Ramesses II Seated Statue, Thebes

Ramesses II Seated Statue, Thebes

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Ramesses II is the most famous of the Pharaohs, and there is no doubt that he intended this to be so. In astronomical terms, he is the Jupiter of the Pharaonic system, and for once the superlative is appropriate, since the giant planet shines brilliantly at a distance, but on close inspection turns out to be a ball of gas. Ramesses II, or at least the version of him which he chose to feature in his inscriptions, is the hieroglyphic equivalent of hot air.

Nowadays this ruler's name is known to every knickknack-seller in the Nile Valley, a posterity which would not have embarrassed him in the least. Ramesses has gained a multimedia afterlife: his mummy is flown from Cairo to Paris to be exhibited and re-autopsied, and a series of airport-lounge best-sellers by a French writer, Christian Jacq, gives a soap-opera version of his life.

Ramesses II. is the hieroglyphic equivalent of hot air.

Yul Brynner captured the essence of his personality in the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, and in popular imagination Ramesses II has become the Pharaoh of the Exodus. The history behind this is much debated, but it is safe to say that the character of Ramesses fits the picture of the overweening ruler who refuses divine demands. The king's battle against the Hittites at Qadesh in Syria was a near defeat, caused by an elementary failure of military intelligence, and saved only by the last-minute arrival of reinforcements from the Lebanese coast. In Ramesses' account, which occupies whole walls on many of his monuments, this goalless draw turns into the mother of all victories, won single-handedly by himself.

One of the best guides to Egypt ever compiled was the work of James Baikie (1866-1931), who wrote his detailed account of the country without ever seeing the place. Baikie's down-to-earth reaction to the interminable accounts of this battle reads as follows:


Ramesses II modified, usurped, or constructed many buildings from the ground up, and the most splendid of these, in accordance with New Kingdom royal burial practices, would have been his memorial temple: a place of worship dedicated to pharaoh, god on earth, where his memory would have been kept alive after his death. Surviving records indicate that work on the project began shortly after the start of his reign and continued for 20 years.

The design of Ramesses's mortuary temple adheres to the standard canons of New Kingdom temple architecture. Oriented northwest and southeast, the temple itself comprised two stone pylons (gateways, some 60 m wide), one after the other, each leading into a courtyard. Beyond the second courtyard, at the centre of the complex, was a covered 48-column hypostyle hall, surrounding the inner sanctuary. An enormous pylon stood before the first court, with the royal palace at the left and the gigantic statue of the king looming up at the back. [2] As was customary, the pylons and outer walls were decorated with scenes commemorating the pharaoh's military victories and leaving due record of his dedication to, and kinship with, the gods. In Ramesses's case, much importance is placed on the Battle of Kadesh (ca. 1274 BC) more intriguingly, however, one block atop the first pylon records his pillaging, in the eighth year of his reign, a city called "Shalem", which may or may not have been Jerusalem. The scenes of the great pharaoh and his army triumphing over the Hittite forces fleeing before Kadesh, as portrayed in the canons of the "epic poem of Pentaur", can still be seen on the pylon. [2]

Only fragments of the base and torso remain of the syenite statue of the enthroned pharaoh, 19 m (62 ft) high and weighing more than 1000 tons. [3] This was alleged to have been transported 170 mi (270 km) over land. This is the largest remaining colossal statue (except statues done in situ) in the world. However, fragments of four granite colossi of Ramesses were found in Tanis (northern Egypt) with an estimated height of 69 to 92 feet (21 to 28 meters). Like four of the six colossi of Amenhotep III (Colossi of Memnon), there are no longer complete remains, so the heights are based on unconfirmed estimates. [4] [5]

Remains of the second court include part of the internal façade of the pylon and a portion of the Osiride portico on the right. [2] Scenes of war and the rout of the Hittites at Kadesh are repeated on the walls. [2] In the upper registers, are shown a feast in honour of the phallic god Min, god of fertility. [2] On the opposite side of the court the few Osiride pillars and columns still left furnish an idea of the original grandeur. [2] Scattered remains of the two statues of the seated king which once flanked the entrance to the temple can also be seen, one in pink granite and the other in black granite. The head of one of these has been removed to the British Museum. [2] [6] Thirty-nine out of the forty-eight columns in the great hypostyle hall (m 41 x 31) still stand in the central rows. They are decorated with the usual scenes of the king before various gods. Part of the ceiling, decorated with gold stars on a blue, ground has also been preserved. [2] The sons and daughters of Ramesses appear in the procession on the few walls left. The sanctuary was composed of three consecutive rooms, with eight columns and the tetrastyle cell. [2] Part of the first room, with the ceiling decorated with astral scenes, and a few remains of the second room are all that is left. [2]

Adjacent to the north of the hypostyle hall was a smaller temple this was dedicated to Ramesses's mother, Tuya, and to his beloved chief wife, Nefertari. To the south of the first courtyard stood the temple palace. The complex was surrounded by various storerooms, granaries, workshops, and other ancillary buildings, some built as late as Roman times.

A temple of Seti I, of which nothing is now left but the foundations, once stood to the right of the hypostyle hall. It consisted of a peristyle court with two chapel shrines. The entire complex was surrounded by mudbrick walls which started at the gigantic southeast pylon.

A cache of papyri and ostraca dating back to the Third Intermediate Period (11th to 8th centuries BC) indicates that the temple was also the site of an important scribal school.

The site was in use before Ramesses had the first stone put in place: beneath the hypostyle hall, modern archaeologists have found a shaft tomb from the Middle Kingdom, yielding a rich hoard of religious and funerary artefacts.

Unlike the massive stone temples that Ramesses ordered carved from the face of the Nubian mountains at Abu Simbel, the inexorable passage of three millennia was not kind to his "temple of a million years" at Thebes. This was mostly due to its location on the very edge of the Nile floodplain, with the annual inundation gradually undermining the foundations of this temple and its neighbours. Neglect and the arrival of new faiths also took their toll: for example, in the early years of the Christian Era, the temple was put into service as a Christian church. [7]

This is all standard fare for a temple of its kind built at that time. Leaving aside the escalation of scale – whereby each successive New Kingdom pharaoh strove to outdo his predecessors in volume and scope – the Ramesseum is largely cast in the same mould as Ramesses III's Medinet Habu or the ruined temple of Amenhotep III that stood behind the "Colossi of Memnon" a kilometre or so away. Instead, the significance that the Ramesseum enjoys today owes more to the time and manner of its rediscovery by Europeans.

The Ramesseum king list is a minor list of kings which still remain in situ on the few remains of the second pylon.

The origins of modern Egyptology can be traced to the arrival in Egypt of Napoleon Bonaparte in the summer of 1798. While undeniably an invasion by an alien imperialist power, this was nonetheless an invasion of its times, informed by Enlightenment ideas: alongside Napoleon's troops went men of science, the same whose toil under the desert sun would later yield the seminal 23-volume Description de l'Égypte. Two French engineers, Jean-Baptiste Prosper Jollois and Édouard de Villiers du Terrage, were assigned to study the Ramesseum site, and it was with much fanfare that they identified it with the "Tomb of Ozymandias" or "Palace of Memnon" of which Diodorus of Sicily had written in the 1st century BC.

The next visitor of note was Giovanni Belzoni, a showman and engineer of Italian origin and, latterly, an archaeologist and antiques dealer. Belzoni's travels took him in 1815 to Cairo, where he sold Mehemet Ali a hydraulic engine of his own invention. There he met British Consul General Henry Salt, who hired his services to collect from the temple in Thebes the so-called 'Younger Memnon', one of two colossal granite heads depicting Ramesses II, and transport it to England. Thanks to Belzoni's hydraulics and his skill as an engineer (Napoleon's men had failed in the same endeavour a decade or so earlier), the 7-ton stone head arrived in London in 1818, where it was dubbed "The Younger Memnon" and, some years later, given pride of place in the British Museum.

