of Egypt, arguably the country's most famed statue, embodies, perhaps
more than any other symbol, the national liberation struggle. Sculped by
Mukhtar in 1928, the work, which stands to this day, specifically epitomises
the spirit of the 1919 Revolution. Al-Ahram followed the
story -- from the statue's inception to how it was built, its unveiling
and how it was used to serve more than one political agenda. Through the
pages of the newspaper, Professor Yunan Labib Rizk explains why
Awakening of Egypt has continued to revebrate so powerfully among Egyptians.
Perhaps no other
work of art in contemporary Egyptian history has received as much acclaim
as The Awakening of Egypt. The statue, which first stood on Ramsis
Square, now stands in the avenue leading up to Egypt's oldest
university, the University of Cairo.
The statue earned
its place in history for a number of reasons. Although its creator sculpted
many other works, among the most famous of which are the two statues of
Zaghlul that tower over major squares in Cairo and Alexandria,The
Awakening of Egypt stands out because it does not represent an individual.
Rather, it embodies a symbol.
Secondly, its creator
was an ordinary Egyptian from the heart of the countryside, unlike most
other sculptors in modern Egypt up to that time. Those were primarily
foreigners -- for the most part Italians -- commissioned to sculpt statues
and busts of the royal family. But the work of Mahmoud Mukhtar was
intimately associated with the nationalist movement and, specifically,
the spirit of the 1919 Revolution.
Al-Ahram of 20
May 1928 features a short biography of Mukhtar which reveals,
perhaps better than any other source, what a unique personality he was:
"He grew up in Tambara,
a village near Mehalla Al-Kubra. Although he worked in agriculture,
like every Egyptian he had a passion for beauty. Fate was fortuitous, enabling
him to enroll in the School of Fine Arts, where he quickly proved
an astute student who understood the distinction between truth and fantasy.
The newspaper goes on to relate a little-known chapter in the life of the
young artist. For four years, the Italian dean of the School of Fine Arts
secluded from the environment in which he grew up in.
Following this period of intensive study, the dean introduced Mukhtar
Youssef Kamal and recommended that he be sent to Paris on an artistic
In the City of Light,
the young Egyptian was taken under the wing of Monsieur Coutin.
Under the French sculptor's tutelage, Mukhtar's talent bloomed,
as was manifested in his statue of Aida. This work, Al-Ahram
writes, was lauded in the French press, which "extolled the young artistic
genius coming from the land of the Pharaohs." Soon after, Mukhtar
was appointed curator of a Paris museum, for which he created a
number of statues of war heroes.
artistic development was profoundly linked to developments in Egypt following
World War I. Not long after the 1919 Revolution, the Egyptian sculptor
left his work at the French museum in order to "devote himself full-time
to an Egyptian work, the concept of which had been germinating for two
years." The account continues, "He sketched it out on paper, then
enlarged it. Whenever he wanted to work on his design, he delved into his
imagination for an image to manifest the glory of the awakening." A
model of Mukhtar's project was unveiled in the Paris exposition
of 1920. The noted Egyptian politician Wissa Wassef, then in
was on hand to wire the news back to Al-Ahram.
It was thus that,
on 4 May 1920, under the headline, "Mahmoud Mukhtar: the
famous Egyptian sculptor," Egyptians first heard of what has now become
a familiar landmark. Describing the statue, Wassef wrote: "It is Egypt
awakening the Sphinx, which opened its eyes to the sound of her voice.
The Sphinx, to Westerners, is the symbol of muteness and deafness." He
went on to urge Egyptians to "pave the way" for brilliant Egyptian
talents, of the likes of Mahmoud Mukhtar, "so that they do not
have to work in Europe and be ignored in Egypt, so that their nation can
benefit from their talents and to enable them to convey their knowledge
to the nation."
The article then
describes the statue in further detail. The sculptor portrayed it, not
with its eyes open, but with its eyes just opening as though awakening
at that very moment from its centuries-long slumber. As for the woman symbolizing
Egypt, "every feature is depicted with painstaking detail. Her forehead
shines and her long nose, which resembles that of Cleopatra, does not detract
from the beauty of her face. Her lips are slightly parted as though pronouncing
noble words; her chin suggests a righteous tenacity and her hands evoke
the generosity of her ancestry." Coupled with the report was an appeal
to the Egyptian people to donate towards the purchase of this work of art.
top, dressed in white and in inset, gives a guided tour of his creation,
The Awakening of Egypt, while it was still being built. His audience included
noted politician Wissa Wassef, to his left, and to his right, nationalist
leader Saad Zaghlul, who posed next to the imposing figure.
decided to return home, encouraged perhaps by his newly-found fame. He
was not to be disappointed by the welcome he received. An official committee
was formed to greet him upon his arrival, and shortly afterwards the Cairo
Club hosted a huge reception in his honour. Al-Ahram reports,
was held in Shubra, in an elegant marquee, in the centre of which had been
erected a model of the Awakening. Presiding over the ceremonies was Ahmed
Hishmat Pasha. Women sat in one row and men in another. The speeches that
were delivered expressed the great appreciation felt by the Egyptian people
for the statue and its creator."
Among those to speak
was Mansour Fahmi, who explained why this work reverberated so powerfully
among the Egyptian people: "Since ancient times, Egypt has always preferred
to inscribe its mysteries and its hopes on stone. Today, God granted one
of Egypt's sons the ability to follow in the footsteps of his great ancestors,
and this man fixed in stone Egypt's national aspirations. The statue's
message, moreover, reaches both the learned and the unschooled, the literate
and the illiterate. It reaches all people of the nation."
Following this, a
committee was created to oversee the donations drive to cover the costs
of the commission and the eventual placing of the statue in one of the
capital's squares. Mukhtar announced that he wanted to make the
statue not out of bronze but out of the native stone of his country, "because
this stone is a national element." Al-Ahram reports, "Cutting
out the blocks of stone in Aswan and transporting them to Cairo was, in
itself, a major undertaking. Some of the pieces weighed up to 35 tons and
had to be transported using the methods adopted by Egyptians thousands
of years ago. Finally, 12 huge pieces of granite reached Cairo, and from
these the statue will be created according to the existing model,"Al-Ahram
On 8 June 1922,
Al-Ahram announced to its readers that within a week Mukhtar
would begin work on the statue. "Its base will consist of a 14-metre-tall
block of black granite; the stones used, lined up end-to-end, are between
180 to 200 metres in length and it will stand on an area of 180 square
a reporter to Mukhtar's workshop to follow this great work in progress.
It was a large wooden room with burlap lining its walls. The artist's assistants
were "toiling industriously at the preliminary sculpting of the massive
blocks of stones, which weigh in the tons. Alongside them were plaster
casts of the various parts of the statue which they were copying. The plaster
model was three-and-a-half metres tall whereas the completed statue will
be seven metres in height."
The reporter took
the occasion to inform his readers that it would be another three years
at least before the statue would be completed. But to finish it on time,
the sculptor needed to double the number of his assistants. Not only that,
but the LE7,000 that had been collected for the project had almost
run out. "We must, with some anxiety, ask what will be the fate of this
statue if the rest of the money runs out and no more funds are forthcoming
to see it through completion? Will Mukhtar leave his country and return
to Paris, to that milieu that appreciates works of art and where he will
continue to build the splendid future that awaits him? Or should it not
be our duty to study this problem, as of this moment, so we can guarantee
that progress on this project proceeds rapidly, all the sooner to enjoy
the sight of the statue in the best square?"
In a letter to the
editor, an Al-Ahram reader shed further light on the financial question.
It cost LE3,000 to ferry five of the granite stones from Aswan
to Cairo, he wrote, and the remaining pieces cannot be transported
by rail. Then there was the question of transporting the stones from the
dock in Boulaq to the desired location, "which would require
a crane to lift them from the boats and load them onto special transport
vehicles." The writer then quoted the contractor in charge of procuring
the stones from Aswan as saying, "The blocks were cut from a single
layer of rock in the mountain from which the ancient Egyptians used to
quarry the stones for their statues. It is astounding that they had the
skill, the power and the machinery to undertake such a task."
In spite of the enthusiasm
surrounding the project, The Awakening of Egypt was not immune to
political winds. Not least were those that blew from the direction of the
Ziwar government (1924-1926). That the statue and what it symbolized
were intrinsically connected with the figure of Saad Zaghlul was
a prime incentive for the pro-palace government to put hurdles in its path.
It is likely that the nationalist leader met with Mukhtar in Paris,
admired his work and seized that opportunity to shower him with praise.
He congratulated him on his fertile imagination, fine aesthetic taste and
magical artistry, and extolled the statue as an embodiment of Egypt's
aspiration for independence.
on the other hand, met the artist upon his return to Cairo and urged
him to create a bust of himself. Could it be that His Majesty believed
that he, himself, personified the "awakening of Egypt?" Mukhtar
too absorbed in his project to respond to the royal request. Whether because
of this or because of the association of the statue with the figure of
Zaghlul, the palace's enthusiasm for the statue and the young artist
began to fade. Not that the king would display such displeasure publicly.
Rather, he simply pledged to lay the cornerstone for the Awakening.
But this was nothing
compared to what was to come next. Just as the project reached its final
stage, Egyptians woke up one morning to read that Minister of Public
Works Hussein Sirri announced that he "knew nothing of this statue
before today," and that "the remaining funds are insufficient to
cover its completion." Al-Ahram was dumbfounded by the minister's statement,
particularly as Sirri had been a member of the Senate when it voted
to approve the allocations for the commission. Compounding the problem,
it was announced that the deputy minister of public works had formed a
committee to study whether it was appropriate to put a statue on the square
in which Cairo's train station was located. The argument ran,
"Traffic in this square has become so congested that reducing jams and
bottlenecks requires taking advantage of the space that is currently being
prepared for the statue." Eventually, the committee concluded that
the selection of the location of the statue had to comply with the condition
that "it does not obstruct the movement of traffic in the train station
square and takes into account the future needs of roads and the like."
The decision outraged
Egyptians, and with them Al-Ahram which charged, on 18 April 1925,
"The will of an individual or a handful of individuals is seeking to undermine
the will of the entire nation!"
on the question of the statue continued for another two years -- the life
span of the Ziwar government. However, the drive to complete the
statue again picked up steam with the elections of 1926 which brought
in an overwhelmingly Wafdist parliament and the Adli Yakan cabinet
that consisted of a majority of members of the Wafd Party. The death
of Saad Zaghlul in August 1927 did not put the brakes on
the project; on the contrary, the death of the national leader seemed to
make its completion more urgent than ever. The growing impatience was voiced
in the Senate on 16 February 1928, when a member took up the subject
with the minister of public works:
"It is the hope
of every Egyptian to see the statue, Egypt Awakening, which the government
has decided to erect on the square of the capital's train station, completed
as soon as possible, all the more so now that a large portion of the park
in that square has been dotted with wooden barricades that are an eyesore
to the residents of the capital and the first sight one encounters when
arriving from abroad."
The senator did not
have to wait long. Within two months, a new government was in place, headed
by Wafd leader Mustafa El-Nahhas who was keen to demonstrate his
nationalist credentials. Thus, preparations went into high gear for the
statue's imminent unveiling. On 29 March, Al-Ahram published two
front-page photographs: one of the statue resting on its base, with workers
bustling around it. The second had a woman's face figuring in the statue.
To confirm reports
that all was proceeding smoothly, Al-Ahram dispatched a reporter
to the site. His report was favorable. Under Mukhtar's supervision,
his assistants were busy polishing up the basalt base and putting the final
touches to the statue itself. "For the polishing, they are using a type
of very hard rock affixed to the end of an electric-operated machine,"
reporter wrote, adding that this process should be completed within a matter
of days. "By mid-April," he predicted, "all should be ready for
the unveiling of this glorious national monument. The first of its kind
in the modern world, this statue will revive the era of ancient Egyptian
sculpture and art."
reporter was a little off in his prediction, not because of delays in the
work, but because King Fouad kept putting off the day when he could
attend the unveiling ceremony. Egyptians, therefore, had to wait until
His Royal Majesty "deigned" to agree on Sunday, 20 May 1928.
Al-Ahram of 21
May could be dubbed the Egypt Awakening edition. The tone was
set by Editor-in-Chief Dawoud Barakat whose headline was "Egypt
Awakening: a pause for reflection." This statue, he wrote, emanated from
purely Egyptian traditions "which are preserved in the monuments of Saqqara,
Karnak, Edfu, Dandara and Nubia, and which dictate that events and ways
of life and civilization should be perpetuated in stone."
