Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 May 2012
Issue No. 1099
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Tale of a statue: Nahdet Masr

Nader Habib retells a colourful tale

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Clockwise from top: Mokhtar; overseeing the construction of his art work; receiving Zaghloul at Al-Mahata (Ramses station); the delegation in front of Nahdet Masr statue

The square outside Cairo's main railway station on 9 January 1927 was filled with soldiers to control the crowds gathered in anticipation of the arrival of prime minister Saad Zaghloul Pasha. The famous sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar was polishing the massive granite statue soon to be installed in Midan Al-Mahatta, now Midan Ramses.

Hussein Rushdi Pasha, accompanied by two members of parliament, Naguib Iskandar and Ragheb Iskandar, was already in the square when Zaghloul arrived. The prime minister was accompanied by two more members of parliament, Wissa Wassef Bey and Abdel-Rahman Azzam Bey, as well as a young American female tourist.

At the sight of Zaghloul the crowds broke into applause, in response to which Zaghloul waved and thanked them.

Mokhtar, in overalls and a paper hat, escorted Zaghloul to the statue and began to explain the nature of the work. Zaghloul was impressed by the fine workmanship, the sense of balance, and the impressive scale. Having congratulated Mokhtar for his successful simulation of ancient Egyptian art, Zaghloul then turned to the young lady and explained, in a gentle and kind manner, the immense symbolism of the statue. Before leaving the site, Zaghloul was asked by photographers from various Egyptian newspapers and magazines to pose with the statue.

Zaghloul also visited Mokhtar's workshop, where he admired the collection of statues made by the artist, some in marble and others in granite. Among them was an impressive statue of the prime minister himself. Zaghloul spoke words in praise of Mokhtar's work, and then went back to his office to the cheers and applause of the public, for his was seen as the mastermind of the true national revival of the Egyptian people.

After the event, we met Mokhtar to listen to his story of the statue. He said that he wished to create a statue that combined all the dreams of Egypt and its civilisation, blending the glorious past with the nation's future aspirations. This is how the idea of Nahdet Masr was born.

It all started in Paris. Marcelle, the daughter of a Parisian art expert, used to visit Mokhtar in his workshop. She had passionate feelings for Mokhtar, but although she encouraged him to work on the project she didn't confess her love for him as he was working day and night. A group of Egyptian students active in the Egyptian cause were also helping Mokhtar and collecting money for his project. The students hoped that the statue, once it went on display in Paris, would be a major boost for the Egyptian cause.

Mokhtar needed someone to help him exhibit the statue. After finishing work on it, he started taking note of Marcel's presence and her passion for him. Their love grew and she remained by his side for the rest of his life.

The idea of making a statue symbolising the revival, or nahdet, of Egypt, came to Mokhtar at a crucial phase of Egypt's political history. He started working on the statue in 1918 -- although then it was only half the size of the version displayed in Cairo. When the statue went into display in Paris in 1920 it received critical applause.

In 1919, Zaghloul went with other members of a delegation, or wafd, to Paris to argue the Egyptian case with world leaders. The Egyptian delegation was introduced to Mokhtar who showed them his project.

Impressed by the work, as well as by the esteem in which Mokhtar was held in Paris, the delegation decided that this young sculptor deserved recognition at home.

When members of the delegation came back to Egypt they followed up the reviews mentioning Mokhtar's work, which was about to be displayed at a major exhibition. Days before the exhibition opened, Magdeddin Hefni Nasef wrote articles in Al-Akhbar about Mokhtar and the potential for an art revival in Egypt. Hafez Afifi, member of the Egyptian delegation, appealed to the nation to start collections for building another version of the statue and displaying it in Egypt. The appeal was met with public zeal and the cabinet of ministers endorsed it on 25 June 1921.

Several politicians and writers joined in the campaign to make the statue, and Mokhtar returned home to a hero's welcome. The collections for the statue kept coming in, with contributions from even the poorest members of the public. In companies and places of worship, including mosques, people donated money.

A statue committee was formed and began discussing various aspects of its construction, including the material, the size, and the venue for its display. The government agreed to display the statue at Cairo's main gateway. The cabinet, led by Adli Yakan Pasha, gave its support to the project, approving the total cost of LE6,500. The railway department offered to transport the stones free of charge. The cabinet of Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat earmarked LE2,000 for the project.

Still, the actual cost exceeded the estimates, and work ground to a halt. Mokhtar almost gave up. Then Wissa Wassef stood up in parliament to defend the statue and called for the resumption of work. Saad Zaghloul, by then the prime minister, approved further allocations for the project. The statue project was taken from the committee and handed over to the Ministry of Works to ensure its completion.

The work met another stumbling block, however. Mokhtar, dissatisfied with the pace of work, wrote a strong letter to the minister of works and complained to Wissa Wassef. It transpired that delays in the work were caused by disagreements between government officials and the company that won the contract. Parliament opened an investigation into the case, and Adli Yakan reassured Mokhtar of his support. From this point on, everything went smoothly. Work on the statue was finished within six months. Politicians came to visit it, and the world press published reports and photographs of these visits.

On 20 May 1928, Nahdet Masr was unveiled in Midan Al-Mahatta in a ceremony attended by King Fouad, Prime Minister Mustafa El-Nahhas Pasha, and the famous poet Ahmed Shawqi, who recited a poem about the rebirth of Egyptian art.

Zaghloul, who sponsored the project from the beginning, had died 10 months before the unveiling in 1928. The statue was relocated to its current venue near Cairo University in 1955.

Mokhtar died in 1934, aged 43.

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