This year marks 90 years since the magnificent sculpture of Mahmoud Mukhtar (1891 – 1934), the masterpiece of the 20th century was unveiled in Cairo
It is an incontestable truth that Egypt was the cradle of human civilisation, the land where the dawn of conscience broke more than three millennia BC and lit the world for one of the longest periods any single civilisation lasted throughout human history. The great days of ancient Egypt fell between around 3000 and 1000BC, but the civilisation thrived and remained an ongoing beacon of light centuries later.
Egypt had its poor times too. It gradually dwindled as it fell into foreign hands: the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mamluks, Ottomans and, by the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, it was a British protectorate.
The first Egyptian head of State following some two millennia of foreign rule came to office only in 1953. Understandably, he came in the footsteps of long decades of struggle to realise Egyptian independence. The movement to bring Egypt back into its own peaked in the first half of the 20th century and, besides the political and resistance efforts, was manifested in a monumental cultural renaissance of enlightenment. Education, philosophy, literature, and all forms of art thrived, expressing pride in the Egyptian identity regained and revived after centuries of obscurity.
In 1928, a singular piece of art, an imposing statue sculpted out of that famous material used so frequently in ancient Egypt to create majestic sculptures, granite, was unveiled. It was the work of pioneering Egyptian sculptor, Mahmoud Mukhtar (1891 – 1934). Its name: Nahdet Masr, Egypt’s Reawakening or Renaissance.
Masterpiece of the 20th century
It is now 90 years on the unveiling of Egypt’s Reawakening .
Sculpted in Aswan red granite, rising three metres high, and stretching four metres long, it depicts a typical Egyptian peasant woman standing tall and looking far into the future. Her right hand rests on the head of a rising, proud sphinx, a symbol of Egypt’s roots and character again rising from obscurity. Both woman and sphinx look in the same direction, perhaps towards a new dawn, towards the rising sun, symbol of resurrection for the ancient Egyptians.
The peasant woman’s left hand is raised up lifting her tarhah off her head. The tarhah is the typical peasant headdress scarf that falls along her back down to her feet. The gesture is one of unveiling, and symbolises liberation. Peasant women never got rid of their tarhah; it was probably too practical and too entrenched a tradition to shake off, besides constituting no ‘enveloping’ veil. But town women did then take off their face veils, only to don it later in the 1970s onwards as a Muslim symbol.
Mukhtar’s outstanding work testifies to the passion he had for Egypt, and the ardent effort he put into Egypt’s Reawakening. Art critics and historians have dubbed it the “masterpiece of the 20th century”. It became a cultural landmark and an inspiration to poets and writers.
The national leader and prominent statesman Saad Zaghloul (1857 – 1927) had seen a prototype of the statue and praised it in a letter he sent to Mukhtar. He wrote: “To the gifted sculptor Mukhtar, I have seen the statue in which you symbolised the renaissance of Egypt, and found it speaks well of the fact. I congratulate you on your imagination, fine taste, and enchanting art. And I congratulate Egypt for having among its sons an artist who endeavours to regain her glory.”
Mukhtars’s Egypt’s Reawakening was placed in the central square in Cairo, the Railway Station Square. It was unveiled on 20 May 1928 by King Fouad, in a grand ceremony attended by high ranking State officials, politicians, figures of Egypt’s intellectual and art scene, and by Mukhtar and his friends.
In 1955 it was decided to erect the colossus of Ramses the Great, a statue that goes back to the 13th century BC and is also sculpted out of granite, in the Railway Station Square. Egypt’s Reawakening was moved to make place for Ramses; it was relocated in its present place in the splendid roundabout that leads down from Cairo University’s main campus and faces the Nile. Again, the new location brings together the timelessness of the Nile and the budding future of Egypt’s sons and daughters.
Incidentally, Ramses colossus has been moved from the Railway Station Square to a place of honour in the new Grand Egyptian Museum scheduled to open in 2019.
Inspired by the roots
The ingenious forerunner of sculpture in Egypt, Mahmoud Mukhtar, was born in the Delta village of Tanbara where his talent showed early on; he made small shapes of clay depicting scenes he saw around him. In 1908 he enrolled and studied sculpture at the then newly-opened School of Fine Arts in Cairo, and in 1911 moved to Paris where he had been granted a scholarship.
The Egyptian national movement which peaked in the 20th century and saw Egypt seeking to define a modern frame of reference for her cultural identity greatly inspired Mukhtar. It led him to turn to the rich ancient Egyptian art and sculpture to create specifically Egyptian works of art. This was no small feat; Egypt had known no sculptors since Islam entered the country in the seventh century, seeing that Islam saw sculptures as idols.
Mukhtar’s other sculptures manifest his Egyptian genius. His works include Saad Zaghloul statues in both Cairo and Alexandria, as well as his famed al-Khamaseen. Al-Khamaseen are the hot, ill winds laden with dust and sand that storm over Egypt a few times every spring; they are by far the most-hated weather in Egypt and, as such, are used as a metaphor for the worst of moods. Mukhtar depicts the khamaseen winds as a grumpy peasant woman whose garments are blown by the gusts of rough wind.
On 10 March 1934, shortly before his 43rd birthday, Mukhtar died in Cairo. His family donated his works to the State. In 1962 the Mukhtar Museum was completed in al-Hurriya Garden at Gezira. Aptly designed by Wissa Wassef along the simple, imposing lines of ancient Egyptian temples, it today stands invitingly opposite the Cairo Opera House, housing Mukhtar’s works.
As to Mukhtar’s Egypt’s Reawakening, it has and will always be an immortal work, one that stands out in Egypt’s history much as the pyramids do. The pyramids testify to the greatness of Egypt; Egypt’s Reawakening confirms her strive to revive her greatness.
20 June 2018