“Look on My Works”
The many faces of Ramesses the Great
You barely notice him in the cacophony of the modern city. Austere, stiffly formal, he is either too large or too small, slightly ridiculous amid Cairo’s dissonant traffic.
The 31-foot-tall, 90-ton granite statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II (1279–1213 B.C.) was found in the 1920s in the ancient religious capital of Memphis, 15 miles south of Cairo. In 1954, after Gamal Abdel Nasser assumed control of the newly independent state of Egypt, the statue was cut into three parts, loaded onto trucks, transported to Cairo and re-erected in front of the Cairo railroad station, as a symbol of resurgent Egyptian nationalism. Ever since, Ramesses has been a familiar landmark—the first thing glimpsed by weary travelers about to immerse themselves into the metropolitan commotion.
Part of what makes Cairo’s humble colossus seem so incongruous is that the modern city is, indeed, a “commotion,” a confluence of motion, whereas Ramesses’ original context, the ancient past, is a condensation of motion. Relics like Ramesses have nothing to do with the bustling uncertainty of modern life; they are quiet and still, contained by their antiquity. They require the isolation of a landscape, or the flooding darkness, or other ruins like themselves.
Ramesses the Great, King of Kings, is traditionally believed to be the Pharaoh of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt. He was one of Egypt’s most active and effective rulers, coming to power at the age of 25 and ruling for 67 years. His patron deity was the sun-god Re. At birth, he was given the name Ramesses (Fashioned by Re), and later, when he became pharaoh, he took other names, called throne names, including Setepenre (Chosen by Re) and Usermaatre (Power and Truth of Re).
The Greeks rendered Usermaatre as “Ozymandias,” which is how Ramesses has long been known in the West. In the first century B.C., the historian Diodorus Siculus visited Ramesses’ mortuary temple at Thebes, the Ramesseum, and recorded a thousand-year-old inscription on the pedestal of one of the site’s colossal statues: “King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works” (Library of History 1.47). Two thousand years later, these words inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (1817), in which the poet, like the modern city of Cairo, mocks the pharaoh for his bombast: A traveler in an “antique land” comes across the pedestal of a statue—now “two trunkless legs of stone,” whose “shattered visage” lies half sunk in the sand—bearing the inscription, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, / Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Ramesses’ grandfather, also named Ramesses, was an army officer from a humble family in the eastern Nile Delta. He eventually rose to become a vizier in the court of Horemheb (1323–1295 B.C.), the last pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. The fact that this first Ramesses held such a high position, despite lacking noble blood, suggests that Horemheb may have selected him to be his heir.
In 1295 B.C. Ramesses I took control of an Egypt that had remained weakened and fragmented since the disruptive reign of the “heretic king” Akhenaten (1352–1336 B.C.). He ruled only a year before he was succeeded by his son Seti I (1294–1279 B.C.), who sired his successor, the second Ramesses, who brought stability to the realm. Ramesses II, King of Kings, was revered by his successors, ten of whom took the name “Ramesses” (for this reason, the 19th Dynasty [1295–1186 B.C.] and the 20th Dynasty [1186–1070 B.C.] have been called the Ramesside Period).
Ramesses devoted his life to establishing his greatness, and to leaving behind its proper manifestations. He reconquered territories in the Levant, Libya and Nubia that had been neglected during the fractious years of the late 18th Dynasty. He built more temples, erected more obelisks and sired more sons and daughters than any other pharaoh, before or after. And he scattered the landscape with images of himself, from the magnificent statues at Abu Simbel on Egypt’s southern border to the modest colossus that now confronts Cairo’s railroad station and the carvings at Pi-Ramesse in the eastern Nile Delta, Ramesses’ ancestral home.
By Ramesses’ own reckoning, his greatest accomplishment—one he recounted again and again, on any available wall in any available temple—was his defeat of the Hittite Empire in the Battle of Kadesh, in northern Syria. At the time, the Hittites were the great northern superpower, controlling Anatolia and much of northern Mesopotamia. Ramesses feared that they would encroach on traditional Egyptian vassals in the Levant, and so, in the fifth year of his reign, he mustered an army of 20,000 men and marched north. In a month he reached the mouth of the Orontes River, 10 miles from Kadesh. Captured Hittite spies informed Ramesses that the Hittite army had fled to the north. Ramesses then marched to Kadesh and established camp—where he was ambushed by the Hittite forces, which had not in fact retreated (the spies had lied). Ramesses’ army was nearly annihilated; fortunately, however, an Egyptian contingent that had traveled a different route to Kadesh arrived, allowing Ramesses to emerge with a stalemate.
In celebration of this “victory,” Ramesses had battle narratives and relief scenes carved on the walls of temples at Abydos, Karnak, Thebes, Luxor, Abu Simbel and el-Derr. An English translation of a passage from the treaty that Ramesses signed (though not until some 13 years after the battle) with the Hittite king Hattusili III can now be found above the entrance to the Security Council of the United Nations in New York City: “Ramesses, Great King, King of Egypt, is in good peace and good brotherhood with Hattusili, great king of Hatti …”
Above all, Ramesses was determined to establish his place in history by pleasing the gods, and the best way to please the gods was to build them temples. Soon after taking the throne, he completed the great temple his father, Seti I, had begun at Abydos. Ramesses then built a temple to Osiris at Abydos, expanded temples at Luxor and Karnak in eastern Thebes and constructed his own mortuary temple, the Ramesseum, at western Thebes.
In these and many other temples, Ramesses set up statues of himself in the guise of gods. At Pi-Ramesse and the Ramesseum, for example, he had himself depicted as Osiris, god of the underworld and symbol of rebirth into the afterlife. In these statues, the deified Ramesses wears Osiris’s distinctive atef crown, a tall conical crown ending in a bulb, with a plume on either side. Another stunningly beautiful statue shows Ramesses as a young boy, squatting in front of the falcon-god Horus—who was god of the sky, as befits the hawk symbol, and the embodiment of divine kingship. In Egyptian myth, Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, is often depicted as a child seated on his mother’s lap, touching his tongue with a finger.
Of all his building projects, the most stunningly beautiful were the cliff temples at Abu Simbel, on the west bank of the Nile, 450 miles south of Cairo. (In the 1960s, this temple was moved block by block to higher ground, to save it from the rising waters of Lake Nasser.) The cliff face is carved sloping backwards, to suggest the huge pylons that normally mark the entrance to Egyptian temples. On the temple’s facade are four colossal statues of a seated Ramesses, each 70 feet high. The walls of the temple’s great pillared hall, which is lined with eight large statues of Ramesses as Osiris, are covered with reliefs of battle scenes: Kadesh on the north wall and the Syrian, Libyan and Nubian wars on the south wall. In the innermost sanctuary, more than 200 feet from the entrance, a statue of the deified Ramesses sits on a bench with the principal gods of the Egyptian pantheon: Ptah, Amun and Re.
Ramesses gave the Abu Simbel temple a simple name: Hut Ramesses Meryamun (Temple of Ramesses, Beloved of Amun). Directly above the entrance, between the pairs of colossal seated statues, is a relief carving of the sun-god Re holding signs for power (user) and truth (maat)—forming a rebus for the king’s throne name of Usermaatre, or Ozymandias.
Beside the great temple at Abu Simbel is a smaller temple built in honor of Ramesses’ principal wife, Nefertari, who was often depicted wearing the cow-goddess Hathor’s headdress, which consisted of a wig, horns and sun-disk. Hathor was especially associated with mothering and nourishment, and she was sometimes depicted as a cow suckling the pharaoh. As a funerary god, she was known as the Lady of the West, for she was thought to protect the sun at night, until it was strong enough to emerge the next morning.
We know other things about Ramesses. He took seven more wives after marrying Nefertari. His second wife, Isetnofret, bore Ramesses’ 13th son and eventual successor, Merneptah (1213–1203 B.C.). He married his younger sister, three of his daughters, and two Hittite princesses sent to Egypt as part of the dynastic alliance created after the battle of Kadesh.
These were fruitful unions, producing at least 30 sons—and probably many more sons and daughters of whom history has left no trace. Since Ramesses ruled for 67 years, he outlived most of his children, and so he built a monumental tomb for his sons not far from the Ramesseum. (This tomb, called KV 5, was found by the American archaeologist Kent Weeks in 1995 and is now being excavated under the auspices of the Theban Mapping Project.)
We know that Ramesses longed to return to the Nile Delta. One of his vast projects was to complete the building of a new capital, Pi-Ramesse, begun by his father as an extension of the old capital of Avaris (modern Tell el-Dab’a, where important excavations are being conducted by the Austrian archaeologist Manfred Bietak). This Avaris/Pi-Ramesse is the “Rameses” mentioned in the Bible. In Exodus, Pharaoh expresses fear that the Israelites living in the Nile Delta “will increase and … join our enemies and fight against us.” So Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites and forced them to build the supply cities “Pithom and Rameses” (Exodus 1:9–11).
Surprisingly, we also know what Ramesses looked like. In the late 19th century, his mummy was recovered from the Ramesseum, and in 1975 it was sent to Paris for conservation. The pharaoh had a long, narrow face with a strong jaw; he stood almost 6 feet tall, a giant among ancient Egyptians; and he had reddish-brown hair. His mummy showed the wear and tear that 92 years extract from a life: He had severe tooth abscesses, heart disease, hardening of the arteries and arthritis of the hips and spine.
What is Ramesses now but the accumulation of these fragments? Builder of temples and tombs, sire of (outlived) sons and daughters, warrior, peacemaker. He was a self-aggrandizing braggart (though all pharaohs talked trash) who fused his image to every powerful god. He was Pharaoh, possibly, too dumb to recognize the power of Yahweh but smart enough not to make any mention of the Exodus in his annals. And he is a “shattered visage” resting on the sand—though that image, that “colossal wreck,” does seem to have something eternal about it.