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  • Heritage, Preservation, and Decolonization: Entanglements, Consequences, Action?
  • William Carruthers (bio)

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Figure 1.

The Ramses II statue from Mit Rahina, Egypt, just after its installation outside Cairo’s Ramses Station in the 1950s. Photograph by Van-Leo, courtesy of the American University in Cairo Rare Books and Special Collections Library (Van-Leo Collection).

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Until the 1950s, a colossal statue of the pharaoh Ramses II lay on the ground at the archaeological site of Mit Rahina (ancient Memphis), just south of Cairo in Egypt. In January 1955, however, Wing Commander ʿAbdal-Latif al-Baghdadi, Egypt’s Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs, visited the site as part of the process of preparing for the statue’s removal to central Cairo.1 The Wing Commander had been busy overseeing modernization work in the city in the years after Egypt’s 1952 Free Officers’ coup, an insurrection directed against continued British influence in the country and its unpopular monarch, King Faruq. Gradually, the coup had turned into a revolution whose figurehead was Gamal Abdel Nasser. And in a plan repurposed from Egypt’s colonial era, Ramses was to be a centerpiece of this national recalibration: moved, preserved, and re-erected with great fanfare, his statue would stand in the square by Cairo’s main railway terminus.2 A permanent fixture outside the bustle of what now became known as Mahattat Ramses (Ramses Station), press stories made certain that the statue became a symbol of Egypt’s pharaonic glories remade through the labor of its population. One article even stated that “it should be recalled that the majority of the workmen [restoring the statue] are from the Saʿid [Upper Egypt]. They take pride in the work . . . because they consider themselves the grandchildren of Ramses II.”3 As Nasser became a major figure and Egypt became a major player in the era of global decolonization, the Cold War, and nonalignment (not to mention pan-Arabism), Ramses became material—and carefully managed—proof of the florescence of the country’s move to independence and its link to the Egyptian masses. Almost overnight, the pharaoh’s statue moved from fallen icon to object of revolutionary heritage. Enmeshed within the institutions and networks of post–1952 Egypt, Ramses as preserved artifact made revolutionary spectacle material.

Yet fifty-one years later, in 2006, the Egyptian government under the presidency of Husni Mubarak moved Ramses’ statue back through Cairo to a location adjacent to the Great Pyramid, just under twenty miles to the north of Mit Rahina on the Giza plateau. Again with great fanfare, anticolonial revolution begat neoliberal—and neocolonial—heritage preservation, an ironic rejoinder to the Nasser era’s subversion of a colonial-era project that had aimed to curate the symbolism of the past. Retracing [End Page iii]

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Figure 2.

Ramses II being moved through Downtown Cairo to Giza, August 26, 2006. Photograph by, and courtesy of, Barry Iverson.

most of his earlier route in reverse, Ramses now became a symbol of another Egyptian regime’s ambitions. The statue’s new location was the site of the still-to-be-completed Grand Egyptian Museum, whose construction has been funded since 2008 by soft loans funneled through JICA, the Japan International Cooperation Agency.4 Moving Ramses to Giza constituted not only a symbol of the Mubarak regime’s intentions but also a signal to donors and debtors that Egypt was a state that would, now and in the future, repay investment. At the time of writing, the regime of the current Egyptian president, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, desperate to promote economic growth in the country, is pushing hard for the Grand Egyptian Museum’s completion. Pictures of the Ramses statue often sit at the center of this work, alongside images of the conservation labs and Egyptian specialists charged with caring for the thousands of objects that form the institution’s collection. These days, national spectacle in formerly colonized countries comes preloaded with (inter-) national debt. And ironically, that same spectacle allows international donors and experts to claim the ethical upper hand as calls to decolonize heritage and preservation gain in...


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