Ancient Egypt has long captivated the world owing to its grandeur, mystery, and rich history, and one of the most iconic and enigmatic figures in ancient Egyptian history is the 19th-Dynasty king Ramses II, often referred to as Ramses the Great.
His reign, which lasted for over six decades, was marked by numerous military conquests, impressive architectural achievements, and a cultural renaissance that left an indelible mark on the history of ancient Egypt.
To highlight the life and accomplishments of this magnificent Pharaoh, a special exhibition entitled Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs has been touring the world since 2021, allowing visitors to travel back in time and experience the opulence and majesty of a fascinating era.
The countdown has now begun to the largest cultural exhibition to visit Australia in over a decade, bringing 181 dazzling objects to Sydney, many of which are newly discovered and have never left Egypt before.
The wooden coffin of king Ramses II is the star attraction of the show. It is very rare that the coffin is permitted to leave Egypt; however, it will head to Sydney after being displayed at the exhibition’s last stop in Paris. When that happens, Sydney will become only the second city in the world outside Egypt to show it to admiring visitors.
The exhibition features exquisite sculpture, precious treasures, recently discovered animal mummies, magnificent jewellery, spectacular royal masks, exquisite amulets and ornate golden treasures from numerous ancient royal tombs in Dahshour and Tanis.
Visitors can walk among towering statues and immerse themselves in multimedia productions that re-create moments from Ramses’ life, including his triumph at the Battle of Kadesh against the ancient Hittites when the largest chariot battle in history was fought.
The exhibition also offers a virtual reality experience that takes visitors on a whirlwind tour of two of Ramses’ most impressive monuments: the Temples of Abu Simbel in Aswan and the tomb of his beloved wife queen Nefertari in Luxor. In cinematic motion chairs, viewers can fly through temples, sandstorms, and even come face-to-face with Ramses’ mummy in this electrifying animated journey.
“We are thrilled that Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs is coming to Sydney as part of its international tour,” said Kim McKay, director of the Australian Museum. “There is an air of great excitement at the Australian Museum in Sydney, and we are drawing on the expertise of our skilled staff, our sponsorship partners, and our university colleagues to tell the story of Ramses the Great.”
“As part of our detailed preparations, the Australian Museum’s exhibitions team are hard at work preparing the halls, and we have trained over 100 extra staff, increased our security and facilities, and conducted in-depth workshops for our front of house customer service team, as well as developed detailed educational materials for school students which aligns with the local curriculum,” McKay said.
He said that the museum’s programming team has been preparing a season of talks and activities that will give visitors a rich experience and enable them to delve deeply into ancient Egypt’s history. “Over the course of the opening, visitors will also be able to taste some mouth-watering Egyptian-inspired delicacies in the museum’s cafés, specially prepared to celebrate the exhibition and a feast for a Pharaoh.”
Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs, McKay pointed out, has been made possible with support from the New South Wales government and through the generous support of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
“This financial support, and the expert knowledge contributing to the experience of the exhibition, will enable our visitors to discover the roots of Egyptian history, character, personality and values,” McKay added.
“We are excited to bring the treasures of Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs to the land down under. I am sure it will be a big success as almost 100,000 tickets for this 10-city tour exhibition are sold out in advance,” said John Norman, president of Neon Creative, the organiser of the exhibition.
He said that the exhibition had received 817,000 visitors during its five-month display on its third stop in Paris.
Norman added that the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has been instrumental in fostering a spirit of friendship and cooperation that started in 2005 with the launch of a Tutankhamun exhibition in Los Angeles.
Its tireless efforts in promoting Egypt as a tourist destination have opened doors for countless travellers to explore and experience the wonders that lie within its borders. These have showcased the true essence of Egypt, its beauty, its history, and its people, he said.
RAMSES II: Ramses II is not only one of the most important of all the kings that once sat on the throne of ancient Egypt, but also arguably the most renowned of them all as well, because of the great architectural monuments he built during his long reign.
Everywhere in Egypt has a monument to Ramses II. He extended the temples of Luxor and Karnak by constructing beautiful hypostyle halls, pylons, obelisks and colossi. One of the largest and most beautiful funerary temples in Egypt is the famous Ramesseum on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, and there are also the famous Temples of Abu Simbel in Nubia, along with other temples.
Ramses II also constructed the most beautiful tomb for a queen in ancient times for his beloved wife queen Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens in Luxor.
“The amazing architecture of Ramses II, which is still in very good condition today, means that one can hardly believe that thousands of years have passed since its construction. This has also made many scholars not believe that the king’s tomb (KV7) in the Valley of the Kings is actually the tomb of the great King Ramses, given the tragic situation that it is suffering from,” Egyptologist and former minister of antiquities Zahi Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He said that until two years ago the tomb was still not fully excavated and many of its passageways and chambers were still filled with debris and the sediment of the floods that the tomb has been exposed to.
“My dream has always been to reveal the secrets of the tomb of Egypt’s greatest Pharaoh Ramses II,” Hawass said, adding that he appreciated the funds provided by the Cityneon Group and World Heritage Exhibitions, the company behind the Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition, which had enabled him to lead an archaeological mission to reveal the secrets of this great king’s tomb.
“The tomb of Ramses II is one of the mysteries of ancient Egypt,” Hawass said, adding that the current appearance and state of preservation of the tomb did not satisfy the expectations one might have of the tomb of a great Pharaoh like Ramses II.
The tomb has suffered from successive thefts and random digging in search of hidden treasure inside its walls and under its floors. The famous Strikes Papyrus in the Turin Museum in Italy provides information on two robbery attempts during the reign of the 20th-Dynasty King Ramses III in ancient times.
Over the centuries the tomb has been exposed to severe floods that have filled it with dirt and debris, destroying its beautiful reliefs and inscriptions. The tomb passages and internal chambers were blocked.
“Despite the fact that many archaeological missions tried to excavate the tomb, they all failed to clean it of the debris and failed to reveal the secrets of the tomb,” Hawass said.
He said that the archaeological mission he had led had succeeded, in two fruitful seasons since January 2021, in removing the debris and cleaning the tomb, revealing new information on its construction and pictorial programme.
Based on its size and pictorial programme, it is suggested that the tomb took between 10 and 12 years to complete.
“Even the most beautiful tombs in the Valley of the Kings, such as that of king Ramses II’s father, king Seti I, were left unfinished in some parts. The tomb of Tutankhamun was also prepared in a hurry because of the early death of the boy king,” Hawass said.
The excavations revealed a large group of wall scenes depicting important chapters from the funerary books of the afterlife, known to the ancient Egyptians as the Book of Gates and the Book of Imy-Duat.
The shaft of the tomb was also completely uncovered for the first time. It is the deepest of all the shafts of the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, reaching a depth of more than nine metres.
Surprisingly, this tomb shaft, unlike all the others in the royal tombs, is decorated. Each of the four side walls has three registers of marvellous scenes and inscriptions that represent chapters never seen before from the books of the afterlife.
The Egyptian mission was able to develop a sense of the size of the original funerary treasure of Ramses II using a system of measurements of the inner chambers of the tomb. “Our work showed evidence that the huge funerary furniture of the king, such as the sarcophagus and the inner anthropoid coffins, as well as the golden shrines and other large-sized furniture, were moved outside the tomb not by tomb robbers, but by the priests of the Egyptian deity Amun during the Late Period,” Hawass said.
He added that the priests could not take the large objects outside the tomb in the same way that they had been brought inside. Therefore, they had had to dig out the floors and ceilings of the rock-carved gates in order to expand them and thus remove the treasures.
Given the absence of evidence that the treasures were destroyed or looted by tomb robbers, there is still the possibility that they may be rediscovered hidden in the tombs of the high priests of Amun, which are still not discovered today.
ROYAL COFFIN: The coffin of Ramses II is more than just an artefact; it is a portal to a world of ancient beliefs, artistry, and reverence for the afterlife.
As visitors gaze upon its intricate hieroglyphics and grandeur, they are drawn into the world of ancient Egypt and the legacy of Ramses II. This remarkable relic reminds us that, even in death, Ramses continues to be an enduring symbol of the power, wisdom, and mystique of Egypt’s Pharaohs.
Ramses II’s coffin, like those of other Pharaohs, was a masterpiece of ancient Egyptian art and craftsmanship. It was carved in cedar wood at the reburial of the king at the end of the New Kingdom when Amun’s priests, then the ruling power in Thebes, concealed the royal mummies of the New Kingdom Pharaohs in a cache they created to protect their burials for the afterlife and eternity.
The coffin and mummy of the king were unearthed among other burials in 1881 within the Deir Al-Bahari royal cache on Luxor’s west bank.
The cedar coffin was not originally designed for Ramses II, and it would have once been overlaid with gilding and inlays in precious stones or glass. The surface was then stripped and painted yellow, with a handful of details highlighted in bright colours and the eyes outlined in black.
The coffin shows the recumbent King in the Osirian position with arms crossed on his chest and holding two royal sceptres. He wears the Nemes headdress decorated with the erect cobra and false beard braided beneath his chin.
Various inscriptions can be seen on the coffin. The lid bears two large cartouches recalling the King’s birth name of “Ramses, beloved of Amun”, and his throne name of “Powerful is the Maat of Re, he whom Re has chosen”.
According to an article on the coffin on the website of the American Research Centre in Cairo (ARCE) by Nicholas Brown of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles, two additional texts are on the upper legs of the anthropoid coffin. The initial one is heavily faded and partially erased, and part of it is overwritten by a later text. At the back there is another more visible text.
“It is from these texts that Egyptologists can reconstruct the route that the mummy of Ramses II took from his initial resting place (KV7) to the Deir Al-Bahari cache (TT320),” wrote Brown.
He said that Ramses II’s mummy was removed from the original tomb and moved to the tomb of his father Seti I (KV17). The body remained there for over 80 years before the KV17 cache was moved to the tomb of Ahmose-Inhapi. “This latter tomb was used as a hidden cache for just over 40 years before the mummies’ final transfer to the royal cache at TT320 in year 11 of king Shoshenq II’s reign,” Brown wrote.
He said that it is fairly certain that the present coffin was not the original container of Ramses II and that it was re-processed and re-used for the king’s burial at the end of the New Kingdom.
“Based on similar facial characteristics in three-dimensional portraiture, scholars have suggested that this coffin originally belonged to King Horemheb, the last ruler of the 18th Dynasty,” he said, adding that the elongated, triangular face on the coffin is in Amarna or post-Amarna style associated with the Pharaoh Akhenaten and that it has some facial characteristics painted on, including high-relief eyebrows and eyes with inner-sloping canthi.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly