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Egypt's Minister of Antiquities has moved four sphinxes from the Karnak Temple in Luxor to Tahrir Square, a choice that is causing many discussions among archaeologists. The question seems apparently simple, the minister claims the possibility of copying the model of their previous western colonizers, who first used the Egyptian obelisks to decorate their most tourist squares. Rome, Paris, London, Washington, so why not Cairo: "Why can't we do the same?"

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This is Khaled El-Enany's argument (the head of Ministry Antiquities of Egypt), released to an Egyptian newspaper to comment on the decision to move the four ram-headed sphinxes of the Karnak Temple in Luxor, to "beautify" the famous Maidan al-Tahrir, the main square in Cairo. Tahrir Square is certainly a symbolic place for all of Egypt, always very busy. Its current name dates back to after the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 but it was not until 1952 that it was officially renamed. On its sides are the Omar Makram mosque, the Egyptian Museum, the headquarters of the Democratic National Party, the huge government palace of the Mogamma and the headquarters of the Arab League, while the Nile River flows not far away. The displacement of the four sphinxes has already been carried out and the statues are currently packed, pending is the official presentation ceremony. The only faint hope could stem from a court ruling, given that in December 2019 Hanna and other experts filed a lawsuit against Khaled El-Enany and Mostafa Madbouly, Prime Minister of Egypt.

 

Tahrir Square in Cairo during 8 February 2011, Egyptian revolution of 2011. Courtesy Wikipedia 


"We want to transform Tahrir Square into one of the main tourist destinations in Cairo and all the decoration works of this international place will be completed in a month," said El-Enany. Statements that seem to conceal other types of interest, including that of dampening possible future riots. The square has in fact always been the epicentre of demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak. During the so-called Arab Spring (2011) throughout the riots there gathered about a million people and today the square is remembered as a flag of those events. The relocation of the sphinxes would then be part of a larger project to renew the imagination of the area, to transform it from an iconic space of popular upheavals into a tourist destination.

In addition to a reflection from a political point of view, the action drew attention from archaeologists and UNESCO. In fact, both seem to oppose describing the square as a space not suitable for hosting such delicate finds. Protests from archaeologists were not slow in making themselves heard and also the Arab Regional Center for World Heritage, which operates under the aegis of UNESCO, and which opposed the sudden move, which smacks more of mutilation. "We strongly oppose because we are concerned about the safety of the works, due to the pollution of Tahrir square, but also about the integrity of the Karnak temple site," said Monica Hanna, archaeologist of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology, and Maritime Transport. The Karnak temple complex is one of the most precious places in the world.

Cover image: Sphinxes from the Karnak Temple in Luxor.
 

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