A boy rides his bicycle past a recently discovered statue in a Cairo slum. The statue may depict the pharaoh Ramses II. (Amr Nabil/AP)

Once upon a time it was Heliopolis, one of Egypt’s oldest cities. Pharaohs believed that the sun god birthed the world here, and they built statues, temples and obelisks in his honor (though they would never deign to live there themselves).

Fast forward 5,000 years. Heliopolis is now Matareya, a working-class slum in Cairo. Unfinished buildings line mud roads, scattered with industrial waste and rubble.

But old and new melted together this week when archaeologists from Egypt and Germany uncovered a massive bust buried in the groundwater. It’s about 3,000 years old, 26 feet tall, and said to resemble Pharaoh Ramses II.

“We found the bust of the statue and the lower part of the head and now we removed the head and we found the crown and the right ear and a fragment of the right eye,” Khaled al-Anani, Egypt’s antiquities minister, told Reuters.

The Antiquities Ministry has called the discovery “significant.”


Egyptians check out the broken statue unearthed in the Matareya area in Cairo. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

The statue is made of quartzite. It lacks an inscription, but the discovery’s proximity to a temple for Ramses suggest it bears his likeness. Nearby, the experts uncovered a statue of Seti II, Ramses’s grandson.

Ramses II, who ruled from 1279 to 1213 B.C., was one of the ancient world’s most well-known leaders. He led military campaigns that stretched Egypt’s empire as far east as Syria and as far south as Sudan. (Ramses II may be the pharaoh from whom Moses demanded the release of his people in the biblical Book of Exodus.)

The growth and prosperity seen in Egypt at the time earned him the title “Ramses the Great.”

He was honored with a cadre of monuments. In 2006, archaeologists discovered a major sun temple underneath a marketplace. Inside, they uncovered several Ramses statues. One weighed five tons. Another showed the pharaoh seated and wearing a leopard skin.

For now, the excavators will keep digging in Matarieya and beyond. Cairo, they say, still has many wonders deep below the streets. Their finds will be donated to the Grand Egyptian Museum, set to open next year.