In 21st-century Egypt, the pharaohs still travel in style. A marching band and mounted military guard were on hand Thursday to escort an enormous statue of Ramses II on its fourth voyage in 3,200 years.
What is intended as the colossus' final voyage is also the shortest: a 1,200-foot jaunt from the temporary building in Giza where it has spent a little more than a decade, to the soaring entrance atrium of the new Grand Egyptian Museum, its planned permanent destination.
Any movement of the statue is notable due to its staggering size. Weighing in at 83 tons and more than 30 feet high, the granite sculpture depicting the 19th-Dynasty pharaoh was transported in a custom-made metal cage resting on two trailer beds, hauled slowly by a bright orange truck emblazoned with the Egyptian flag.
Ramses II, also known as Ramses the Great, is widely considered to be the most powerful pharaoh of ancient Egypt. During his reign from 1279 to 1213 B.C., he conducted military campaigns in Nubia, Syria, and Canaan, defeated the enigmatic Sea People in a naval battle in the Nile Delta, and claimed victory over Egypt's Hittite rivals in the Battle of Kadesh (a conflict that ended with the signing of the world's first treaty).
Ramses also built on a colossal scale, most notably the massive Ramesseum tomb complex in Thebes and the Great Temple at Abu Simbel, where 65-foot high depictions of the pharaoh seated on his throne flank the entrance.
The colossus that arrived at the Grand Egyptian Museum has had a circuitous history, beginning with its transport from the quarries of Aswan to the Temple of Ptah in the ancient capital of Memphis in the 13th century B.C. Lost to the sands over millennia, the statue was rediscovered by Italian Egyptologist Giovanni Battista Caviglia (the archaeologist who originally excavated the Sphinx) in 1820. Caviglia offered his discovery, lying on its side and broken into six pieces, to an Italian duke who turned down his gift due to the cost and practicalities of moving the enormous sculpture. The British Museum later waved away a similar offer of the statue by an Egyptian pasha for similar reasons.
The Ramses colossus rested among the ruins of ancient Memphis (modern Mit-Rahina), on the West Bank of the Nile some 25 miles south of Cairo for more than 130 years. In 1954, Egypt's president Gamal Abdel-Nasser ordered that the statue be brought to Cairo to celebrate the second anniversary of the 1952 Revolution, which abolished the constitutional monarchy, and to affirm Egypt's ancient legacy. The fragments were transported by tank (the lions of the Giza Zoo were said to have roared in unison as the great pharaoh passed by) and the statue was reassembled, restored, and erected in the center of Bab Al-Hadid square in front of Cairo's main train station.
For a half century, the statue stood as a silent sentinel in the center of a traffic circle, resolute among the tangle of city boulevards and overpasses, rattling buses and honking cars. In 2006, concerned that automobile emissions were damaging the ancient red granite sculpture, the Egyptian government moved the statue to Giza in anticipation of eventually installing it at the entrance to the Grand Egyptian Museum. Thousands of residents waved and cheered as Ramses the Great, lovingly referred to as "Grandfather," made a 10-hour truck journey through the streets of Cairo, swaddled in layers of protective foam and suspended in the same metal cage used in the most recent move.
As with previous times that Ramses has changed locations, his final move was a grand spectacle and major press event. In this case, however, his destination is also making headlines around the world.
Called the "world's largest museum," the Grand Egyptian Museum was conceived in 2002 as a modern repository for Egypt's ancient treasures, and the 650,000-square-foot building is currently under construction in the shadow of Giza's iconic pyramids. When the museum is completed in 2020 at a cost of roughly a billion dollars, it will have the capacity to display 100,000 artifacts.
The Ramses statue is the first major artifact to enter the permanent collection area of the GEM, according to Tarek Tawfik, the museum's supervisor-general.
The move of the colossus at Giza, officiated by Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Anany, along with a red-carpet crowd of Egyptian ministers, officials, and foreign dignitaries and a gaggle of media, shows that even after thousands of years the sheer scale of Ramses' creations still have the power to evoke awe. In 2017, a fragment of a colossal pharaonic statue unearthed in a Cairo neighborhood made international headlines and was originally (and mistakenly) identified as Ramses the Great due to its enormous size. A fragment from another colossal Ramses statue, unearthed in 1817 and now in the British Museum, is believed to have inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley's famous sonnet Ozymandias: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!"