In addition to numerous
other commentaries, this edition also featured a lengthy poem written for
the occasion by the "Prince of Poets" Ahmed Shawqi. However, the
greater portion of the newspaper was devoted to detailed coverage of the
events the day before. The newspaper reported that at precisely 5.25pm,
the "royal retinue" departed from Abdin Palace by automobile and arrived
at the site of the statue at 6.00. "Policemen and soldiers encircled
the square of the train station and lined up along the streets through
which the procession passed." The ministers, headed by El-Nahhas,
were already at the site awaiting the king's arrival. "When His Royal
Majesty's' automobile arrived, it passed through the doorway and drove
directly to the royal box. Here, the king descended, at which point all
present in the pavilion rose."
The marquee set aside
for palace and government officials had been set up so that the king would
preside over the proceedings from an elevated position.
When Fouad sat
down, El-Nahhas rose to deliver the opening address which, according
to Al-Ahram, was inspired by the memory of the rise of the nationalist
movement and Saad Zaghlul. The newspaper also noted that the speech
was one of patriotic pride. Referring to the 1919 Revolution, El-Nahhas
declared, "Egypt arose as one to demand freedom and independence for
its citizens and entry into the fold of nations on the basis of equality
and friendship. From the first day, the dearly departed Saad Zaghlul, the
advocate of national resurgence and the bearer of the banner of our awakening,
established these eternal truths through his force of persuasion and power
of oratory, enabling the idea of resurgence to shine forth and the nation
to emerge triumphant."
Elsewhere in his
speech, El-Nahhas addressed the impact of the political revival
on life in Egypt in general. "Freedom is indivisible and cannot accept
fragmentation in any domain it is exercised," El- Nahhas said.
"Therefore, all Egyptians, men and women alike, gathered around the
sweet font of freedom and drank their fill, thereby liberating their minds
and spirits and opening bigger horizons for their hopes and aspirations.
This has had a profound effect on all aspects of social, economic, academic
and artistic life."
One suspects that
the pro-palace elements in the audience had feared that El-Nahhas
would take advantage of the occasion to transform the unveiling of the
statue into a commemoration of Zaghlul. Therefore, they prevailed
upon the organisers to play one of those subtle tricks that politicians
sometimes resort to. In Al-Ahram, we read from the correspondent
who was on hand that most of the audience had great difficulty following
the prime minister's speech. The podium had been positioned so that most
of the audience could do little more than contemplate the back of the respected
speaker without hearing him well.
As in all such events,
certain segments of society were offended, in this case women's rights
advocates. In a letter to the newspaper, one reader protested against the
exclusion of women from the event. She asked, "Is Egypt's revival for
men alone and did men alone produce it? Or did every Egyptian, man and
woman, take part in this noble and glorious endeavor? I wonder whether
those who held that women should be barred from attending the ceremony
thought about the Egyptian peasant woman whose determined gaze is set upon
the future. I wonder if they realised that this woman, standing at the
head of the Sphinx in order to wake him up, is indeed a woman and that
woman is Egypt."
Also offended were
conservative religious elements who felt that the making of statues violated
the tenets of Islam. Some did not voice this objection directly, but rather
criticized the statue aesthetically, arguing that it lacked harmony.
Responding to this
criticism, an Al-Ahram reader, who signed himself "senior engineer,"
that any impression of disharmony was due to the fact that the spotlights
surrounding the statue were poorly placed, lighting only the lower part
of the statue while leaving the rest in shadows. "There is a vast difference
between street lighting and the technology of using lights to cast into
relief the features of a statue," he wrote. He then urged the Ministry
of Public Works to readjust the spotlights so as to negate the arguments
of the enemies of art.
Another attempt to
pour cold water on the occasion was made in the British press. A reporter
for the Near East wrote that when he consulted experts about the statue,
he was told: "It is wrong to attach value to something that does not
testify to the excellence of Egyptian aesthetic taste. This (statue) is
not an event that warrants commemoration."
voices were a small and ineffective minority. To the present day, Egyptians
associate The Awakening of Egypt, as it is carved in stone, with
it applies to social and political movements. It is no small wonder, therefore,
that many national institutions have adopted this monument as its emblem,
the most recent being the National Council for Women.