The famous statue of the great Pharaoh Ramses II that used to stand in Cairo’s Ramses Square was recently moved from its temporary resting place on the Giza Plateau to the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM). It will be displayed in the grand entrance hall at the museum, with different statues of kings from all periods of Egyptian history. Ramses and his royal friends will thus welcome everyone who visits the new Grand Egyptian Museum.
The story of Ramses the Great goes back more than 3,000 years, when he ordered his architect to go to the granite quarries at Aswan and cut two huge blocks of granite. He wanted to have these two blocks carved into two statues of him to stand in front of the temple of the god Ptah in Memphis, the god of artisans.
Ptah was very special to Ramses, and Ptah’s seated statue can still be seen with three other gods in the sanctuary of the Ramses II Temple at Abu Simbel in Upper Egypt. We can imagine the process of moving the two statues from Aswan all the way to Memphis. They probably arrived at the harbour of Giza first and then were moved to the site of Memphis, today’s Mit Rahina.
The red granite statue that was recently moved weighs 83 tons and its height is 11.63 metres. The statue has the following inscription carved on it: “Horus, the bull, lover of justice, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Strong One after Re, the justice, who was chosen by him, son of the Sun.”
Ramses the Great ruled Egypt for 67 years and was one of the greatest kings that has ever lived. He carved his name on statues and temples all over Egypt. Recently, my friend Miroslav Barta, a professor of Egyptology at Prague University in the Czech Republic, found the foundations of a temple built by Ramses II at the site of Abu Sir with the assistance of young archaeologist Mohamed Megahed. I myself was lucky enough to discover two huge unfinished double statues of this king to the east of the Pyramid of Menkaure at Giza. I also excavated at Akhmim and found a huge base and head of one of the largest statues of this king. Ramses built a temple there and dedicated it to the god Min, the god of fertility.
In Heliopolis in Cairo, the remains of a temple built by Ramses to the god Re have been found, along with statues of him. Ramses the Great thus deserves to be the chosen king to stand with other kings of Egypt and welcome visitors to the Grand Egyptian Museum.
The statue was one of a pair found in 1888, and it was almost complete at the time of the discovery. It then remained there, lying on its back, after its discovery at Mit Rahina, along with the other statues. The city of Memphis in the US asked the Egyptian Antiquities Services to restore other statues of Ramses that had been found in pieces, and one was transported to the city to be exhibited at the Ramses the Great exhibition that toured the US in 1983.
The Egyptian government decided in 1954 to restore the large seated statue of Ramses II and transport it to Ramses Square in front of the main Cairo Railway Station. It was moved there as part of a great festival, and I believe that this was done because Ramses was seen as an icon of Egyptian identity. In general, I am completely against placing ancient statues in city squares because such monuments should be at their associated archaeological sites or in museums. In some foreign countries, ancient Egyptian obelisks have been put up in contexts that do not belong to them, damaging the spiritual value of these artifacts. In my view modern city squares should contain modern sculptures and not ancient monuments.
However, people liked the statue of Ramses where it stood in front of the railway station, and a fountain was built in front of it. Even the station was later called Ramses Station. Recent activity changed the landscaping of the area, however. The 6 October Bridge was built near the statue, and the metro system was built under it. The traffic around it caused pollution. There was a need to save the statue by moving it from where it stood in front of the station.
The famous statue of the great Pharaoh Ramses II
MOVING THE STATUE: The decision to move the statue was taken during the time of two former directors of the Antiquities Service, but they were not able to move it as there was no alternative location to place it in.
Some people wanted the statue to be moved to its original location at Mit Rahina. When I became director of antiquities in 2002, I met with Farouk Hosni, the minister of culture at the time, when it was decided to build the Grand Egyptian Museum. We decided to move the statue to an area near the museum’s location and then move it to the entrance hall of the new museum when it had been completed. I contacted my dear friend Ibrahim Mehleb, then director of the Arab Contractors Company and later prime minister of Egypt after the 25 January Revolution, in order to bring this about.
We believed in teamwork and providing a detailed job description for everyone. We had many discussions of the problem, and Ibrahim Mehleb found a gifted architect in Ahmed Hussein of Ain Shams University in Cairo. Hussein came up with the plan to bring the statue from its position outside the railway station by placing it on a moving platform in a standing position until it had reached its final destination. We settled on August 2006 as the date to move the statue. Few people actually believed that the statue would arrive safely, except for Ibrahim Mehleb and I who believed that the statue would arrive safe and sound.
People thought the plan was risky and that it would be a miracle if the statue arrived at the GEM. Though I do not believe in miracles, I do believe in good planning. We announced that the statue would leave Ramses Square at 1 am, and when the time came there were thousands of people in the Square. I saw one lady screaming “Good-bye Ramses, good-bye my friend, I will miss you” as the statue left for Giza. The whole process was shown live on national television until the statue arrived safely at 7am to be near the base of the new Grand Egyptian Museum.
The recent transportation of the statue to its permanent location in the entrance hall of the museum, 400m away from the location it was last moved to, took place with great celebrations. Engineer Mohsen Salah moved the statue using the same method as in 2006, paving the road to its final resting place. Khaled El-Enany, the minister of tourism and antiquities, invited ambassadors and prominent public figures to the event and gave a beautiful speech. The statue was then moved to the sound of music. It was a great day for Ramses, and I told the press that I had come to this event because I missed the king as I had not seen him for 11 years.
We have to give credit to Farouk Hosni who made the decision to build the GEM and to thank him for his cooperation with me as head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) at that time in building the GEM’s conservation labs and storage areas. We originally planned to open the Museum in 2015, but the events of 2011 in Egypt brought such plans to a halt. Now that work has continued and is in its final phases, I believe that this museum will be the most important cultural project of the 21st century.
Behind the statue when it is installed in the GEM will be the Stela of Merenptah, the son of Ramses the Great who took the throne in his old age and is buried beside his father in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor. His fame is because of two reasons: first, because he was the son of Ramses II, and he ruled in old age because his father ruled for 66 years and died at the age of 96; and second because of the famous stela in the Cairo Museum known as the Stela of Merenptah or Victory Stela. Some people call it the Israelite stela. It bears inscriptions that mention great things about the king, including the destruction of the people of Israel.
The stela was originally part of a temple built by Merenptah for the god Re in Heliopolis that was destroyed leaving only this stela intact. It was later surrounded by garbage, and it became very important to move it in order to preserve it. I made the decision to move it to the restoration lab at the Citadel when I was head of the SCA. It stayed there for almost 10 years, but in 2018 it was finally moved to its new home at the GEM.
It is a wonderful artifact in its own right. Made of red granite, it stands on a limestone base and is decorated with various renderings, such as war scenes against Libyan tribes and the king’s titles and cartouche.
I believe that visitors to the GEM will soon have the unrivalled opportunity to feast their eyes on artifacts of profound beauty and historical significance. This coming October will see President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi open the GEM as Egypt’s gift to the world. The opera Tutankhamun, the plot of which I wrote, will be performed at the Cairo Opera House on 12 Septembe, with a libretto by Francisco Santocono and music by Lino Zimbone.
We hope that the opera will be shown during the opening of the GEM because the hero of the museum is Tutankhamun.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly