The Real Ozymandias

Monday, November 13th, 2006

Well, for starters: That wasn’t even his name! Yep, our friend was actually Ramesses II. That may make him more familiar, even if only the sound of the name. Greek historians labeled him Ozymandias (derived from one of his many names, User-maat-re.) Greek historians weren’t really all that picky about the facts a lot of the time. Ramesses II thought quite a lot of himself. He had many statues and of course, he had a pyramid too. The poem was inspired by an inscription on one of the statues that read:

I am Ozymandias, King of kings.
If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie,
let him surpass any of my works.

Here’s some more text that concerns the discovery of the tomb, and I found it in Time magazine edition of 29 May, 1995.

A more recent update: it appears that the Pharoahs’ name inscriptions don’t necessarily mean they built a certain monument (statue, pyramid, what have you) but can imply also maybe they restored it, touched it up, that sort of thing. This will make more sense a few paragraphs further down.

Although the tomb is mostly unexcavated and the chambers are choked with debris, Weeks is convinced that there are more rooms on a lower level, bringing the total number to more than 100. That would make Tomb 5 the biggest and most complex tomb ever found in Egypt–and quite conceivably the resting place of up to 50 sons of Ramesses II, perhaps the best known of all the pharaohs, the ruler believed to have been Moses’ nemesis in the book of Exodus. Says Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist with Chicago’s Oriental Institute Museum: “To find large tombs is one thing, but to find something like this, that’s been used for dozens of royal burials, is absolutely amazing.” The cheeky London Daily Mail carried this headline: pharaoh’s 50 sons in mummy of all tombs.

The Valley of the Kings, in which Tomb 5 is located, is just across the Nile River from Luxor, Egypt. It’s never exactly been off the beaten track. Tourism has been brisk in the valley for millenniums: graffiti scrawled on tomb walls proves that Greek and Roman travelers stopped here to gaze at the wall paintings and hieroglyphics that were already old long before the birth of Christ. Archaeologists have been coming as well, for centuries at least. Napoleon brought his own team of excavators when he invaded in 1798, and a series of expeditions in the 19th and early 20th centuries uncovered one tomb after another. A total of 61 burial spots had been found by the time the British explorer Howard Carter opened the treasure-laden tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922.

Given such long and unrelenting scrutiny, most archaeologists had pretty much decided there were no major discoveries left to make in this part of Egypt. Britain’s James Burton had burrowed into the site of Tomb 5 back in 1820, and decided that there was nothing inside. A dismissive Carter used its entryway as a place to dump the debris he was hauling out of Tut’s tomb.

Then, in the late 1980s, came the proposed parking area and Weeks’ concern. His 1988 foray made it clear that the tomb wasn’t as dull as Burton had thought. Elaborate carvings covered the walls and referred to Ramesses II, whose own tomb was just 100 ft. away. The wall inscriptions on the companion crypt mentioned two of Ramesses’ 52 known sons, implying some of the royal offspring might have been buried within. And then came last week’s astonishing announcement.

For treasure, the tomb probably won’t come close to Tut’s, since robbers apparently plundered the chambers long ago. No gold or fine jewelry has been uncovered so far, and Weeks does not expect to find any riches to speak of. Archaeologically, though, the tomb is as good as a gold mine. The carvings and inscriptions Weeks and his colleagues have seen, along with thousands of artifacts littering the floors–including beads, fragments of jars that were used to store the organs of the deceased, and mummified body parts–promise to tell historians an enormous amount about ancient Egypt during the reign of its most important king. “Egyptians do not call him Ramesses II,” Sabry Abd El Aziz, director of antiquities for the Qurna region, told TIME correspondent Lara Marlowe last week, as she and photographer Barry Iverson became the first Western journalists to enter the tomb since the new discoveries were announced. “We call him Ramesses al-Akbar–Ramesses the Greatest.”

No wonder. During his 67 years on the throne, stretching from 1279 B.C. to 1212 B.C., Ramesses could have filled an ancient edition of the Guinness Book of Records all by himself: he built more temples, obelisks and monuments; took more wives (eight, not counting concubines) and claimed to have sired more children (as many as 162, by some accounts) than any other pharaoh in history. And he presided over an empire that stretched from present-day Libya to Iraq in the east, as far north as Turkey and southward into the Sudan.

Ramesses is also much celebrated outside of Egypt, though many Westerners probably don’t connect the name with the fame. In Exodus he is simply known as “Pharaoh,” and Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, inspired by the fallen statues at the Ramesseum, his mortuary temple at Thebes, takes its title from the Greek version of one of the ruler’s alternate names, User-maat-re. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” said the inscription on the pharaoh’s statue in Shelley’s sonnet. Though the poet was making the point that such boasts are hollow because great monuments eventually decay, Ramesses’ achievements were truly magnificent.


Ramesses’ place in history, meanwhile, has been amply documented. The ruler himself saw to that. In fact, grandiosity was part of the job description for pharaohs. One of their primary duties was to make sure the gods were properly thanked for their continuing bounty and protection (and begged for them when they were in short supply). The accepted way to do that was to erect plenty of heroic structures–and then to adorn them with detailed records of the pharaoh’s good and dutiful works. Says Kenneth Kitchen, professor of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool and the author of an authoritative book on Ramesses II: “He was determined to do this better than anyone else.”

The great building boom got under way as soon as Ramesses took the throne at age 25, right after he discovered that the great temple his father Seti I had begun at Abydos was a shambles. The new pharaoh summoned his courtiers to hear his plans for completing the work. From there he went on to build dozens of monuments, including a temple to Osiris at Abydos, expansions of the temples at Luxor and Karnak and the cliff temples at Abu Simbel, which were rescued from waters rising behind the Aswan Dam in the 1960s.

Another part of the pharaoh’s job was to fight constant battles with encroaching enemies. Four years after Ramesses succeeded Seti, the Egyptians’ age-old rivals the Hittites appeared on the horizon from the north. The novice pharaoh hurriedly raised an army of 20,000 soldiers, a huge number by the standards of the day, and marched up through the present-day Gaza Strip to confront a Hittite force nearly twice as big. The battle ended in a stalemate; after many more inconclusive skirmishes over the next 15 years, Muwatallis’ successor, Hattusilis III, requested a peace treaty, and the Egyptians accepted.

The treaty lasted for the rest of Ramesses’ reign. The peace was helped along, no doubt, by his strategic marriage to Hattusilis’ daughter Maat-Hor-Neferure in 1246 B.C.–a wedding that almost didn’t come off when Ramesses and Hattusilis got into an argument over the dowry. The pharaoh later married another of the Hittite king’s daughters, whose name is unknown.

The Hittite princesses were Ramesses’ seventh and eighth wives; he had taken his first two, Nefertari and Istnofret, at least a decade before he ascended to the throne. Then there was also a harem. “If he got tired of huntin’, shootin’, rootin’ and tootin’,” says Liverpool’s Kitchen, “he could wander through the garden and blow a kiss at one of these ladies.” By the time he took over from Seti, Ramesses had at least five sons and two daughters. One of Istnofret’s sons was Merneptah, Ramesses’ 13th boy, who eventually succeeded him (the older ones are presumed to have died before their father did). Family ties were particularly close for the pharaohs: Ramesses’ remaining wives were his younger sister Henutmire and three of his daughters: Bint-Anath, Meryetamun and Nebettawy.

Although they had little choice in their marriage partners, women in the royal families of ancient Egypt were generally considered the equals of men. Two of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, in fact, belong to the female rulers Hatshepsut and Twosret. Huge statues of Ramesses’ first and most important wife Nefertari stand next to those of the pharaoh at Abu Simbel, attesting to her significance.

In an age when life expectancy could not have been much more than 40, it must have seemed to his subjects that Ramesses would never die. But finally, at 92, the pharaoh went to join his ancestors–and some of his sons–in the great royal necropolis, or city of the dead, in the Valley of the Kings. His internal organs were removed and placed in vessels known as canopic jars, and the body was embalmed and gently wrapped in cloth. Archaeologists found that the embalmers had even stuffed peppercorns into the monarch’s nostrils to keep his aquiline nose from being flattened by the wrappings.

Ramesses was then placed in a sarcophagus and interred, along with everything he would need to travel through the afterlife: the Book of the Dead, containing spells that would give the pharaoh access to the netherworld; tiny statuettes known as ushabti, which would come alive to help the dead king perform labors for the gods; offerings of food and wine; jewelry and even furniture to make the afterlife more comfortable. It’s likely, say scholars, that Ramesses II’s tomb was originally far richer and more elaborate than King Tut’s.


The pharaohs would be pleased to know they have held on to a few of their secrets. After all, they dug their tombs deep into hillsides, where the crypts would be safe, they hoped, from the rabble and robbers. What they never counted on was the need for parking lots.

The above statement goes quite well with the whole them of Shelley’s poem. Don’t you just love the irony? :)

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