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Ancient pharaoh brings buzz to Cairo slum

dpa logodpa 4/04/2017 Nehal El-Sheri

Archaeological finds have brought global attention to the Cairo neighbourhood of al-Matariya. But little is expected to change for the working-class area.

"Look, look, Ramses is here," chanted the dozens of young men, dancing and clapping under the sun.

Although cordoned off by security forces, the residents of al-Matariya neighbourhood in eastern Cairo were sure to make their presence known at the site, as they celebrated the sudden attention their poor area has received since an eight-metre-long statue was discovered, submerged in ground water.

The find has been described by Egyptian officials and foreign archaeologists as the biggest in recent years.

Surrounded by red-brick buildings, a team of Egyptian and German archeologists pulled out parts of a massive statue, believed to depict Rameses II, one of ancient Egypt's most powerful pharaohs.

Al-Matariya was once part of the ancient city of Heliopolis, or the city of the sun. Archaeologists believe the statue depicts Rameses II because ruins of one of his temples had been previously found there.

According to Dietrich Raue, head of the German team, al-Matariya is where the world was created in ancient Egyptian myth.

"It is where the sun god rises from a hill. It was the first sunrise in the world and the moment the world unfolds," he said.

"Al-Matariya is so important for the ancient Egyptian culture, it is the beginning of everything, and I am sure there is much more to be discovered here," added Raue, who has been working in Egypt since the late 1980s.

His words are interrupted by chants of residents standing on the side as they shout "Matariya, Matariya" to the rhythm of plastic containers that they use as drums.

Raue hopes to continue excavations in al-Matariya. "It's a matter of time and money; that is always the same story."

Some parts of the statue were left on the ground after recently being lifted. Pictures of children playing around the monuments and men covering some parts with a Spiderman blanket stirred heated debates in the country, as many accused officials of negligence.

Minister of Antiquities Khaled el-Enany admitted that it was a mistake to leave the artefacts, and said measures had been taken not to repeat it.

"We all know there is lack of awareness regarding the importance of such monuments," the minister said.

This is evident when Mohamed, a resident of al-Matariya in his early 20s, asks who Rameses is, as he waits to pick up customers in his rickshaw (or "tuk-tuk") near the archaeological site.

Mohamed is happy to get more clients as people flood into the neighbourhood, yet believes that officials "should sell it to help the area."

According to official figures, around 700,000 people live on the four square kilometres of Matariya, which makes excavation a challenge.

"I would like to dig further, but as you see the colossus was in the back and may be if the statue's legs are still buried here, they would be in this direction," el-Enany said, pointing at buildings adjacent to the area where the statue was found. "It will not be possible."

El-Enany dismisses fears that the discoveries will prompt residents to start illegally excavating in the area.

"Here? No. But we have to work together on this very long-term plan to raise awareness among the population to save their lives and the antiquities," he added.

Samia, a 40-year-old mother, posed with her son for pictures.

"I hope more things are discovered here," she said, only to explain later that it would help her appear on television.

But attention is expected to fade away from the area as soon as the monuments are moved to the museum.

German archeologist Raue said it is impossible to turn al-Matariya into an area like Karnak, the open-air museum in southern Egypt.

"We cannot leave the object in place; first because all the important monuments are under the water, and also we cannot ask people to move just because we want to do archaeology. So, we have to find a way of compromising the needs of the modern city with excavations."

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