The transfer of four sandstone sphinxes to Tahrir Square in Cairo will expose them to intense heat and air pollution and amounts to an attempt to erase Egypt’s recent history, Egyptologists and academics have said.
Officials from Egypt’s antiquities ministry recently announced that the ram-headed sphinxes had been taken from the Karnak temple in Luxor to the capital’s busy traffic roundabout, where they have joined a pink granite obelisk. The sphinxes are being stored in wooden crates until an unveiling ceremony, for which a date has not been set.
“When we go to European capitals, like Rome or Paris or London, and also Washington, we see that they use Egyptian obelisks in decorating their major tourist squares, so why do we not do the same?” Khaled El-Enany, Egypt’s minister of antiquities, told Al Ahram newspaper. The 90-tonne obelisk from the period of Ramses II, which was moved to Tahir Square in 2019, will be mounted high to “give it historical value” and attract tourists, he added.
Monica Hanna, an Egyptologist and member of a group suing the prime minister, Mostafa Madbouly, and Enany over the transfer, said the sphinxes were being endangered. “We oppose this because of concerns over the objects’ safety in the pollution of Tahrir Square and [the threat to] the historical integrity of Karnak temple,” she said.
The Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage, part of Unesco, also opposed the relocation, saying that removing them from the original site was counter to Egypt’s commitment to preserve heritage.
The square, one of Cairo’s busiest traffic intersections, is also a symbolic protest site. Tahrir, meaning liberation, was at the centre of the 2011 uprising that toppled the autocratic president Hosni Mubarak. It became a meeting place for millions of Egyptians who fought security forces for control of the city centre.
In the years since 2013, when a military coup brought the current president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, to power, the square retained its symbolism despite a widespread crackdown on opposition and a de facto ban on protests. A move by the government in 2013 to erect a memorial there to the almost 900 people killed in the 2011 uprising brought scorn from activists, who threatened to destroy it. A small spate of protests last year triggered a full lockdown of the square and the surrounding area by Egyptian security forces, in a show of force intended to curb any fresh uprising.
Rabab El Mahdi, associate professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, said the monument represented the authorities’ efforts to erase contemporary history.
“It covers over the recent memory that is alive in the minds of many people, with something historical that has no political connotations or significance,” she said.
The installation will cap years of government efforts to remove traces in downtown Cairo of the 2011 uprising. Political murals and graffiti have been erased, and a parking garage built so that the entrance covers a corner of Tahrir Square.
Mahdi said siting the sphinxes there was in bad taste. “It’s basically no respect for the living who witnessed this revolution and see it as part of contemporary history, and no respect for the dead, including the antiquities.”