Saturday, January 30, 2010

How Budgie Became a Badger

Still on his first trip to Egypt, and still located in Aswan, Budge continued to amass his collection. By far the most interesting piece found by him on this trip would be missing from the crates he sent out in 1887, this was an item called the Shrine of Philae, which would be shipped later. Budge had uncovered it while carrying out some excavations on the Island of Philae with an officer friend not far from Aswan. The island is about 7 miles upriver above the First Cataract. On it was the famous Temple of Philae that in 1970 had to be moved as the waters of the High Dam rose. In ancient days the island was said by the priests to be the site of the first mound to appear from the Sea of Chaos, the place where the world began. It was also thought by them to be the place from which the Nile originated.

The Temple is dedicated to Isis and today is on Algikia Island, and still the most exquisite temple in Egypt. It is best visited at night when it is lit up. It is easy to get to, a short drive from Aswan then a boat ride in a water taxi brings you to the site. From there you wander from pylon to pylon and even into the sanctuary as directed by a voice overhead, a voice that sounds like the God of creation, Atum. Even though we know it comes from the Sound and Light production, it is awe-inspiring. There we are strolling in the moonlight through the temple in the footsteps of the ancients.

I’m sure that Budge was also impressed, but he was also dead set on coming away from Egypt with something significant. Budge did not think small, the original object of his affection was a 33ft. tall 80 ton red granite Colossus of Ramesses II from a site outside of Cairo. Instead he had to settle on the Philae Shrine, which was itself no trifling matter. It is a temple shrine dedicated to Horus by Ptolemy IX and his wife, Cleopatra IV (not she of Elizabeth Taylor fame). A massive grey piece carved from a single stone about eight feet long, it is an extraordinary item and it took more than the usual effort from Budge to acquire it.

After he found the Shrine on Philae Budge did something entirely out of character, he voluntarily reported the Shrine to the Antiquities Service. Until this time here was a man who was so notoriously sly that within a month of his arrival in Egypt he had had a watch set on him, and he never provide any information unless he was forced to. But now, as if to prove everyone wrong, Budge voluntarily let the Service know about the Shrine.
Is it possible that, like some men and women through history who come to know the limits of their courage, or the point beyond which they cannot go, physically or mentally, Budge had reached the limit to his audacity?

It would be interesting to know what was going through his mind at that point. I think he realized that the Shrine would be more difficult to handle than anything he had collected to date. Recall, he was still new at this game, going from a few gravestones in December to a major antiquity in January is a leap by any standard. And, because of its obvious historical importance, weight, and perhaps bulk, the Shrine would attract more attention than even he might be able to cope with.
His next move was a masterstroke. He recalled that even before he had come to Aswan, while he was still in Cairo, he had reminded everyone that the colossal statue of Ramesses II was the property of the British Government. Really? He let everyone know that although it had been found in 1820 by Giovanni Caviglia, an Italian traveler, Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt for many years, had offered it to the British Museum. Because of the difficult task of shipping, it had languished until then, but Budge saw no reason to give up the claim.
The Consul-General in Cairo, Sir Evelyn Baring, told Budge to forget it, he would never consent to the Colossus leaving the country. Budge realizing that perhaps he had lost the Colossus, did not want to lose the Shrine as well, so he decided on a different course of action and planned out a strategy that eventually paid off. And he was to use this strategy again and again in Egypt and elsewhere.

The first part of his plan went as expected. The moment he informed the Service of the find, they sent back a message from Cairo telling him that the Director of Antiquities refused to allow the Shrine to leave the country. Budge then offered to buy it, and was immediately advised to leave the Shrine where it was, it was not for sale! Budge now replied with a warning, telling the Director that it was madness to leave such a precious object sitting exposed in an open mud hole. Then, perhaps as he expected would happen a telegram arrived from of all people his nemesis, Sir Evelyn Baring, who asked Budge if he would abandon all claim to the colossal statue of Ramesses in exchange for the Shrine of Philae!

Since Budge had previously given up all hope of the Ramesses statue, this amounted to a win on his part. Baring’s concern for a clear title probably evolved from a typical case of diplomatic jitters, hindsight and a sudden need to cover yourself against all possibilities can often cause a moment of panic in an embassy. Even if he felt Budge’s claim was specious, Baring wanted to be certain, and so he had to crawl, or in diplomatic parlance, ‘negotiate.’ In effect, Budge had turned the tables on the Antiquities Service and he now had Baring on his knees begging for a clear title to a colossal statue that Baring wanted to keep in Egypt for posterity.

Budge’s revenge had been slow in coming, but it was now at hand, and Budge decided to prolong it by explaining in a long telegram the historical basis for Britain’s claim on the Ramesses statue, how it had been given to the British Nation by Ali, how others had been anxious that it go to the Museum, and how the British Army had collected and spent private funds to retrieve it. Baring must have been livid at the way he now had to sit in his office in Cairo and read this pompous retelling of a twice-told tale from a looter, when everyone already knew what the outcome would be.

Once Budge received assurance from Baring that the Philae Shrine was cleared to be transported to London, he made plans to have it sent, but this would have to be later, since he could not take it out immediately after his first trip. But he did carefully explain to anyone who would listen, how he had been “commanded by the Director and by the British Consul to remove it from Egypt and transport it to the British Museum.”
In the meantime he also made arrangements to ship illegally thousands of other items he had collected on his own.

Today the Shrine of Philae stands against the wall in the British Museum at the far end of one of the rooms in the Egyptian gallery off the Great Court. It is obviously overshadowed by the Younger Memnon, the Rosetta Stone and other prestigious pieces, but it has its own aura, its own panache, and let’s face it, it is an impressive tribute to the skill of Budge the Collector because after all it is identified as a, “Gift of the Government of Egypt.” Well done, Budge.

And what ever happened to the colossal statue of Ramesses II? It stayed on in Memphis, now Mit Rahina, 12 miles south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile. Today though reclining (it has no feet) it is in excellent condition. It has been cleaned up and is resting in an open air museum, a proper setting where streams of tourist look in wonder at its polished surface. It turns out to have been an exceptional piece of work from a technical point of view, as noted by Stuart Edelson a writer and sculptor from New York City who worked with stone for over 20 years. “Looking at the supreme craftsmanship that went into the body’s hidden recesses as well as its conspicuous visible areas, it was clear to me that all involved in making this image had the integrity and wisdom worthy of the god the great king was meant to represent.”

He found it difficult to believe ancient craftsmen with hand tools could do such a fine piece of work with a type of stone that likes to chip unpredictably to the terror of the sculptor. He concluded that only a master sculptor could have wrought the, “complex, subtle forms of the human anatomy,” seen in this colossus. A second colossus of Ramesses II did not fare as well. Found on the same site in 1820 in five pieces, it was reassembled in 1955 and moved by Abdel Nasser to Cairo where it was erected in a city square that was renamed Ramesses Square. Fifty years later, suffering from air pollution, it was taken down and moved to Giza where it awaits installation at a site close to the new Grand Egyptian Museum.

Enormously impressive and big in all senses of the word, the Memphis Ramesses Colossus would have been the making of Budge. Yet, the acquisition of the Philae Shrine proved that our man at the Museum still had a few tricks up his sleeve. It also suggests from his attitude throughout this adventure and elsewhere that he was less like a budgie, a small parrot-like Australian bird, and more like a badger, an animal that never backs off and when challenged bites and holds on tenaciously.
A badger will only let go when it wants to, and it cannot be dislodged, as the dislocation of its jaw is all but impossible because of its anatomy. They are fierce, small animals capable of fighting off wolves, coyotes, bears, porcupines and even venomous snakes. And, if all else fails, some badgers emit a foul stink that will put off almost any aggressor. It seems almost impossible to protect yourself from such a beast. In some countries it is the custom to put eggshells inside the top of one’s boots when walking through badger territory, as badgers are believed to bite down until they hear a crunch, then they stop.

In the case of the Egyptian officials of Budge’s day that might have been their only protection, wait for the crunch and hope for the best.

Next Post, Budgie leaves Aswan with some giant suitcases.

© Copyright J. Gaudet, 2009, all rights reserved. (Photos of the Colossus and the Temple of Philae in daylight from Wikimedia Commons)

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