Ramses the Great in San Francisco

Nevine El-Aref , Tuesday 23 Aug 2022

The Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition is bringing the splendours of ancient Egypt to San Francisco on the second stop of a US tour, reports Nevine El-Aref

The Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition
The Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition


The international touring exhibition “Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs,” officially inaugurated earlier this week at the de Young Museum in San Francisco on its second stop in the US after Houston, is a once-in-a-lifetime installation where visitors can explore the life and accomplishments of one of the most remarkable and celebrated rulers of ancient history, the pharaoh Ramses II, dubbed Ramses the Great.

Bringing more than 180 dazzling objects to the city, many of which are newly discovered and have never left Egypt before, the exhibition features exquisite sculpture, precious treasures, and state-of-the-art multimedia reproductions that demonstrate the opulence and beauty of ancient Egyptian civilisation.

“We are delighted to share these rarely seen treasures from Egypt’s Golden Age with Bay Area audiences,” said Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

“Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs reveals the power and splendour of ancient Egypt and expands on the history conveyed within our own ancient art collections. Once the exhibition completes its international tour, these objects will return to Egyptian museums and will likely not travel again for decades.”

The exhibition focuses on the life of the eminent military ruler Ramses II, a crown-prince who eventually became one of the longest-ruling kings of Egypt in his 67-year reign. Appropriately known as Ramses the Great, he was the third pharaoh of the 19th  dynasty and is regarded as the most celebrated and mightiest pharaoh of the New Kingdom, Egypt’s Golden Age, when it had a wealthy and powerful empire.

“Kings before and after Ramses II erected colossal statues of themselves, but none are larger or greater in number than those commissioned by Ramses the Great,” said Renée Dreyfus, curator of ancient art and interpretation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

“The temples he erected, statues he commissioned, monuments he inscribed throughout Egypt and Nubia, and funerary temple and royal tomb he built were reminders of his earthly power and closeness to the gods. The proliferation of his name led to it becoming almost a synonym for kingship.”

Ramses the Great’s tomb is located in the Valley of the Kings, the final resting place of New Kingdom pharaohs for over 500 years. This tomb was plundered in ancient times, but the exhibition includes objects from intact royal tombs found elsewhere to offer an idea of the extraordinary objects that Ramses’s tomb must have contained.

“Ramses II is considered to be the greatest king ever to rule Egypt,” said secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in Egypt Mustafa Waziri. “This exhibition will illuminate the pivotal moments that earned the great pharaoh his place in history, while bringing visitors face-to-face with absolutely stunning ancient Egyptian artifacts.  It is one of the most remarkable exhibitions to ever tour the globe, and it is a true honour for it to visit San Francisco and the de Young Museum.”  

The first exhibition about Ramses II in over 30 years is also the first ever to be presented in San Francisco. The installation features the most important trove of works of art related to Ramses II to leave Egypt. Royal statues, sarcophagi, spectacular masks, magnificent jewelry, and ornate golden tomb treasures reveal the fabulous wealth of the pharaohs, the astonishing skill of ancient Egyptian tomb builders, and the superb workmanship of Egyptian artists.

The installation also includes recently discovered animal mummies, including those of small cats, lion cubs, and a mongoose, from the Saqqara Necropolis, on view for the first time, as well as fabulous treasures discovered in the royal tombs in Dahshur and Tanis, many of which have never traveled to the US before.

It also includes precious objects from several other periods of Egyptian history to showcase the opulence of Egypt’s ancient civilisation and the beauty of its treasures. Many of these precious gold and silver objects come from intact royal tombs of the Middle Kingdom and the 21st and 22nd dynasties, Egypt’s Third Intermediate Period.

Immersion: Drone photography, immersive video settings, multimedia productions, and photomurals re-create the life and accomplishments of Ramses in the exhibition, including his monumental building projects and his triumph at the Battle of Kadesh, the largest chariot battle ever fought.

 The exhibition also has a virtual-reality (VR) component, “Ramses and Nefertari: Journey to Osiris,” installed in an adjacent gallery. The immersive VR experience includes cinematic motion chairs that take visitors on a whirlwind tour of two of Ramses’s most impressive monuments, Abu Simbel and Nefertari’s Tomb.

“This is an opportunity to experience ancient Egypt like never before,” said World Heritage Exhibitions President John Norman, of the company organising the exhibition in the US.

“Visitors will not only see priceless historical artifacts, but they can also transport themselves to Egyptian temples in an electrifying virtual reality journey across the sands of the Sahara Desert. We are proud… to bring these immersive, one-of-a-kind experiences to visitors across the globe,” he said.

Tarek El-Awadi, Head of Researchers at the Supreme Council of Antiquities explained that the visitor experience at the exhibition begins in a theatre with a 120-degree screen. On screen, a narrator explains that visitors are about to be taken on a journey back in time to admire the history of a great ancient Egyptian king. In the centre of the screen, a digital clock counts backwards from the present. The years flash back past the Renaissance and the Middle Ages, past the time of Christ and the Roman and Greek Empires, to over 3,000 years ago, over 100 human generations, stopping abruptly at the year 1304 BCE.

The image then expands to fill the entire screen and transitions into stunning drone footage that soars over the Great Pyramid of Khufu and the Sphinx and zooms down into ancient Memphis. A new king has just ascended to the throne, one who will come to epitomise the power and wealth of ancient Egypt at its height, who secured peace with his neighbours, and is still considered the greatest of all the pharaohs.

Historians report that when news of the 92-year-old king’s death emerged, the Egyptians were devastated. Few could remember a time before he was pharaoh. Even in the age of Cleopatra 1,000 years after the death of Ramses, Egyptians still held him above all other pharaohs. His name and exploits remained well-known throughout history and his fame extends far beyond Egypt, enshrined in books and films.

Animations in the exhibition show how Ramses pushed back invasions by Nubians in the south, Libyans on the western border, pirates on the Mediterranean coast, and Hittites on the Syrian border of Egypt. Kadesh, his most famous battle with the Hittites, was recorded for posterity on many of the statues and temples he erected. This war ended when Ramses negotiated and signed the world’s first known peace treaty, cemented by his marriage to the daughter of the defeated Hittite king.

Successful trade agreements, abundant harvests, and an expanding economy ushered in a period of stability and prosperity that allowed Ramses to undertake an ambitious campaign of construction that continued throughout his reign.