In a slum in eastern Cairo, a team of archaeologists are reaching the end of a four-year dig. Finally, they begin to sift through an unremarkable pit filled with groundwater. And while they’re not expecting to find anything important, suddenly they strike gold – a treasure that’s been buried for three millennia.
Back in 2012, German and Egyptian archaeologists arrived in Matariya, a district of Egypt’s capital, Cairo. Historically, the area had been the site of Heliopolis, one of ancient Egypt’s major cities. Today, however, it is an impoverished neighborhood of the country’s bustling capital.
According to the University of Leipzig’s Dietrich Raue, who led the German part of the excavation, Matariya is of particular archaeological interest. Apparently, the ancient Egyptians believed that Heliopolis was the home of the sun god. Accordingly, many important buildings were constructed there.
“The sun god created the world in Heliopolis, in Matariya,” Raue said in a March 2017 interview with Reuters. “That’s what I always tell the people here when they say is there anything important. According to the pharaonic belief, the world was created in Matariya.”
Over the course of the excavations, the team systematically excavated the area around Matariya in search of ancient remains. And eventually, they came to a pit surrounded by abandoned construction sites. Filled with murky groundwater, it didn’t look promising initially.
In fact, Raue and his colleagues didn’t hold out much hope for a grand discovery at this point. Although they’d uncovered statue bases from a nearby courtyard, there was nothing to hint at the amazing revelation to come. “We thought [the pit] would be empty without any features,” Raue admitted in a March 2017 interview with CNN.
Nevertheless, the archaeologists began to work on the pit. They dug a hole down to around five feet below ground level and started to search the area. And, amazingly, that was when they made one of the most significant archaeological breakthroughs Egypt has ever witnessed.
As the archaeologists carried on with their work, the lower part of a giant face was slowly unveiled. Next, the crown of a huge head was uncovered. Gradually, then, a colossal statue that had been concealed beneath the mud began to reveal itself in all its glory.
Intrigued, the archaeologists continued to excavate the site, and they subsequently uncovered an ear and a segment of the statue’s right eye. By this time, the team knew that they had stumbled onto something important.
By March 9, 2017, the team were ready to reveal their discovery to the world. In front of the media and state officials, they used a crane and a forklift truck to remove part of the statue from its resting place. There was, however, some criticism on social media for the apparent clumsiness of the techniques they employed. Nevertheless, the ancient artwork appeared to have survived unscathed.
Eventually, the team were able to extract what remained of the gigantic head from the pit. Based on their observations, archaeologists estimate that the entire statue measured some 30 feet tall. And in historical terms, a huge statue such as this is known as a “colossus.”
The head is made from quartzite, a metamorphic rock that was often used to forge statues in ancient Egypt. But just who was this colossal monument intended to represent? Well, archaeologists believe that they might have the answer.
The statue was in fact retrieved close to the site of Heliopolis’ sun temple. This structure is thought to have been among the largest of ancient Egypt’s temples. Indeed, it was almost twice the size of the Karnak, the famous religious complex in Luxor, Egypt, some 300 miles to the south.
Over time, though, the Egyptians’ interest in the sun god dwindled, and Heliopolis was abandoned. Then, when the Roman Empire took control of the region, many of the city’s monuments were moved to other locations around Europe. And what was left behind often became incorporated into new buildings as Cairo grew over the years.
However, as it turns out, not all of Heliopolis was lost or forgotten. Although there were no visible inscriptions on the recently discovered statue, for example, the temple near to where it was found was dedicated to Ramses II. Accordingly, archaeologists believe that it is this ancient king who is represented by the colossus.
Ramses II came to the throne as a teenager in 1279 B.C., and he went on to become one of ancient Egypt’s greatest pharaohs. He was best known for his lengthy military campaigns against the Libyans and the Hittites. In addition, he carried out vast building projects across the Egyptian empire. Later called the “Great Ancestor” by his descendants, Ramses II ruled for 66 years until his death in 1213 B.C.
Understandably, the archaeologists at Matariya were thrilled by their latest find. In fact, according to the Egyptian Antiquities Ministry, it’s one of the most important discoveries ever made in the country. Today, work continues on the excavation of the extraordinary site.
At the moment, archaeologists are debating on the best way to remove the rest of the statue, which they believe is still buried in the pit. “I’m sure that [the hips and legs] will be there,” Raue told CNN. “But the problem is we’re in the middle of the city, and the bottom part may be very close to the houses.”
Once the statue is successfully excavated, experts will attempt to restore as much of the head and torso as possible. Afterwards, they hope to install the statue in pride of place at the entrance to the Grand Egyptian Museum, an ambitious project due to open in Giza, Egypt, in 2018. And if successful, they will ensure a fitting final legacy for one of Egypt’s most famous pharaohs.
Meanwhile, many are hoping that the statue could provide a much-needed boost to Egypt’s tourist industry. Ever since the political upheaval that saw president Hosni Mubarak ousted from power in 2011, visitor numbers in the region have plummeted. So will Ramses II step in to help his people one last time? Only time will tell.