International attention this week turned to Matariya, a slum area of Ain Shams. The reason: the removal of a seven-tonne quartzite torso, part of a colossal statue which was pulled out of a muddy pit.
Hundreds of local and foreign journalists, TV reporters, government officials and foreign ambassadors to Egypt gathered in the gardens of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo on Friday to admire the newly discovered Matariya colossus.
During the event, Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany announced that the colossus probably represented the 26thDynasty pharaoh Psammetick I and not Ramses II as had previously been thought.
“There is a strong possibility that the colossus is of Psammetick I,” El-Enany told reporters, adding that there was a small possibility that the statue had originally been made for Ramses II but reused by Psammetick.
“Further studies of the hieroglyphics on the back of the torso will reveal more,” El-Enany told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that “if the statue was originally carved for Psammetick I it would be very important as it would show how ancient Egyptian artisans had succeeded in revitalising sculpture in the Late Period.”
“It would also be the largest colossus of the Late Period ever found in Egypt,” he said.
The colossus is carved in quartzite and originally measured about nine metres tall. The two fragments of the colossus are now at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square for restoration and temporary exhibition until they are transported to the Grand Egyptian Museum where they will be placed on show.
Last Monday morning Souq Al-Khamis Al-Gadid, which neighbours the Matariya obelisk site, was a hive of activity as Egyptian and German archaeologists prepared to raise the newly discovered torso out of the pit where it has rested for thousands of years, many of them spent submerged in ground water.
The torso was fastened with padded ropes attached to a hook lift crane. Beside the pit Upper Egyptian workers from Qift prepared a mat of sand for the torso.
Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany was present, alongside members of parliament, ministry officials and Moushira Khattab, Egypt’s candidate for the post of UNESCO director-general. Hundreds of Egyptian and foreign journalists, photographers and TV cameras were positioned behind the pit. Residents of Souq Al-Khamis were hanging out of their windows, the better to catch a glimpse of the scene. Finally the gigantic ancient Egyptian royal torso emerged.
Local residents clapped and whistled as restorers dressed in white gowns, gloves and helmets approached the 3,000-year-old statue.
“It is in a very good condition,” said Eissa Zidan, head of the Restoration Department at the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM). There were no scratches or other damage and the statue, he added, was skillfully carved.
The lifting of the part of the colossus’ head, however, provoked controversy, leading the Administrative Control Authority (ACA) to begin an investigation into the manner in which the fragment of the colossus had been raised.
The controversy was fuelled by some Egyptologists and concerned citizens taking to social media after they were shocked by images of the statue being lifted with a backhoe. Rumours soon spread that use of the heavy mechanical digger had broken the statue.
Criticism of the ministry grew as photographs were published showing part of the colossus’ head wrapped in a blanket emblazoned with the cartoon character Spiderman, and of children playing unsupervised next to the statue and taking selfies with it.
“The Ministry of Antiquities raised the sections of the statue with great success,” El-Enany told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“The first part of the statue was not broken during removal. It was found in pieces,” said El-Enany. Unfortunately, the same applies to many Matariya monuments. The ancient city of Heliopolis, which is buried beneath the site, was destroyed in antiquity and subsequently used as a quarry, furnishing building materials for monuments in Alexandria and in Cairo.
El-Enany was unhappy, however, with photographs “showing children playing beside the first part of the statue which was left on site without any supervision”. This was the reason, he told the Weekly, that he had ordered an administrative investigation.
“We accept any positive criticism,” El-Enany added before calling on Egyptians to work hard to present a positive image of the country in order to promote tourism.
“Unearthing the torso was not an easy task, the team was working in a very difficult condition,” Zidan told the Weekly. The colossus was embedded on its side in the muddy pit and within 30 minutes of the surrounding ground water being pumped out it had returned to depths of three metres.
“We tried to lift the torso dozens of times before we succeeded,” he said.
Analysis of the water surrounding the torso revealed it was neutral to alkaline. It was decided to perforate the stone and continue wetting it with neutral water to allow the torso to adapt to conditions above ground. The torso was transported, in coordination with the army, to the Egyptian Museum on Wednesday, arriving in Tahrir Square around midnight.
Tarek Tawfik, GEM’s supervisor-general, says a new section of the museum is being planned to display artefacts discovered in ancient Heliopolis.
The earlier possibility that the colossus is of Ramses II had excited enormous interest in the discovery. Some Egyptologists had predicted the colossus is that of Senusert III and not of Ramses II. The reason, they say, is that Senusert’s obelisk is located 200 metres away from the muddy pit where the colossus was discovered.
“More work is to be carried out in order to find the legs of the statue as well as any other artefacts,” Afifi told the Weekly.
“It is the first time in the history of excavations in Souq Al-Khamis that we have found such a well preserved colossus,” says Dietrich Raue, head of the German mission that has been working on the site since 2012.
Though it is not yet possible to date exactly the destruction of ancient Heliopolis, Raue explains it began towards the end of the Roman era.
“The destruction of Matariya continued for a long time,” says Raue. The city was used as a quarry for more than 700 years. The Romans moved obelisks from the city’s temples, first to Alexandria and then to Rome. By the fourth century the city was being used as a source of building materials. In Fatimid times the quarrying reached a peak. Badreddin Al-Gamali used stones from the temples to build walls around the Fatimid city. The destruction continued until the 15th century, by which time all the temples were lost.
Ancient Heliopolis, known in the Pharaonic period as Oun, was the focal point of the sun cult.
“The ancient Egyptians believed that the world was created here, when the primeval mound emerged from the waters of chaos,” says Raue. Recent archaeological surveys have identified a topographical mound, a fluvial sand deposit replete with evidence of human occupation since the fourth millennium BC. The earliest known temple at Heliopolis dates from the reign of the Old Kingdom Pharaoh Djoser. Later pharaohs, including Senusert I, whose obelisk still stands in Matariya, added to the complex.
The last pharaohs known to have built at the site are from the 30th Dynasty (fourth century BC), at which point the sacred precinct measured more than one square kilometre with mud brick enclosure walls up to 17 metres thick.