Houses and building sites border the excavation zone, and sometimes during the dig, workers have had to clear trash and animal carcasses, according to Salima Ikram, an Egyptian member of the team. Once new buildings go up, further excavation will become impossible. “It’s a race against time,” she said.
Establishing the identity of the colossus is complicated, because it has been broken into pieces and only fragments of the face have been found. Dr. Raue said it might have been destroyed by early Christians, or by the Muslim rulers of Cairo in the 11th century as they used limestone stonework from ancient temples to build the city’s fortifications.
But statues like the colossus were cast aside because they were made from quartzite.
Ramses II was a formidable figure, not only in Egypt but across much of the ancient world. During his reign, from 1279 to 1213 B.C., he expanded his empire east to present-day Syria and south into Sudan. He was also known for monumental building projects, including sprawling sun temples filled with statues of himself, one of which was discovered under a Cairo marketplace in 2006.
The discovery of the buried colossus may also have strong literary echoes. A shattered statue of Ramses II was the subject of Ozymandias, a celebrated poem by the 19th-century English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. (Ozymandias was the name of Ramses II in ancient Greek.)