaoh responsible for the Jewish exodus from Egypt.
Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), dismissed this view and described it as unfounded, "It is totally stupid, cheap demagoguery," he commented. Hawass said that it was only supposed that Ramses II was the exodus Pharaoh since his reign lasted for 67 years (1279-1212 BC) and he was known as "Ramses the Great". History does not mention any statement about this in regard to Ramses. However the achievements of this 19th-dynasty ruler surpassed those of all other Pharaohs, and Egypt reached a supreme state of prosperity during his reign. Not only is he known as one of Egypt's greatest warriors, but also as a peace-maker, and for the monuments he left behind all over the country. He signed the first known peace treaty in history with his enemies, the Hittites, ending long years of war and hostility. This treaty can still be considered a seminal model, even when applied today's standards.
Until the execution of a development project for Ramses Square, frequent travellers at Cairo's main railway station in downtown Cairo and the masses of people who cross the square every day in vehicles or on foot will miss their usual marker. Ramses II has been put out to grass.
"We are going to miss him, Cairo will never be the same again without him," said 35- year-old Mona Mohamed, who lives beside the square. She had tears in her eyes when she said that the statue reminded her of her teenage years and of waiting underneath it every day for the school bus. Nasser Fahmi, 80, also had fond memories. For Fahmi Ramses was not only a great Pharaoh who symbolised the authentic Egyptian roots of the new republic, as Abdel-Nasser tried to show, but was also a witness of love. In the square's heyday when the fountain was still active, he would sit at the statue's feet with his sweetheart. "When I pass Ramses Square I always remember those old days and especially the moment when I popped the question to my wife. It was at Ramses II's feet," Fahmi recalled.
"Moving Ramses or keeping it, it doesn't matter, I don't care," shouted taxi driver Ahmed Ali as he watched the statue's stately procession on the humid summer night. "I have been stuck here in Ghamra for more than two hours because of the move. The only thing I do care about is release. I am imprisoned in my taxi, and it's hot." His view was supported by fellow taxi driver Youssri Omar. "If the removal of Ramses II's statue would stop the hustle and bustle of the square it would be the government's best-ever project," Omar said.
Commuter Sawsan Mohamed, who is in her 40s, said moving the statue to a place where it would have better protection and care was a perfect solution for the statue, but it would not make any difference to the square. "The problems here will never be solved if people insist on breaking the rules and the Cairo Traffic Department can't spare permanent units to monitor the square," she said.
"I have been travelling daily from Monoufiya to Cairo for 40 years now, and the statue is not the same as it was," Mohamed Abu Goffa told Al-Ahram Weekly. In its early days the statue and the fountain at its feet were visible from a distance, but they were gradually hemmed in by a mass of overpasses and pedestrian bridges that were meant to ease the flow of people and motor traffic around and across the square, but which in fact aggravated it.
"I feel lost!" an elderly man from the country who had just stepped off a train told the Weekly. He joked that a friend in Qena had told him that when he saw the Ramses statue it meant he had reached Cairo. "Now I can't find the statue, which means I am in the wrong city. What shall I do now? I had to get some official papers signed today for my pilgrimage trip, and how can I do it now? Where is Ramses?"
Culture Minister Farouk Hosni said the removal of the statue was best both for the statue, which is an important part of Egypt's heritage, and for the square. He told the Weekly that since he took office all the Cairo governors had asked him to move the statue for the betterment of the square, but he had always been apprehensive about the move since he knew about the details of its restoration in 1954 when it was reassembled by inserting huge iron bars inside the body. After years of study, however, a team had come up with a means of transporting the statue and this had now been successfully accomplished. At the Grand Egyptian Museum it will have better protection and will be restored to its original glory.
"The world's biggest museum must house the biggest statue of a great king," Hosni said.