Ramsess II's last journey

Nevine El-Aref, Wednesday 3 Nov 2010

The first of the 1,500 artefacts planned for exhibition at the Grand Egyptian Museum overlooking the Giza Plateau has arrived safe and sound

Downtown Cairo did not sleep last Friday night. Its streets were enlivened with the scene of a huge carnival, with hundred of thousands of Cairenes leaving their homes to line the pavements and bridges as they bade farewell to the red granite colossus of the 19th-dynasty Pharaoh Ramses II. The colossus, the central point of Bab Al-Hadid Square since 1954, was now making the overnight journey to its new home at the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) overlooking the Giza Plateau.

As the 'royal' cavalcade rolled through the streets, where thousands of policemen were deployed in a bid to form a cordon allowing for the safe passage of the convoy, people stood at their windows and balconies waving, clapping, whistling and ululating to greet the pharaoh, while others climbed buses, cars and buildings trying to catch the last glimpse of this familiar downtown landmark. As he passed the Qasr Al-Dubara Church in Qasr Al-Aini Street, the church bell rang to salute the great king. "Ramses, Ramses, we are going to miss you!" "Grandfather, where are you going when you leave us?" "Love you, love you Ramses!" the people cried at every stage of Ramses's final journey to the GEM, where, it is hoped, he will spend the rest of his days.

Looking into the face of Ramses II you can easily appreciate his beautiful smile. "I think the king is very happy today," Zahi Hawass, secretary- general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) told Al-Ahram Weekly. Hawass went on to say that if Ramses could speak he would say how grateful he was for the move from such a polluted square, which over time has turned into a jungle of flyovers and buildings. "Ramses would have cursed us from his tomb if we had not gotten his statue out of this inconceivable chaos of pollution," Hawass claimed.

This is the third time this statue of Ramses II has been moved. The first time was 3,000 years ago when, shortly after it was carved in an Aswan quarry. Ancient Egyptians ferried it down the Nile to Mit Rahina, now a village 30km from the Giza Plateau, where it was installed at the Great Temple of Ptah. In 1882 the granite statue was found broken in six pieces. All attempts made at the time to restore and re-erect it in situ failed, and it remained as it was found until 1954 when President Gamal Abdel-Nasser decided to use the statue of Ramses to symbolise the authentic Egyptian roots of the new republic by erecting it in front of Cairo's main railway station. In February 1954 the minister of governmental affairs at the time, Abdel-Latif El-Boghdadi, undertook to move the statue to Bab Al-Hadid (now Ramses Square) where the sculpture of Egypt's renaissance carved by artist Mahmoud Mokhtar was then displayed. The statue was transported to Bab Al-Hadid Aquare on a tank by the military engineering department to celebrate the second anniversary of the 1952 Revolution, and Mokhtar's masterpiece was re-erected in front of Cairo University.

At the square in front of the station -- henceforth named Ramses Station -- the statue was restored and reassembled by the insertion of huge iron bars inside the body. A fountain was built in front of it, and it soon became one of Cairo's most famous landmarks, providing a backdrop for several famous Egyptian movie scenes and songs.

Over the decades, however, as the square was subjected to massive urban development, the statue was buried under a maze of cement structures and flyovers and could scarcely be seen. It was Culture Minister Farouk Hosni who first suggested removing the statue from its current location at Ramses Square to save it from the corrosive fumes at the busy intersection. Several possible locations were suggested. At first it was thought it might be returned to its original home at Mit Rahina, but the small Mit Rahina Bridge could not have supported the weight of the 83- tonne statue. It was then suggested that it be placed in Giza's Rimayah Square, or at the entrance to the Cairo Opera House, but it was feared that in time these sites would be as badly affected by traffic fumes and congestion as Ramses Square. In 2002, the GEM was chosen to be the permanent location to house such a magnificent colossus. The site will give the statue better protection; in any case, environmental conditions on the relatively remote plateau are much more suitable. The statue will also fit in well with the Ancient Egyptian atmosphere of both the plateau and the new museum complex. The pharaoh seemed lost at the Ramses Square intersection of at least three major thoroughfares and both the main rail and underground metro lines. "These environmental conditions, combined with the extensive vibrations from the intense traffic, were bound to have a negative effect on the future of the statue," Hosni said.

When building begins on the GEM the statue will find itself enclosed in the new structure .

"Placing him within the scenario of the GEM will allow us to solve this arduous equation," Hosni told the Weekly. "A gigantic statue of one of the most celebrated kings of Ancient Egypt will be inside the biggest museum in the world.

"I always dreamed of moving the statue, but the only obstacle that I had to face was its safe transportation," Hosni said, adding that as a previous student of Ahmed Osman, the artist who led the restoration project of Ramses II's statue in 1954 at Bab Al-Hadid, he knew all the details of its restoration from Osman's lectures.

Abdel-Hamid Qutb, the SCA engineer responsible for the move, said that before any transportation plan could be approved dozens of archaeologists and photographers documented, drew and photographed every square inch and every angle of the monument, which remained under scaffolding until the move. Architects were also among the working team. A pampered patient, the statue was monitored every half- hour, and its weaker parts noted in an attempt to ensure maximum protection during the move.

Qutb pointed out that architectural documentation of the statue was carried out according to the latest technology, with 30 million points on the statue's body being highlighted and monitored to reveal the type of mould used to restore it when it first arrived in the square in 1954. The statue's weak points were also examined so these could be taken into consideration during the move.

Studies reveal that although the statue is carved of a strong material (red granite), it has been seriously affected by the polluted environment around the square. Its red colour has altered, and some fractures have appeared in the middle of the back and in the area between its legs. These parts have been restored and missing parts replaced by a similar material brought from Aswan. Radar examination showed the iron bars that were used to combine the statue's six pieces during its first restoration, along with different types of mould to plaster and glue the pieces together. Granite shreds were also used to hide the mould and to make the statue to look as if it was in one piece.

