Affront to pharaoh Troubled times: The granite statue of Ramses II is hemmed by electric lines, coated with soot, assaulted by car exhaust, overshadowed by a freeway overpass on one side and clanging trolley lines on another.

September 23, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAIRO -- Pity poor Ramses the Great.

He was the last of the great pharaohs, hero in the defeat of the Hittites, builder of awesome temples at Abu Simbel and Karnak, father to 52 sons and only-the-Sun-god-knows how many daughters, ruler over an empire that stretched to Syria.

Now his stoic likeness stands under a neon SPORT COLA sign at an intersection where pollution is worst in a city where pollution is bad all over. The granite statue of Ramses II is hemmed by electric lines, coated with soot, assaulted by car exhaust, overshadowed by a freeway overpass on one side and clanging trolley lines on another.

"It's humiliating. We have to move the statue," says Abdul Halim Nur el-Din, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities for Egypt.

The 32-foot tall statue of the 13th-century B.C. ruler has been at the center of a large intersection bearing his name, Ramses Square, since 1955.

When the statue was moved there from Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt 15 miles south of Cairo, the square was an uncongested, low-rise setting. The Ramses statue, carved in the pharaoh's time from a single block of stone, loomed above passengers emerging from the main railway station, greeting them to Cairo with imperial grace.

But since then, the city and its frenzy have grown. Skyscrapers have risen behind the square, the buildings crowned with electric billboards. In the early 1970s, the government built elevated freeways over the square to try to alleviate the choking traffic.

But the number of cars and people in Ramses Square has increased by the tens of thousands. Ramses, who once lorded over the serene Nile, now is surrounded by the cacophony of one of the most heavily populated cities in the world.

The square is a major clog in the commuters' artery -- jammed with people .

Street vendors flock to the crowds. They set up carts with magazines strung out on clotheslines to attract buyers, and spread tables with underwear and pencils and plants for sale. "Tea men" with their jugs of hot tea, and one glass for all, offer refreshment.

Women come from the countryside in black robes, their flat feet thwacking rubber sandals, carrying huge loads of vegetables in baskets on their heads. Other women emerge from offices in smart Western dresses, risking fracture in high heels on the broken pavement.

Ramses watches commuters sprint beside moving buses, a comedy of flapping clothes and outreached hands as they try to leap aboard the already bulging vehicles. The black-and-white taxis speak to each other in a chorus of chirping beeps or agitated blasts. The freeway passes 25 yards from Ramses' shoulder, and the rail lines are 20 yards from his feet. Many of Cairo's 1.2 million cars pass over or through Ramses Square, and the fog of exhaust, acid and lead settles on the ancient deity.

"I've seen Ramses cleaned a couple times. There's quite a difference. He's not supposed to be black. That rose granite is supposed to be purple," says Yasser Sherif, an official of the Egypt Environment Administration.

"People are tough on the monuments," said Mr. Sherif. And on themselves -- measurements of lead in the blood of Egyptian children a few years ago found levels from two to five times the World Health Organization standards. Most of the lead comes from car exhaust and battery recyclers.

The government is trying to do something about the pollution from cars. It is talking about an inspection system, and has reduced the amount of lead in gasoline.

But Mr. Nur el-Din wants Ramses moved. The square is a lousy place to look at the ancient work.

Mr. Nur el-Din wants to move Ramses II to a site near the Giza pyramids to greet tourists coming to Egypt's new archaeology museum. But there are problems. For one, the museum has been talked about for years, but it remains only talk.

For another, all sorts of politicians now are clamoring for the statue. The governors of Cairo and Giza say he should be theirs. Officials in Memphis say he should come back there.

There is irony that those fighting for the statue said nothing as it sank in disgrace among the roadways and pollution.

"The whole issue is exhausting," Mr. Nur el-Din said. "Everybody thinks Ramses will make him famous. Everybody wants him."

Ramses, undoubtedly, will be glad to go.

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