Number of the Month: 2,681 years

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The find is quite sensational: the statue – whose torso alone weighs nine tons and is several metres high – was discovered in Cairo by a team of researchers led by German archaeologist Dr Dietrich Raue from Leipzig University and Dr Aiman Ashmawy from the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, and then recovered on 7 March 2017. On a previous occasion they had already removed the head and crown of King Psammetich I, a pharaoh who ruled from 664 until 610 BC, from dirty water under a landfill site. Since 2012, Raue and Ashmawy have together been studying the remains of the once famous but now lost temple of Heliopolis in one of the poorer parts of east Cairo, a metropolis of 22 million inhabitants. “This is where, according to Egyptian mythology, the world was created; it is the theological and religious centre of Egypt”, explains Raue.

Unique archaeological find

recovery of part of the statue of King Psammetich I.

Originally, a large multi-storey car park for a shopping mall was soon to be built at the excavation site in the El Matariya district, but following the find these plans have now been shelved for the time being. “We have been working here for several years, and find objects of archaeological interest on a daily basis”, says Dietrich Raue. “On that 7 March it was immediately clear to us: this is the kind of spectacular find one makes only once in one’s life, if at all.” He goes on to explain that non-Egyptologists and non-archaeologists have now also come to realise that the site was a significant place in Egypt’s past – and continues to be enormously important. The researchers are thus allowed to carry on searching, and are being supported not only by Egyptian archaeologists, but also by local residents and Egyptian donors.

New insights into an unknown historic world

“Because of the size of the statue, we first thought that it must be a statue of King Ramses II”, says Raue. In its complete state, it would probably be around eight to nine metres tall. However, the style, and indeed the iconography, were not in keeping with Ramses. An inscription to the rear of the statue gave the archaeologists the final clue pointing to Psammetich I. All the same, Raue is far from disappointed: “The find opens up a new historical window. King Psammetich I was an important pharaoh in Egypt. With great skill he succeeded in keeping the Assyrians out of the country and brought about something of an Egyptian renaissance. And yet he is little known.”

What exactly do the finds tell us?

Psammetich I celebrated his rule in the style of the kings of the ancient era – which also included grand buildings in the temple of Heliopolis. “This find means that we can prove that the colossal art that was produced at the time of Psammetich in around 650 BC also drew inspiration from Ancient Egypt. We have never been able to do that before!”, enthuses Raue. The temple of Ra, the sun god, gave the pharaoh and his kingdom the necessary authority. Modern Egyptologists assume that the temple of Heliopolis served as the model for the greatest temple complexes of Egypt, such as Karnak or the Aten temple at Amarna. Funded by the German Research Foundation, the Federal Foreign Office, the Schiff Giorgini Foundation, the Gerda Henkel Foundation and Egyptian donors, the German-Egyptian research project aims to prove this theory by carrying out excavations. The team has already discovered the mighty temple walls, which are roughly 17 metres wide and equally high.

Excavating in mountains of rubbish

Digging conditions in El Matariya were difficult, explains Raue. Because the objects of historical interest were situated at a depth of two to three metres below the groundwater level, water had to be repeatedly pumped off while work was underway. Whenever the power failed for the motorized pump, countless petrol-operated pumps had to be deployed quickly before the excavated section immediately filled up with water again. During the hot summer months, the German members of the 140-strong project team will return to Germany. “We will come back in September 2017, bringing suitable equipment for work below the groundwater level with us”, says Raue. All the hard work may well prove worthwhile: the researchers hope to find the rest of the statue and expect to make numerous other finds, including temple remains.