It was against the backdrop of intense excitement surrounding the statue's arrival, and having heard wondrous tales of other, less transportable treasures still in the desert, that the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley penned his sonnet "Ozymandias". In particular, one massive fallen statue at the Ramesseum is now inextricably linked with Shelley, because of the cartouche on its shoulder bearing Ramesses's throne name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re, the first part of which Diodorus transliterated into Greek as "Ozymandias". While Shelley's "vast and trunkless legs of stone" owe more to poetic license than to archaeology, the "half sunk. shattered visage" lying on the sand is an accurate description of part of the wrecked statue. The hands, and the feet, lie nearby. Were it still standing, the Ozymandias colossus would tower 19 m (62 ft) above the ground, [3] rivalling the Colossi of Memnon and the statues of Ramesses carved into the mountain at Abu Simbel.

A joint French-Egyptian team has been exploring and restoring the Ramesseum and its environs since 1991. Among their discoveries during excavations include kitchens, bakeries and supply rooms for the temple to the south, and a school where boys were taught to be scribes to the southeast. Some of the challenges in preserving the area have been the control of modern Egyptian farmers using the area for farming and encroaching on the ruins. [8]


Construction Edit

During his reign, Ramesses II embarked on an extensive building program throughout Egypt and Nubia, which Egypt controlled. Nubia was very important to the Egyptians because it was a source of gold and many other precious trade goods. He, therefore, built several grand temples there in order to impress upon the Nubians Egypt's might and Egyptianize the people of Nubia. [3] [4] The most prominent temples are the rock-cut temples near the modern village of Abu Simbel, at the Second Nile Cataract, the border between Lower Nubia and Upper Nubia. [4] There are two temples, the Great Temple, dedicated to Ramesses II himself, and the Small Temple, dedicated to his chief wife Queen Nefertari.

Construction of the temple complex started in approximately 1264 BC and lasted for about 20 years, until 1244 BC. It was known as the "Temple of Ramesses, beloved by Amun".

Rediscovery Edit

With the passage of time, the temples fell into disuse and eventually became covered by sand. By the 6th century BC, the sand already covered the statues of the main temple up to their knees. The temple was forgotten until 1813, when Swiss orientalist Johann Ludwig Burckhardt found the top frieze of the main temple. Burckhardt talked about his discovery with Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni, who travelled to the site, but was unable to dig out an entry to the temple. Belzoni returned in 1817, this time succeeding in his attempt to enter the complex. A detailed early description of the temples, together with contemporaneous line drawings, can be found in Edward William Lane's Description of Egypt (1825–1828). [5]

Relocation Edit

In 1959, an international donations campaign to save the monuments of Nubia began: the southernmost relics of this ancient human civilization were under threat from the rising waters of the Nile that were about to result from the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

One scheme to save the temples was based on an idea by William MacQuitty to build a clear freshwater dam around the temples, with the water inside kept at the same height as the Nile. There were to be underwater viewing chambers. In 1962 the idea was made into a proposal by architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry and civil engineer Ove Arup. [6] They considered that raising the temples ignored the effect of erosion of the sandstone by desert winds. However, the proposal, though acknowledged to be extremely elegant, was rejected.

The salvage of the Abu Simbel temples began in 1964 by a multinational team of archeologists, engineers and skilled heavy equipment operators working together under the UNESCO banner it cost some US$40 million at the time (equal to $300 million in 2017 dollars). Between 1964 and 1968, the entire site was carefully cut into large blocks (up to 30 tons, averaging 20 tons), dismantled, lifted and reassembled in a new location 65 metres higher and 200 metres back from the river, in one of the greatest challenges of archaeological engineering in history. [7] Some structures were even saved from under the waters of Lake Nasser. Today, a few hundred tourists visit the temples daily. Many visitors also arrive by plane at an airfield that was specially constructed for the temple complex, or by road from Aswan, the nearest city.

The complex consists of two temples. The larger one is dedicated to Ra-Harakhty, Ptah and Amun, Egypt's three state deities of the time, and features four large statues of Ramesses II in the facade. The smaller temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor, personified by Nefertari, Ramesses's most beloved of his many wives. [8] The temple is now open to the public.

The Great Temple at Abu Simbel, which took about twenty years to build, was completed around year 24 of the reign of Ramesses the Great (which corresponds to 1265 BC). It was dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty, and Ptah, as well as to the deified Ramesses himself. [9] It is generally considered the grandest and most beautiful of the temples commissioned during the reign of Ramesses II, and one of the most beautiful in Egypt.

Entrance Edit

The single entrance is flanked by four colossal, 20 m (66 ft) statues, each representing Ramesses II seated on a throne and wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. The statue to the immediate left of the entrance was damaged in an earthquake, causing the head and torso to fall away these fallen pieces were not restored to the statue during the relocation but placed at the statue's feet in the positions originally found. Next to Ramesses's legs are a number of other, smaller statues, none higher than the knees of the pharaoh, depicting: his chief wife, Nefertari Meritmut his queen mother Mut-Tuy his first two sons, Amun-her-khepeshef and Ramesses B and his first six daughters: Bintanath, Baketmut, Nefertari, Meritamen, Nebettawy and Isetnofret. [9]

The façade behind the colossi is 33 m (108 ft) high and 38 m (125 ft) wide. It carries a frieze depicting twenty-two baboons worshipping the rising sun with upraised arms and a stele recording the marriage of Ramesses to a daughter of king Ḫattušili III, which sealed the peace between Egypt and the Hittites. [10]

The entrance doorway itself is surmounted by bas-relief images of the king worshipping the falcon-headed Ra Horakhty, whose statue stands in a large niche. [9] Ra holds the hieroglyph user and a feather in his right hand, with Maat (the goddess of truth and justice) in his left this is a cryptogram for Ramesses II's throne name, User-Maat-Re.

Interior Edit

The inner part of the temple has the same triangular layout that most ancient Egyptian temples follow, with rooms decreasing in size from the entrance to the sanctuary. The temple is complex in structure and quite unusual because of its many side chambers. The hypostyle hall (sometimes also called a pronaos) is 18 m (59 ft) long and 16.7 m (55 ft) wide and is supported by eight huge Osirid pillars depicting the deified Ramesses linked to the god Osiris, the god of fertility, agriculture, the afterlife, the dead, resurrection, life and vegetation, to indicate the everlasting nature of the pharaoh. The colossal statues along the left-hand wall bear the white crown of Upper Egypt, while those on the opposite side are wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt (pschent). [9] The bas-reliefs on the walls of the pronaos depict battle scenes in the military campaigns that Ramesses waged. Much of the sculpture is given to the Battle of Kadesh, on the Orontes river in present-day Syria, in which the Egyptian king fought against the Hittites. [10] The most famous relief shows the king on his chariot shooting arrows against his fleeing enemies, who are being taken prisoner. [10] Other scenes show Egyptian victories in Libya and Nubia. [9]

From the hypostyle hall, one enters the second pillared hall, which has four pillars decorated with beautiful scenes of offerings to the gods. There are depictions of Ramesses and Nefertari with the sacred boats of Amun and Ra-Horakhty. This hall gives access to a transverse vestibule, in the middle of which is the entrance to the sanctuary. Here, on a black wall, are rock cut sculptures of four seated figures: Ra-Horakhty, the deified king Ramesses, and the gods Amun Ra and Ptah. Ra-Horakhty, Amun Ra and Ptah were the main divinities in that period and their cult centers were at Heliopolis, Thebes and Memphis respectively. [9]

Solar alignment Edit

It is believed that the axis of the temple was positioned by the ancient Egyptian architects in such a way that on October 22 and February 22, the rays of the sun would penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall, except for the statue of Ptah, a god connected with the realm of the dead, who always remained in the dark. People gather at Abu Simbel on these days to witness this. [9] [10] [ clarification needed ]

These dates are allegedly the king's birthday and coronation day, respectively. There is no direct evidence to support this. It is logical to assume, however, that these dates had some relation to a significant event. [ citation needed ] In fact, according to calculations made on the basis of the heliacal rising of the star Sirius (Sothis) and inscriptions found by archaeologists, this date must have been October 22. This image of the king was enhanced and revitalized by the energy of the solar star, and the deified Ramesses the Great could take his place next to Amun-Ra and Ra-Horakhty. [9]

Because of the accumulated drift of the Tropic of Cancer due to Earth's axial precession over the past 3 millennia, the event's date must have been different when the temple was built. [11] This is compounded by the fact that the temple was relocated from its original setting, so the current alignment may not be as precise as the original one.

Greek graffito Edit

A well-known graffito inscribed in Greek on the left leg of the colossal seated statue of Ramesses II, on the south side of the entrance to the temple records that:

When King Psammetichus (i.e., Psamtik II) came to Elephantine, this was written by those who sailed with Psammetichus the son of Theocles, and they came beyond Kerkis as far as the river permits. Those who spoke foreign tongues (Greek and Carians who also scratched their names on the monument) were led by Potasimto, the Egyptians by Amasis. [12]

Kerkis was located near the Fifth Cataract of the Nile "which stood well within the Cushite Kingdom." [13]

Historic photographs Edit

Genevese architect Jean Jacquet, a UNESCO expert, makes an architectural survey of the Great Temple of Rameses II (1290–1223 BC)

View of the partially excavated Great Temple from the right, with a human figure for scale

Front view of the Great Temple before 1923

Interior of the Great Temple, before cleaning

Interior of the Great Temple, after cleaning

Human figures standing at the entrance to the Great Temple, sometime before 1923

The collapsed colossus of the Great Temple supposedly fell during an earthquake shortly after its construction. On moving the temple, it was decided to leave it as the face is missing.

A close-up of one of the colossal statues of Ramesses II wearing the double crown of Lower and Upper Egypt

The temple of Hathor and Nefertari, also known as the Small Temple, was built about 100 m (330 ft) northeast of the temple of Ramesses II and was dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Ramesses II's chief consort, Nefertari. This was in fact the second time in ancient Egyptian history that a temple was dedicated to a queen. The first time, Akhenaten dedicated a temple to his great royal wife, Nefertiti. [9] The rock-cut facade is decorated with two groups of colossi that are separated by the large gateway. The statues, slightly more than 10 m (33 ft) high, are of the king and his queen. On either side of the portal are two statues of the king, wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt (south colossus) and the double crown (north colossus) these are flanked by statues of the queen.

Remarkably, this is one of very few instances in Egyptian art where the statues of the king and his consort have equal size. [9] Traditionally, the statues of the queens stood next to those of the pharaoh, but were never taller than his knees. Ramesses went to Abu Simbel with his wife in the 24th year of his reign. As the Great Temple of the king, there are small statues of princes and princesses next to their parents. In this case they are positioned symmetrically: on the south side (at left as one faces the gateway) are, from left to right, princes Meryatum and Meryre, princesses Meritamen and Henuttawy, and princes Rahirwenemef and Amun-her-khepeshef, while on the north side the same figures are in reverse order. The plan of the Small Temple is a simplified version of that of the Great Temple.

As in the larger temple dedicated to the king, the hypostyle hall in the smaller temple is supported by six pillars in this case, however, they are not Osiris pillars depicting the king, but are decorated with scenes with the queen playing the sistrum (an instrument sacred to the goddess Hathor), together with the gods Horus, Khnum, Khonsu, and Thoth, and the goddesses Hathor, Isis, Maat, Mut of Asher, Satis and Taweret in one scene Ramesses is presenting flowers or burning incense. [9] The capitals of the pillars bear the face of the goddess Hathor this type of column is known as Hathoric. The bas-reliefs in the pillared hall illustrate the deification of the king, the destruction of his enemies in the north and south (in these scenes the king is accompanied by his wife), and the queen making offerings to the goddesses Hathor and Mut. [10] The hypostyle hall is followed by a vestibule, access to which is given by three large doors. On the south and the north walls of this chamber there are two graceful and poetic bas-reliefs of the king and his consort presenting papyrus plants to Hathor, who is depicted as a cow on a boat sailing in a thicket of papyri. On the west wall, Ramesses II and Nefertari are depicted making offerings to the god Horus and the divinities of the Cataracts—Satis, Anubis and Khnum.

The rock-cut sanctuary and the two side chambers are connected to the transverse vestibule and are aligned with the axis of the temple. The bas-reliefs on the side walls of the small sanctuary represent scenes of offerings to various gods made either by the pharaoh or the queen. [9] On the back wall, which lies to the west along the axis of the temple, there is a niche in which Hathor, as a divine cow, seems to be coming out of the mountain: the goddess is depicted as the Mistress of the temple dedicated to her and to queen Nefertari, who is intimately linked to the goddess. [9]

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The Ramasseum, Thebes

Alphonse-Eugene-Jules Itier (French, 1802 - 1877) 14.4 × 9.4 cm (5 11/16 × 3 11/16 in.) 84.XT.265.3

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14.4 × 9.4 cm (5 11/16 × 3 11/16 in.)


Markings: Purple wet stamp (cut off) at lower right corner of backing: "COLLECTION / G. GIMON / FRANCE".


Inscription: Inscribed on backing at upper center, in black ink, probably by Itier: "Vue du Rhamsse[illeg.] / (Memmomium) et de / la statue de Rhamssses le / grand ou Sesotris attribuée /dans l'ouvrage d'Egypte a / Ozymandias"

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Object Description

When the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley saw drawings of these ruins of ancient Egypt, he wrote: "Look on my works ye mighty and despair." This is a view of the Ramasseum, the funerary temple of Ramses II on the west bank of the Nile River at Thebes. The remains of a 57-foot (17 meter) seated statue of Ramses II litter the foreground . Jules Itier photographed the scattered remains twenty-five hundred years after the temple's destruction by earthquake and subsequent quarrying. The shattered colossus was the subject of Shelley's poem "Ozymandias."


Bruno Bischofberger, sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1984.

The Art of the Daguerreotype (April 14 to July 12, 1998)

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Episode Transcript

That was Shelley, writing in 1818 with a poetic vision inspired by the monumental figure here in the British Museum, whose serenely commanding face is looking down at me from a very great height. Shelley's Ozymandias is our Ramesses II, king of Egypt around 1270 BC, and his giant head dominates this space from a gallery plinth . although it would once have been even higher.

"It's difficult for us to conceive now, with our air tools and electrical ways of cutting stone, quite what an extraordinary achievement, not simply the scale and weight of a sculpture of this size is, but also the degree of finish." (Antony Gormley)

"There's no way of looking at this man and seeing him as a failure. He absolutely deserves the epithet 'the Great', he really was." (Karen Exell)

When it arrived in England, this was by far the largest Egyptian sculpture that the British had ever seen, and it was the first object that gave them a sense of the colossal scale of the Egyptian achievement. The upper body alone is about eight or nine feet (about 2.5m) high, and it weighs about seven tons. This is a king who understood, as never before, the power of scale, the purpose of awe.

Ramesses II ruled Egypt for an astonishing 66 years, presiding over a new golden age of Egyptian prosperity and imperial power. He was lucky - he lived to be over 90, he fathered around 100 children and, during his reign, the Nile floods obligingly produced a succession of bumper harvests. But he was also a prodigious achiever. As soon as he took the throne in 1279 BC, he set out on military campaigns to the north and south, he covered the land with monuments, and he was seen as such a successful ruler that nine later pharaohs took his name. He was still being worshipped as a god in the time of Cleopatra, over a thousand years later.

Ramesses was a consummate self-publicist, and a completely unscrupulous one at that. To save time and money, he simply changed the inscriptions on pre-existing sculptures so that they bore his name and glorified his achievements. But all across his kingdom he erected vast new temples - like Abu Simbel, cut into the rocky sides of the Nile Valley - and the huge image of himself there, sculpted in the rock, inspired many later imitations, not least the vast faces of American presidents carved into Mount Rushmore.

