Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Qasr Al-Nil lions

Requests that the lions of Qasr Al-Nil Bridge be brought under the care of Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry give Mohamed Salmawy pause to ponder the significance of Cairo’s modern monuments

Al-Ahram Weekly

I am pleased that Cairo governorate has finally realised the value of some of our beautiful — or, more accurately, once beautiful — historical landmarks in our capital, and decided to give them the attention due to them out of respect for our ancient and modern history and civilisation.

I have recently learned that the governorate asked the Ministry of Antiquities to register the lion statues of Qasr Al-Nil Bridge in the list of modern antiquities. It was quickly rumoured that governorate authorities want the statues covered with some substance to keep graffiti from being spray painted on them, a rumour that is totally groundless. The fact is that these lions, over the years, become one of Cairo’s main landmarks. They bore witness to the most important events that shaped our modern history and we should protect them, just as Paris protects the Eiffel Tower and London protects Big Ben.

The four proud lions that sit nobly at the entrances to the bridge endured no small degree of humiliation during the series of millioniya marches that began with the 25 January Revolution that was launched in Tahrir Square and radiated outwards through surrounding areas. Then came the train of riots and disturbances, many of which centred around Tahrir Square and Qasr Al-Nil bridge. There followed the blight of Muslim Brotherhood rule when the very lives of these four harmless lions were endangered as fanatics called for their destruction on the grounds that they were pagan idols.

Cairo’s four Qasr Al-Nil lions date back to the late 19th century. They were commissioned by the Khedive Ismail from the celebrated French sculptor Henri Jacquemart (1824-1896). Among Jacquemart’s other famous works is the statue of Colonel Joseph Sève, whom Mohamed Ali Pasha had engaged to build a modern Egyptian army. Sève fell in love with Egypt, converted to Islam and became known as the French Suleiman Pasha. A street and square in Downtown Cairo were named after him, although the names of these were later changed to Talaat Harb Street and square and the Suleiman Pasha statue was moved to the Military Museum.

Suleiman Pasha’s connection with modern Egyptian history goes beyond his role as the founder of the Egyptian army. His daughter married Mohamed Sherif Pasha, prime minister and the father of the first Egyptian constitution. That marriage produced a daughter called Tawfikiya, after the Khedive Tawfik who had succeeded his father, the Khedive Ismail. Tawfikiya married Abdel-Rehim Sabri Pasha, who served as minister of agriculture under King Fouad and from whom she gave birth to the woman who would become Queen Nazli, the mother of the last king of Egypt, King Farouk.

Jacquemart also created the statue of Lazoghli that still stands in the square that bears his name. Actually, his name was Mahmut Bek Lazoglu whose Turkish name had been modified to Lazoghli, the commander in the Egyptian army who had served as the katkhuda — essentially prime minister — under the Khedive Ismail. By the time Ismail had commissioned Jacquemart with the task of creating statues of Mohamed Ali Pasha, Suleiman Pasha and Lazoghli, the latter had died and no portraits of this man existed. However, it so happened that some people who had known Lazoghli personally came across a water-carrier from the Khan Al-Khalili neighbourhood who was a spitting image of Lazoghli. They dressed the elderly man up in the late pasha’s clothes and brought him to Jacquemart who used that humble man, who would never have dreamed of becoming immortalised in bronze, as his model for his sculpture of the Khedive Ismail’s right-hand man.

That Lazoghli, the katkhuda of Egypt, would, at the hands of a famous French sculptor, bear an eternal likeness to a poor water carrier is not the only irony connected with that statue. Lazoghli, as we said, was a military commander. Yet his name was fated to be associated with the Interior Ministry, not the army. The square that bears his name is the address of the ministry’s headquarters. When people have to go to that ministry for some reason or other they commonly say, “I’m going to Lazoghli.”

Although Lazoghli was not the man’s real name, and while he is not the actual subject of the artist, and despite the fact that he had nothing to do with the Interior Ministry, his statue is the only one out of the three that is still standing in its original place in the square whose name has remained unchanged after all these years.

Returning to our lions on Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, it may come as news to some that they were originally created in order to guard the two entrances to the zoological gardens in Giza. However, by the time the four of them reached Cairo from France, the Khedive Ismail had been succeeded by his son Tawfik. The bridge, which was initially named after the Khedive Ismail, was in the process of being decorated at the time and Tawfik felt that it required an appearance fitting of the stature of his father. So the kingly lions were brought into service, with two seated at one end of the bridge and two at the other. For the inauguration of the zoo in 1891, the entrances were bedecked by large reliefs featuring the various animals of the jungle.

The lions of Qasr Al-Nil Bridge remain as regal and impressive as ever since they assumed their positions in the late 19th century. However, during the revolution that erupted on 25 January 2011 some kids climbed onto the lions and affixed flags, posters and some quantities of spray paint. They essentially suffered a fate similar to their live counterparts in the zoo due to abuses by visitors and the negligence of administrators.

Were it not for the fact that the Qasr Al-Nil lions are made of bronze they could well have died like some animals in the zoo.

My hope now is that Cairo governorate transfers the statues to the ministry concerned with the preservation of our heritage and that a guard in official uniform is stationed alongside each. This will round out the splendour of that landmark and constantly remind people that they stand before one of the beautiful historic artefacts that we need to respect and preserve. I also hope that the light posts along the bridge are restored rather than replaced by modern street lamps. The originals are designed in the Artdeco style that characterises the bases of the four statues. I hope they are accorded similar respect.

Ultimately, I am confident that Cairenes will be pleased by the sight and that they will be moved by the pride that all Egyptians feel in their civilisational monuments to help protect Qasr Al-Nil Bridge and the four lions who have stood at its stately sentinels for more than a century.

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