For almost 3,000 years, dozens of ram-headed sphinxes have been decorating areas of the awe-inspiring Karnak Temples in the ancient city of Luxor. Today, within the framework of the government’s efforts to develop and decorate Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, four ram-headed sphinxes will be moved from the temples to Cairo along with an obelisk from the San Al-Hagar archaeological site in Zagazig.
The obelisk was transported four months ago in blocks as it was discovered in situ, and it is now under restoration before it is erected in the square.
To prepare the four sphinxes for their journey to Tahrir Square, a team of restorers from the Ministry of Tourism Antiquities is giving the sandstone statues a facelift, in order to ensure that they are in safe condition when they arrive to capture the hearts of Cairenes.
They are to be unveiled as part of the grand opening of the new-look square within the next couple of months.
The decision to move the sphinxes was not welcomed by all, however. Some oppose the move, thinking that the sphinxes are part of the famous Avenue of Sphinxes in Luxor that once connected the city to the Karnak Temples, while others say the sphinxes would be damaged in the square as it is one of most crowded and polluted areas of Cairo.
There have been claims that people could damage the sphinxes by sitting or writing on them. Some social-network users have raised fears that the polluted Cairo air will damage the statues, wanting to see them remain in their original habitat.
Supporters of the move say it is a good decision as the sphinxes and the obelisk are symbols of Egypt’s distinguished heritage, and this should be represented in Tahrir Square which has witnessed important political events in the history of modern Egypt.
“I really appreciate the pride of the Egyptians in their heritage, but what has been spread in social media and in the newspapers is unfounded,” Khaled El-Enany, the minister of tourism and antiquities, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He said the ram-headed sphinxes that will be transported to Tahrir Square were not from those lining the famous Avenue of Sphinxes, now under restoration within the framework of a development project that has cost tens of millions of pounds and is scheduled to open soon.
“The sphinxes that will be transferred to Cairo are those located in the first courtyard behind the first pylon of the temples,” El-Enany said.
They will be placed on high mounts, and next to them will be the obelisk which was damaged in the San Al-Hagar area of the Sharqiya governorate and is currently under restoration.
El-Enany said that this would be the fifth obelisk to have been restored and re-erected recently. The first two were left in situ after restoration, while two others were transported to decorate the City of Culture and Art in the New Administrative Capital and a fifth was transported from the Andalusia Gardens in Zamalek to New Alamein city.
As for the obelisk for Tahrir Square, this is 18m tall and will be placed on a high base, preventing any hands from reaching it. The four sphinxes will surround the obelisk, and they will look towards the four cardinal directions as part of the Tahrir Square Development Project scheduled to be completed within two months.
“The ministry has transported 50,000 artefacts to the new Grand Egyptian Museum [GEM], in addition to 15,000 objects to the National Museum of Civilisation, without a single piece being damaged,” El-Enany said, adding that the antiquities’ transportation technique used in Egypt was very advanced and secured the objects against any damage.
“All precautionary and security measures will be taken to keep the obelisk and the sphinxes safe,” he added.
Mustafa Al-Saghir, head of the Karnak Temples, said the four statues were from a recently discovered cache that was apparently moved to their current location in about 700-800 BCE.
“The decision to remove them was made after exhaustive studies by experts and after the approval of the Permanent Committee for Ancient Egyptian Antiquities,” he told the Weekly. “All precautionary measures have been taken to preserve them.”
Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said the transfer of the statues would be carried out amid tight security and that precautions would be taken to prevent vandalism once they were installed in Cairo.
“No one will be able to carve their names onto historical objects on public display,” Waziri said.
A source at the ministry who requested anonymity said that a letter circulated on social media signed by chair of UNESCO’s Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage voicing concerns at the move did not represent the views of the UN organisation, as the centre only operates “under the auspices of UNESCO”.
He explained that this was a UNESCO Category Two Centre, and “this type of entity is not legally considered part of the organisation.” The source said that the transportation did not conflict with the charter of UNESCO, especially since Egypt was fully committed to the goals of the organisation and cooperated fully with it.
Abdel-Rahim Rayhan, director of research, archaeological studies and scientific publishing in South Sinai, said that the transportation of the four sphinxes out of a total of 60 statues from Luxor did not contradict international agreements, including the Venice Charter on heritage conservation which says that objects can be moved as part of efforts to safeguard them.
“This is decided according to global or local interest,” he said, adding that the statues behind the first pylon had been moved in antiquity to expand the temples, and the public interest today required their transfer for protection. Their relocation in Cairo’s Tahrir Square had been decided by experts at the ministry in order to beautify one of the most famous squares in Egypt.
Tahrir Square is currently under development in preparation for the transfer of the obelisk, and the façades of shops and buildings are being repainted in order to restore the square to its original grandeur.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.