In the far north of Egypt, facing towards the neighbouring powers in the Near East and the Mediterranean, he founded a new capital city, modestly called Pi-Ramesses Aa-nakhtu, the 'House of Ramesses II, Great and Victorious'.

One of his proudest achievements was his memorial complex at Thebes, near modern Luxor. It wasn't a tomb where he was going to be buried, but a temple where he would be venerated in life and then worshipped as a god for all eternity. The Ramesseum, as it's now known, covers an immense area about the size of four football pitches and contains a temple, a palace and treasuries

There were two courtyards in the Ramesseum, and our statue sat at the entrance to the second one. But magnificent though it is, this statue is just one of many - Ramesses is replicated again and again throughout the complex, a multiple vision of monumental power that must have had an overwhelming effect on the officials and priests who went there. We went to see Antony Gormley in the studio where he created his own monumental sculpture - the 'Angel of the North':

"Well for me, as a sculptor, the acceptance of the material as a means of conveying the relationship between human-lived biological time and in a way the eons of geological time, is an essential condition of the waiting quality of sculpture. The fact that sculptures persist, endure, and life dies. And all of Egyptian sculpture in some senses has this dialogue with death, with that which lies on the other side.

"For me there is something very humbling that is, in some senses, a celebration of what a people can do together, because that is the other extraordinary thing about Egyptian both architecture and sculpture. This is engaged upon by vast numbers of people, and is an absolutely collective act of celebration of what they are able to achieve, as a united body of intention.

"Even if we don't understand it in technical terms, the awe-inspiring thing is the way in which, in spite of its scale, proportion and clarity is brought to the surface of the stone. This surface is created entirely by sand abrasion. It's difficult to conceive of a harder material - this is granite - extreme resistance has been overcome by time and elbow grease."

Antony Gormley's point is, I think, a very important one. This serenely smiling sculpture is not the creation of an individual artist, but the achievement of a whole society - the result of a huge, complex process of engineering and logistics - in many ways much closer to building a motorway than making a work of art.

The granite for the sculpture was quarried from Aswan and extracted in a single colossal block - the whole statue would have originally weighed about 20 tons. It was then roughly shaped before being moved on wooden sleds, and pulled by large teams of labourers, from the quarry to a raft which was floated down the Nile to Luxor. The stone would then be hauled from the river to the Ramesseum, where the finer stone-working would take place in situ. So an enormous amount of man-power and organisation was needed to erect even this one statue, and this whole work-force had to be trained, managed and co-ordinated and, if not paid - many of them would of course have been slaves - at least fed and housed. To deliver our sculpture a literate, numerate and very well-oiled bureaucratic machine was essential - and that same machine was of course also employed to manage Egypt's international trade and to organise and equip her armies.

Ramesses undoubtedly had something of the magic touch, and like all great masters of propaganda, where he didn't actually succeed, he just made it up. While he wasn't exceptional in combat, he was able to mobilise a considerable army and supply them with ample weaponry and equipment. And whatever the actual result of his battles, the official line was always the same - knock-out for Ramesses. The whole of the Ramesseum, like our statue, conveyed this consistent message of serene success. This is egyptologist Karen Exell, on Ramesses the propagandist:

"I start smiling when I see this bust, and I think . you're still there . and he's still dominating everything around him

"He very much understood that being visible was central to the success of the kingship, so he put up as many colossal statues as he could, very very quickly. He built temples to the traditional gods of Egypt, and this kind of activity has been interpreted as being bombastic - showing off and so on, but we really need to see it in the context of the requirements of the kingship. People needed a strong leader and they understood a strong leader to be a king who was out there campaigning on behalf of Egypt, and was very visible within Egypt. We can even look at what we can regard as the 'spin' of the records of the battle of Qadesh in his year five, which was a draw. He fought the Hittites, it was a draw. He came back to Egypt and had the record of this battle inscribed on seven temples, and it was presented as an extraordinary success, that he alone had defeated the Hittites. So it was all spin, and he completely understood how to use that."

