The four bronze lions guarding the two ends of the Qasr Al-Nil Bridge linking Gezira to Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo have witnessed a great deal since they were first set up at the end of the 19th century, from the romantic dating of young couples staring at the Nile to the roars of the millions of Egyptians who marched over the bridge during the 25 January Revolution chanting for freedom, equality and the toppling of the former Mubarak regime.
They have witnessed major political and social events across the span of Cairo’s history. In 1898, the lions served as toll stations for farmers and merchants crossing the Nile to the large market in what is now Tahrir Square where they exchanged and traded goods. According to author Chafika Soliman Hamamsy in her book Zamalek: The Changing Life of a Cairo Elite, farmers and merchants stopped at the lions to pay a tax to cross over to reach the market.
The tax depended on the type of goods and the means of transportation passing through. Owners of donkeys paid one and ¾ piastres while the owners of old camels paid two piastres. Those owning young camels paid only ¾ piastre. The lions witnessed major accidents that took place on the bridge. Among the most talked about was that of royal cabinet advisor and sometime desert explorer and first ever Egyptian Olympic gold medallist Ahmed Hassanein in 1946.
The funeral processions of various prominent public figures took place along the bridge in front of the lions, among them the funeral of late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in September 1970 when dozens of heads of state and government marched across the bridge behind his coffin. The funerals of beloved singers Um Kalthoum and Abdel-Halim Hafez also passed along the bridge.
During the 25 January Revolution, the lions witnessed peaceful protesters chanting to topple the former Mubarak regime as well as battles against teargas and rubber bullets. When former president Hosni Mubarak finally resigned, the lions witnessed victory as some protestors climbed onto their pedestals to hold up the Egyptian flag. Similar scenes were repeated on 30 June and 3 July 2013 when protestors toppled the Muslim Brotherhood regime.
However, this history has taken its toll on the magnificent lions. Ezzat Salib, director of the restoration of archaeological sites and museums in Greater Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the lions were suffering from erosion and that the graffiti written on them by protestors had had negative effects. Restorers from the Ministry of Antiquities were working at full swing for two shifts a day to meet the deadline for the restoration of the lions by the end of August, he said.
Graffiti and previous paint on the lions has had to be removed, and their surfaces cleaned with lasers and using nano-technology to consolidate the bodies.
“An anti-graffiti material is to be used to cover the surfaces of the lions to prevent the writing of graffiti or painting on them,” Gharib Sonbol, head of restoration, told the Weekly. He said that this material could not prevent the writing of graffiti, but it could facilitate its removal using only a dry rag.
Eissa Zidan, director of restoration at the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), told the Weekly that the lions were previously restored in 1998 and the present project was under the supervision of the cabinet.
The working team includes restorers, professors of fine arts and archaeologists.
The lions have been suffering from calcification and thick layers of paint due to the polishing of the statues over time. Graffiti is spread all over them. Zidan said that the restoration included mechanical and chemical cleaning as well as covering the statues with a special layer to protect the bronze from corrosion.
The work will cost some LE90,000. The history of the lions goes back to 1869, when the khedive Ismail commissioned famous French sculptor Henri Alfred Jacquemart to make four bronze lions and a statue of the viceroy Mohammed Ali. At the same time French sculptor Henri Joseph Charles Cordier was commissioned to make a statue of Ibrahim Pasha.
The lions were originally intended to stand guard around the Mohamed Ali statue in Alexandria, but were instead set up to guard the ends of the newly-built Khedive Ismail Bridge that linked Ismailia (Tahrir Square and downtown) with Gezira, Zamalek) in 1872. When King Fouad took the throne in the early decades of the last century he ordered the renovation of the bridge.
In 1933, it was reopened after reconstruction and opened twice a day for ships and boats to continue on their way up the Nile. After the 1952 Revolution the name of the bridge was changed to the Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, and since then it has never been opened. Jacquemart’s works in Egypt include the Mohamed Ali statue in Alexandria from 1869, the Suleiman Pasha statue from 1874, and the statue of Mohamed Lazoglou Bey from 1875.
An image of the Bridge in the first part of the 20th century (Courtesy of kasralainy.com)
The Qasr Al-Nil Bridge used to open at 9am each morning for ships and boats to go up the Nile and again from 1pm to 2:30pm. Rare cinema footage of the lions was made by early filmmakers brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiére and is featured in Egyptian director Madkour Thabet’s documentary film Sihr Mafat Fi Kenouz Al-Mareyat (The Magic of Lost Visual Treasures).
Restoration of the Two Lions of Qasr Al-Nil Bridge. (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
Restoration of Qasr Al-Nil lions. (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
This Article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly