Colossal statue of ‘forgotten’ pharaoh brought to life in 3D images

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Ancient statue would have stood 26-ft tall

It depicted a 26th Dynasty pharaoh, Psamtik I

Archaeologists pieced together more than 6,000 fragments to reconstruct the colossus

CNN  — 

When a huge statue of a pharaoh was uncovered last year in Matariya, a working-class suburb of Cairo that was once the ancient city of Heliopolis, the press eagerly greeted it as a depiction of the great Ramses II, one of ancient Egypt’s most famous rulers.

To many it came as a disappointment when a tiny inscription found on the back pillar of the statue suggested it in fact belonged to Psamtik I, a lesser-known pharaoh who ruled six centuries later, from 664-610 BC.

But archaeologists suggest this identity makes the find much rarer and even more exciting. After piecing together more than 6,000 fragments, the Egyptian-German mission in charge of the excavations has been able to calculate the original size of the colossus and produce a 3D reconstruction.

Ruins of Heliopolis

They can now confidently say that the statue of Psamtik I was 26 ft tall, and that he was depicted with his left arm held out in front of his body.

“Now we have the complete monument,” Dietrich Raue, who leads the Heliopolis mission with Aiman Ashmawy, tells CNN. “We can be very sure that nothing has been reworked, and that it’s a genuine piece of art of the 26th Dynasty.”

‘Absolutely unique’

This comes as a surprise, he adds. The first royal colossi – larger-than-life sculptures – were produced in the 12th dynasty (1938-1756 BC), but the trend reached its height in the 19th, under Ramses II (1292-1190 BC). After Ramses, there was a steady decline in sculpture.

That is what makes the quartzite colossus of Psamtik I so rare and so special. “As a creation of the period, such a huge statue is absolutely unique so far,” says Marsha Hill, a curator and Egyptologist from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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King of culture

Raue, of the University of Leipzig, goes even further, calling Psamtik the founder of the renaissance movement in Egypt, a cultural revival during which religion, art and architecture were restored.

The statue’s fragments were found at the site of a temple belonging to Ramses II, and it is thought to have stood just in front of a large pylon dedicated to him, suggesting Psamtik wanted to be associated with the great ruler.

“It’s absolutely fascinating to see how he tries to make himself part of the greatest period of rule in Egypt,” he says.

Plus, it stood in Heliopolis, the cultural and religious center of ancient Egypt, located on the northeast periphery of Cairo. “Every king had to be present there,” says Raue.

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The city served as a center of worship to the sun for more than 2,500 years. This could explain the unusual gesture in Psamtik’s statue, Raue says, noting that the stretched out arm is rarely attested in ancient Egyptian sculpture.

An intricate carving found on the back-pillar of the colossus reinforces this theory. It shows Psamtik I kneeling in front of the sun and creator god Atum, offering two vessels.

Carving of Psamtik I and creator god Atum.

Mystery of destruction

The question still puzzling archaeologists is when and why the statue was destroyed. Raue gives two options: either it was dismantled under imperial Rome by early Christians, or by Muslim rulers in the 10th or 11th centuries, who might have reused the material for Cairo’s fortifications.

“But, for sure, somebody didn’t like him,” says Raue. They found evidence of mutilation on the statue, for instance chiseling around Psamtik’s mouth, which could suggest someone was trying to silence him.

Judging by the turbulent time Psamtik was living in, this would not be surprising. As Hill explains, the Egypt of the 8th and early-7th Centuries was fractured and full of political tensions between the Assyrian kingdom of northern Mesopotamia and the Kushite empire from Sudan.

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Psamtik started as just one of many local rulers. It was only following an Assyrian invasion that drove out the Kushite rulers of Egypt, that Psamtik was appointed as pharaoh in 664 BC, founding its 26th dynasty.

His clever negotiations kept him in power for more than 50 years, and he is credited with the reunification of Egypt. “He did not rush to try to exert his authority over the whole country, but let a gradual shift of allegiances take place,” says Hill.

“On the one hand he pursued a wise policy,” she adds, “but perhaps as part of that policy and other priorities he did not pursue building projects everywhere that would leave his imprint.”

Perhaps this is the reason Psamtik could never claim as much fame as Ramses II. But this statue changes things, says Hill. “It gives us a remarkably new perspective on a king we thought we knew.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of statue fragments that the archaeologists pieced together.