This king would not only convince his people of his greatness, but would fix the image of imperial Egypt for the whole world. Later Europeans were mesmerised. Around 1800, the new aggressive powers in the Middle East, now the French and the British, competed to acquire the image of Ramesses. Napoleon's men tried to remove the statue from the Ramesseum in 1798, but failed. There is a hole about the size of a tennis ball drilled into the torso, just above the right breast, which experts think came from this attempt, and by 1799 the statue was broken.

In 1816 the bust was successfully removed, rather appropriately, by a circus-strong-man-turned-antiquities-dealer named Giovanni Battista Belzoni. Using a specially designed system of hydraulics, Belzoni organised hundreds of workmen to pull the bust on wooden rollers, by ropes, to the banks of the Nile, almost exactly the method used to bring it there in the first place. It is a powerful demonstration of Ramesses' achievement, that just moving half the statue was considered a great technical feat three thousand years later. Belzoni then loaded the bust onto a boat and the dramatic cargo went from there to Cairo, to Alexandria, and then finally to London. On arrival, it astounded everybody who saw it, and it began a revolution in how we Europeans view the history of our culture. The Ramesses in the British Museum was one of the first works to challenge long-held assumptions that great art had begun in Greece.

We started the week with the mythical hero-king Gilgamesh, and we've ended it with a king-hero who created his own myth: the myth of power. Ramesses' success lay not only in maintaining the supremacy of the Egyptian state, through the smooth running of its trade networks and taxation systems, but in using the rich proceeds towards building numerous temples and monuments. His purpose was to create a legacy that would speak to all generations of his eternal greatness. Yet by one of the great ironies of history, this statue has come to mean exactly the opposite.

Shelley heard reports of the discovery of the bust and of its transport to England. He was inspired by accounts of its colossal scale, but he also knew what had happened to Egypt after Ramesses - with the crown passing to Libyans and Nubians, Persians and Macedonians, and Ramesses' statue itself squabbled over by European intruders. Shelley's poem 'Ozymandias' is a meditation not on imperial grandeur, but on the transience of earthly power, and in it Ramesses' statue becomes a symbol of the futility of all human achievement.

". My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Upper part of a seated statue of Ramses II. 19th Dynasty (approx. 1270 BC) Egyptian. Taken from the Ramesseum, western Thebes. Made of two-colour Granite.

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Location: Thebes, Egypt
Culture: Ancient Egypt
Period: About 1250 BC
Material: Stone

This statue of the Pharaoh Ramesses II was designed to show him as a beneficent ruler, a mighty warrior and a living god. It was erected in the Ramesseum - his mortuary temple, where the cult of Ramesses would continue for centuries. During his reign the annual Nile flood repeatedly reached ideal levels leading to good harvests and a period of prosperity in Egypt. Ramesses himself fathered 85 children with a number of queens during his 66-year reign.

Why was Ramesses II so successful?

Ramesses II is known as one of Egypt's greatest pharaohs - nine further pharaohs tried to emulate his success by taking his name. Although Ramesses was renowned as a warrior-king he suffered several military setbacks. Ramesses owed his reputation to his skills as a self-publicist - he erected more statues than any other Egyptian pharaoh. He even changed or added to the inscriptions on previous pharaohs' statues to glorify himself. This ensured that Ramesses was worshiped as a god for centuries after his death.

Upper part of a seated statue of Ramses II. 19th Dynasty (approx. 1270 BC) Egyptian. Taken from the Ramesseum, western Thebes. Made of two-colour Granite.

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Beautiful Ruins seated statues of Ramesses II at the Great Temple of Abu Simbel. - stock photo

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Watch the video: Incredible statue of Ramses II is unveiled in Luxor after being restored from 57 broken pieces (May 2022).


  1. Schaddoc

    It happens ... such a coincidence

  2. Ori

    Unfortunately, I can help nothing, but it is assured, that you will find the correct decision.

  3. Naalyehe Ya Sidahi

    I have a CGI character :)

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