Last Thursday an Egyptian-German archaeological mission discovered two 19th Dynasty royal statues in a pit in the Souq Al-Khamis district of Matariya in Greater Cairo.
The statues, the main one of which is a colossal statue believed to be of the Pharaoh Ramses II, were found in the vicinity of the temple precinct of ancient Heliopolis known as “Oun” and dedicated to Ramses II.
The first statue is an 80cm bust of Seti II carved in limestone with fine facial features. The second, found in two pieces, appears to have been eight metres long and carved in quartzite.
Although there are no engravings that could identify the statue, its existence at the entrance of the Ramses II Temple suggests that it could have been of him.
Ayman Ashmawi, head of the Egyptian team, described the discovery as “very important” because it showed that the Oun Temple once had magnificent structures, engravings, colossal statues and obelisks.
The temple suffered damage in antiquity, and most of its obelisks and colossal statues were later transported to Alexandria or to Europe. During the Islamic era, blocks from the Temple were used in the construction of Islamic Cairo.
Both parts of the colossal statue were found in a muddy pit between a series of residential buildings and flooded with subterranean water.
To rescue the statue, the Ministry of Antiquities lifted the smaller part with a forklift truck. This part weighs 2.5 tons and includes a large section of the pharaoh’s crown, right ear and part of the right eye, while the larger part, which includes the torso, the neck and part of the beard, remains in situ as it was almost totally submerged in ground water.
A few hours after the announcement of the discovery, the mission and the ministry came under fire for using a forklift truck to lift the statue out of the pit.
Many Egyptologists and others despaired when they saw photographs of the statue being lifted from the earth with heavy construction equipment, and rumours soon swirled that the heavy-handed digging had broken the newly-discovered statue.
More criticisms were hurled at the ministry when photographs showed the excavated parts of the statue wrapped in a blanket picturing a Spiderman cartoon and becoming a hot topic on social media. Children were spotted at the site near the findings without clear supervision and taking selfies with them.
Some Egyptologists accused the ministry of failing to deal properly with the statues, risking their damage.
Egyptologist Monica Hanna of the Arab Academy for Science and Technology said the problem was that the colossal statue had been discovered on land ceded by the Ministry of Antiquities. The former head of the Matariya archaeological area had claimed that the area had no historical interest and had allowed a market to be built on it, she said.
This had turned out to be a mistake because vendors in the regular market had refused to relocate to the new area.
Hanna told Al-Ahram Weekly that the lifting of the head of the statue had taken place in a difficult area with water complicating the work. The water had leaked into the area from illegal buildings erected on the former archaeological site, she said.
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