Executed on a scale almost befitting the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II himself, the Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition that opened at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris on 7 April displays nearly 200 objects relating to the great king’s reign, many of which have never left Egypt before.
It will be welcoming visitors in the French capital until 6 September, before jetting off for Sydney in Australia as part of an international tour that started last year in Houston in the US and has thus far racked up hundreds of thousands of visitors.
The exhibition includes major pieces relating to every part of the reign of Ramses II, one of the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom’s greatest kings and even with the competition provided by the monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten and the golden boy-king Tutankhamun almost certainly also the most famous.
Ramses II was considered so important in antiquity that no fewer than 11 of his successors also took Ramses as their regnal name, and it is probably the accomplishments of Ramses II far more than those of any other Pharaoh that come to many people’s minds when they think of ancient Egypt.
Ramses II was the builder of the magnificent temples at Abu Simbel in Upper Egypt that were designed to commemorate his military victories in what is now Sudan and mark ancient Egypt’s southern boundary. The images of Ramses and his most important wife Nefertari, expressed in the monumental statues carved into the rock face at the main temple at Abu Simbel, still impress visitors today as symbols of the king’s power and magnificence and of course also that of ancient Egypt.
He completed the hypostyle hall at the Karnak Temple at Luxor, with his military and other exploits being immortalised in engravings on its walls. Having defeated a succession of military and other challengers, including the Hittites at the famous Battle of Kadesh in what is now Lebanon in the early years of his reign, he presided over a period of almost unparalleled power and prosperity in ancient Egypt, with this being signaled in a massive building programme that was perhaps greater than that of any other monarch.
In addition to work at the Abu Simbel and Karnak temples, it also included a new capital at Pi-Ramses in the eastern Delta and a vast mortuary temple, the Ramesseum, on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor near to the tomb Ramses had built for himself in the nearby Valley of the Kings. Reigning for more than 60 years between 1279 and 1213 BCE at the height of the New Kingdom, Ramses II had ample time both to consolidate his rule and to reshape and transform his kingdom, providing a powerful example for subsequent kings.
He is said to have had more than 100 sons and daughters, giving a whole new meaning to the word dynasty, and his tomb, KV7 in the Valley of the Kings, is one of the largest and most lavish in conception, apparently being designed to host not only Ramses but also many members of his family. He had a particularly magnificent tomb built for his main wife Nefertari in the nearby Valley of the Queens that is one of the best-preserved from antiquity.
While the tomb of Ramses II was looted in ancient times like those of every other ancient Egyptian Pharaoh aside from that of the boy-king Tutankhamun, judging by its scale and by that of the nearby Ramesseum it must once have contained almost unimaginable treasures. The Paris exhibition points to this by not only including the powerful draw of gold, but also by dropping the regnal number from its bearer’s kingly title. There was only one real Ramses, Ramses the Great, it seems to say, with all the others being simply imitators.
The exhibition has taken over the same venue that hosted the very successful Tutankhamun exhibition in Paris in 2019, which also stopped off in the French capital on one leg of an international tour (reviewed in Al-Ahram Weekly in August 2019). Its organisers, the US company World Heritage Exhibitions, will be hoping for as great a success as for the earlier exhibition, which raked up some one and half million visitors in Paris alone and also raised valuable funding for the conservation and preservation of Egypt’s cultural heritage.
Yet, a paradox soon emerges when comparing the two exhibitions. Despite the efforts of modern Egyptologists, very little is known about the golden boy-king Tutankhamun, partly because memories of his reign were often deliberately erased in antiquity. We should not mind this deliberate campaign of forgetting, however, since we largely have it to thank for the survival of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the only comparable royal tomb to survive intact across the millennia.
In the case of Ramses II, on the other hand, a lot is known about his life and reign, partly owing to his own efforts to memorialise his achievements and partly due to the efforts that his descendants made to build their own prestige by following his example. Massive statues of Ramses II still sometimes turn up even today, and of course one of the most important, the colossal statue of Ramses II that once stood in Ramses Square in central Cairo, is now a landmark exhibit at the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) on the Pyramids Plateau.
Thus, while we know very little about Tutankhamun, but possess almost all his royal treasure, we know a great deal about Ramses II, but possess almost nothing that can provide information about the kind of man he was despite the many public representations. This presents a challenge to anyone hoping to illustrate his life because there is little that can speak of the private man behind the public image.
There is also the striking contrast between the magnificent gold coffins of Tutankhamun, one set inside the other like a set of Russian dolls surrounding the innermost coffin of solid gold, and the plain wooden coffin of Ramses II. In an exceptional gesture, this has been lent by the Egyptian authorities for the Paris leg of the exhibition. Carved in cedar wood and entirely undecorated, it was the final resting place of Ramses II after his mummy was removed from its tomb in antiquity to protect it from tomb-robbers.
Its hiding place was discovered in the late 19th century, and the mummy of Ramses II, along with many others, was taken to Cairo for preservation in the Egyptian Museum. This plain wooden coffin, installed in pride of place at the end of the Paris show, forms an intriguing contrast to the power and pomp recorded in the rest of the exhibition.
IMMERSION: The exhibition begins with a video presentation of the life and times of Ramses II that hits the kind of notes that continue throughout the show including the use of video and other technologies to give visitors a fully immersive experience.
The first three sections explore main aspects of the Pharaoh’s reign including Ramses II as a military leader, a builder, and as the king of a country enjoying apparently unprecedented prosperity and a lengthy period of domestic and foreign peace. Objects lent by the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahir Square and other institutions illustrate these themes, with their being often dramatically lit and set off from the surrounding darkness in a way that makes them the centre of the visitor’s attention.
Interspersed with these objects are images and video installations designed to impress the achievements of Ramses II more forcefully on visitors, including an installation complete with a soundtrack of thundering horses’ hooves and clanging swords designed to illustrate his victory over Hittite forces at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE, for example.
As the exhibition notes, while this was more of a stalemate than a victory for the ancient Egyptian forces, part of an ongoing struggle between the ancient Egyptians and their neighbours for control of the Levant, Ramses II did not hesitate to advertise it as a major victory in the commemorative images he had set up at the Karnak Temple in Luxor and elsewhere.
Even if there were differences between the ancient Egyptians and the Hittites about which side had won the Battle, the peace treaty they then signed — believed to be the earliest such document ever drafted — secured Egypt’s northern borders and allowed Ramses to turn his attention to similar campaigns in Upper Egypt against the Nubians and in the west of Egypt against the Libyans.
The exhibition includes some exquisite faience tiles found at the site of Pi-Ramses showing Libyan, Nubian, and Syrian or Hittite captives taken during the king’s various campaigns. There is a painted limestone block taken from the tomb of the New Kingdom general Iwrkhy and lent to the show like most other objects in the exhibition by the Egyptian Museum showing Ramses about to smite his enemies.
The long period of prosperity that Egypt enjoyed as a result of the securing of the country’s borders and the establishment of peace abroad is illustrated through the building campaigns as well as through surviving evidence of the lavishness of the royal court. Highlights here include jewelry and other objects found during various excavations and lent by the Egyptian Museum. There is a spectacular jeweled gold collar once owned by the ancient Egyptian princess Sithathormerit, for example, as well as gold and other items found in the tombs of the later Pharaohs Amenemope and Sheshonq II.
The tomb of the latter, discovered by French archaeologist Pierre Montet at Tanis (San Al-Hagar) in the eastern Delta in 1939, yielded many spectacular finds, including the Pharaoh’s intact sarcophagus containing a hawk-headed silver coffin and his mummy complete with the jewels placed among the wrappings by the ancient Egyptian priests. These extraordinary objects, included in the exhibition even though they may not have much to do with Ramses II, amply illustrate the continuity of the civilisation of which he was such an important representative throughout his reign.
The later parts of the exhibition take in various other themes besides those suggested by the reign of Ramses II alone, including the funerary collections of subsequent Pharaohs, the construction of ancient Egyptian royal tombs — illustrated with images of the more visually impressive tomb of Nefertari rather than the damaged tomb of Ramses himself — and ancient Egyptian mummification practices as applied to animals, among them mummified cats.
However, in its final sections the exhibition once again picks up the thread with the story of the hiding of the mummies of the New Kingdom Pharaohs buried in the Valley of the Kings in a secret hiding place, or cachette, to save them from tomb-robbers. After their rediscovery, they were transported first to the Egyptian Museum and then most recently to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) in Fustat in Cairo where they can be viewed today in special galleries below ground.
A final room presents a statue of an eternally youthful Ramses II lent by the Sharm El-Sheikh Museum — an earlier room showed computer-assisted reconstructions of how he might have looked at different ages — against the background of a video including moments from his recent afterlife.
This has included not only the famous salvage operation of the Abu Simbel Temples in the 1960s, moving them out of the way of the rising waters behind the then newly constructed Aswan High Dam, but also the arrival of the mummy of Ramses II in Paris in the 1970s for conservation treatment and finally its transport across Cairo from the Egyptian Museum to the NMEC in the spectacular Pharaohs Golden Parade in 2021.
Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs. Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris, until 6 September.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly