Engineers on Friday moved a 3,200-year-old statue of Ramses II. The pharonic statue had stood for more than 50 years in a congested square in downtown Cairo. Its new home will be at a tranquil spot next to the Great Pyramids. Thousands came out to watch the statue makes its 20 kilometer journey.
It took 10 hours for the 11 meter, 83 ton statue to travel through downtown Cairo and cross the Nile River. Tens of thousands of people, many of them waving Egyptian flags and cheering, turned out to watch the statue make its slow journey to its new home.
The statue was transported, in one piece, on two flatbed trucks and was encased in place with a steel cage.
To accommodate the grand statue on its journey, countless potholes had to be fixed, fences removed, and trees cut down. Its final resting place will be next to the Giza pyramids at the site of the new Egyptian Museum.
Ramses II was one of ancient Egypt's most impressive, and prolific, pharaohs. He had eight wives and 120 children. During his more than 60-year reign, Egypt prospered at home and abroad. Considered one of Egypt's greatest warriors, he is also known as a man of peace, signing what is believed to be the world's first peace treaty.
The statue depicts Ramses with one foot forward, striding boldly into the after life. But over the past 54 years a concrete jungle had grown up around him. The statue was hemmed in by a major highway overpass, a mosque and a hotel. Subway lines ran directly under the monument.
Egypt's director of antiquities, Zahi Hawass, says the statue had to be moved to protect it from environmental damage, and to give it a more appropriate home.
"The granite is in danger," he said. "We are moving it to save it, but we are also moving it to respect [it], because the ancient Egyptians, when they made a statue they did not intend to put it in a square. The statue has spiritual values. It has to be in their original location. The idea of putting pharaonic statues in squares of towns is completely wrong. Statues were made to be in temples or tombs."
Many Egyptians remember calmer days in Ramses Square, when the statue was surrounded by grass and trees, a place for picnics at the foot of the statue. Egyptians grew attached to the statue, passing it on their daily commute.
Antiques collector Amgad Naguib came to watch the majestic statue leave its home, and, as he puts it, pay his last respects. He says the great statue was interwoven with people's lives as a daily reminder of Egypt's great history.
"I used to come to sit at the Everest Hotel in the square, right in front of this statue, only to look at it," he recalled. "Ramses is maybe our last thing to be proud of. Since Ramses, we didn't really do much."
The statue has been reproduced on countless postcards and guidebooks, and was often prominently featured in Egyptian films. It has been a cultural landmark for the city, says Naguib, especially for its newcomers.
"Most of Cairo now is immigrants. Cairo is a city of 17 million or more, and most have come from the countryside and from Upper Egypt. It was the first thing they saw at the railway station," he added. "They would leave the train station and it was the landmark of all of Cairo, not only the square."
The Ramses statue will be the showcase of the new Egyptian museum, which, says antiquities director Hawass, will be the largest museum in the world. It is scheduled for completion in 2010.
Since taking office in 2002, Hawass has waged a campaign to recover Egyptian antiquities that he says were illegally taken abroad. He is not timid about protecting Egyptian monuments. He says it is right that his country is now finally the authority on its antiquities, rather than foreign institutions.
"What really happened in archeology in the last 25 years, it's always foreigners doing projects," he noted. "The Egyptians never did any great projects like this, moving Ramses II, it's a shock to them. But at the end, they really like it and that's why I'm really proud. Because for the first time, the face of Egypt is done by Egyptians, not by foreigners"
Judging by throngs of crowds who accompanied the procession of Ramses II throughout the night, Egyptians were indeed reveling in a moment of national pride.