Qutb said that after the completion of sufficient archeological, geological, and architectural studies, along with other studies proposing different means of transport and methods used to dismantle the statue and re-erect it at its new home, a decision was made to remove it as it was, in one piece. The chairman of the Arab Contractors Company, Ibrahim Mahlab, announced that in order to guarantee the secure dismantling, transportation and re-erection of the statue, his company would use some of the techniques utilised by the Ancient Egyptians during the construction of the Giza Pyramids. Other safeguards included covering the statue with foam rubber, which was supported on all sides by large wooden bars. Mahlab added the statue in its cage would be hung on a steel bridge like a pendulum in an attempt to allow it free movement while the vehicles were travelling over the Monib Bridge and descending the small incline.

Three trials were implemented to check and experience the weight of the statue on the vehicles, the bridge and the roads. "It was necessary to train the engineers and workmen sociologically and technically to prepare for handling the real statue on 25 August," Mahlab said. The first two trials took place using limestone blocks of a similar weight, but the third one on 28 July used a replica of the real colossus.

Even in view of its successful completion, the trial run highlighted some important steps that were taken before the real event. Some tree branches bordering the Mansouriya road had to be cut, and the raised pavements separating the two lanes of Qasr Al-Aini Street and the Corniche were removed.

After a ten-hour journey the statue arrived safe and sound at the GEM, where thousands of people waited to welcome it.

"I could not sleep all night long," Hosni confessed when the royal cavalcade arrived at the GEM. "I am overwhelmed by a special emotion that I cannot describe. It is a feeling of joy mixed with worry. Finally, Ramses is where he belongs."

Farouk Abdel-Salam, first undersecretary at the Ministry of Culture, said he was completely satisfied with the move and described the progress as "very accurate and efficient". He added that in the forthcoming year the statue would be completely cleaned and restored, after which it would be moved to its permanent location in the yet unbuilt foyer of the GEM. The GEM's restoration laboratory, the electricity station, storehouses and fire extinguisher zone have already been constructed.

"It is the museum of eternity," Abdel-Salam says. "The GEM will stand as a beacon to one of the world's first civilisations." Nestled between the Giza Pyramids and the modern city of Cairo, at the juncture of the dry desert and fertile flood plain, the GEM will be a portal to the past. It will provide a new edge to the plateau, with the layout of its exhibition galleries organised in such a way that the visual lines to the Pyramids will be seen through a prism of light. According to Hosni the GEM's façade will be constructed of translucent alabaster, allowing daylight to penetrate inside the galleries. The museum complex will centre on the Dunal Eye, an area containing the main exhibition spaces around which will spread a network of streets, piazzas and bridges linking the museum's many sections.

Abdel-Salam told the Weekly that the GEM was set to be the world's largest museum -- larger than the Metropolitan Museum in the United States and the Louvre in France. He announced that a board of trustees headed by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak had been set up in an attempt to put into effect the fund-raising campaign already launched in Egypt and abroad. A Web site calling on Egyptians and foreigners to shoulder part of the burden of bringing the GEM to light has also been launched.

The idea of creating a new museum to house the best of Egypt's national treasures arose from an urgent need for exhibition space. After much debate a site was finally chosen at Giza, and President Mubarak laid the foundation stone on 4 February 2002. The museum aims to create the best environment to display the priceless treasures now exhibited in the crowded Egyptian Museum, with better lighting and more information so as to do justice to Egypt's heritage. The mission of the museum is to preserve, document, conserve, research and exhibit collections, as well as to educate and entertain visitors. The GEM will not, however, replace the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square altogether, as the latter will continue to house 10,000 masterpieces of Pharaonic art and sculpture from various historical periods.

As one of the chief enthusiasts of the new museum, Hawass announced that the SCA was looking into the possible removal of the statue of Ramses II's daughter Princess Merit-Amun, now exhibited in the open air museum at Akhmin in Sohag, so it could be put on show beside her father at the GEM. Hawass is also calling on UNESCO to collaborate with scientist Farouk El-Baz to study how to transport King Khufu's solar boat from its original location on the Giza Plateau to the GEM. He pointed out that the present location was not the best for such a unique monument.

"Studying all these projects is a step toward selecting all monuments from being exhibited in squares and streets in order to return them to where they belong," Hawass told the Weekly. He pointed out that the Ancient Egyptians did not sculpt these gigantic statues to stand in urban spaces but to decorate temples, shrines and tombs.

A driving philosophy

THE REAL face behind the success of the move belongs to 65-year-old Ahmed El-Gharabawi, the driver of the truck which pulled the two flatbed vehicles carrying Ramses II's statue. His efficiency and wide experience in transporting petrol and combustible materials helped El-Gharabawi to deliver the statue safe and sound, and on time, to the GEM. A husband and a father of five children, El-Gharabawi says he is not afraid of anything. "Transporting an 83-tonne statue for 35kms is nothing," he told the Weekly. "In my 40 years of experience I have delivered much heavier loads and equipment over the length and breadth of Egypt. On the contrary, it is one of the smallest weights I have pulled." El-Gharabawi conceded, however, that his last trip with Ramses II was totally different from his usual endeavours. It was the first time he had pulled a great king through such a clamorous atmosphere. "The 10-hour journey was the best time of my life. I have never seen thousands of people singing all night long and walking for miles just to bid farewell to King Ramses II," he said. "In all my previous trips, silence, darkness and the road were my company, along with my true and sincere friend, the vehicle's steering wheel."

Source: Al-Ahram Weekly

31 August-6 September 2006

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