Introduction by Dr Zahi Hawass

Dr Zahi Hawass is an egyptologist and former Minister of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt, and curator of Ramses & the Gold of the Pharaohs.

In the late 19th century, about four dozen mummies were discovered in an undecorated tomb near the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari. The cache contained the mummies of Seti I and Ramses II, along with 11 other sets of Ramesside royal remains. There were also pieces of a coffin labelled for Ramses I, but no body could be identified as his. In the 1980s, the German Egyptologist Arne Eggebrecht visited a small museum in Niagara Falls where he saw an ancient Egyptian body that had been mummified and had its arms crossed over its chest in a pose that was reserved for royalty during the New Kingdom.

Dr Zahi Hawass inside the tomb of Ramses II.
Dr Zahi Hawass inside the tomb of Ramses II. Image: Supplied © Dr Zahi Hawass

In 1999, the Niagara Falls Museum closed and put its collection up for sale. The Carlos Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, purchased the collection, so the mysterious mummy travelled to the United States. When Peter Lacovara, the museum’s curator, told me they had acquired the royal remains, I immediately reached out to Bonnie Speed, the director. “Bonnie, you have an Egyptian king at your museum, and now we need him to come home,” I said. She agreed that the mummy belonged in Egypt and invited me to Atlanta to give a lecture and escort the mummy back to his own country, where he received a royal welcome in Cairo. Later, I had his remains moved to the Luxor Museum, across the Nile from his original burial place. He rested in a beautiful display at the centre of an exhibition called The Army in the Golden Age.

Eventually, we developed a plan to have all of Egypt’s royal mummies moved to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC). In April of 2021, the remains of the great kings of Egypt moved in a festival parade through the streets of Cairo. They were greeted in front of the NMEC by the president of Egypt, Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi. I think Ramses I, a military man, would have appreciated the pomp and ceremony of this welcome, along with the attention of those who watched the parade around the world.

The mummies of Ramses I and his son, Seti I, and grandson, Ramses II — the hero of this exhibition — along with many others, are now on display along with statues and other objects from their reigns, as well as the results of the DNA and CT scans we carried out so that the public can admire them and learn about these ancient kings and their achievements.

I believe this exhibition is one of the most important ever to leave Egypt to travel abroad. It will inform the world about the life of the most famous Egyptian pharaoh. History will never see anyone like him again. We truly cannot compare him with any other leader.

Sennedjem’s outer coffin and lid on a wooden sled on display at Ramses & the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition
Sennedjem’s outer coffin and lid on a wooden sled on display at Ramses & the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition in Sydney, Australia. Image: James Alcock © Australian Museum

Ramses II ruled for almost 67 years, and was a great fighter, a brave leader and a sophisticated political veteran by the time he took the throne as a young man in his twenties. He was an unequalled builder who left his mark throughout Egypt and beyond. He was also a dutiful son, a loving husband, and a kind father to some 100 sons and daughters. Like almost everything else about him, his long life and enormous family make him seem like something more than an ordinary man. The words we use to describe great kings — courageous, brave, bold and even lion- hearted — barely do him justice.

Ramses II dazzled the world with his victories. He was not bloodthirsty, however. Indeed, he was one of the two rulers who concluded the world’s first mutual peace treaty with the Hittites, once Egypt’s sworn enemies. In the letters Ramses II exchanged with the Hittite king Hattušili III and his queen Puduhepa, we can see him as a human being. He thought clearly and lucidly, and he also had a sense of humour.

I think of Ramses II as the world’s first Minister of Information. He constructed and modified more architecture than perhaps any other ruler in history. You cannot visit a single site in Egypt, from Abu Simbel to Marsa Matrouh, without seeing where he left his mark. He loved the great cities of Egypt, including Memphis, Heliopolis and Thebes. He even founded a completely new city, called Per-Ramessu (the “house,” “mansion,” or “estate of Ramses”), or Piramesse, at the site that today is called Qantir. It quickly grew into a huge and bustling centre. Perhaps the most fascinating of Ramses II’s achievements are the seven temples he had constructed along a 390-kilometre stretch of the Nile in Nubia, from Beit el-Wali to Abu Simbel.

By the time you read this, I believe the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) at Giza will be nearing completion, where visitors will enter under the shadow of an obelisk and a colossal statue belonging to Ramses II. Originally from Memphis, it once stood in Ramses Square in Cairo. In 2006, realising that it was being damaged by air pollution and the constant vibration of traffic, I had it moved to a temporary home near the site where the GEM would eventually be built.

The statue’s journey began at one o’clock in the morning and took about 10 hours. I do not think that anyone in Egypt slept that night, knowing that the king was making his way through the city streets. Thousands of people came to watch.

For this exhibition, we have brought together treasures from the reign of Ramses II and other periods of Egypt’s history to show the opulence of the country’s ancient civilisation and the beauty of the gold of the pharaohs. The golden objects and the mummies you will see in this exhibition, along with the statues, reliefs and other artefacts, offer a glimpse into the world of ancient Egypt. This is the world in which the greatest of the pharaohs, the King of Kings, Ramses II lived.

Who Was Ramses the Great?

Limestone colossus of Ramses II on display at Ramses & the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition
Limestone colossus of Ramses II on display at Ramses & the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition in Sydney, Australia. Image: James Alcock © Australian Museum

Ramses & the Gold of the Pharaohs shines a light on the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, retracing his life, family, subjects and contemporaries, together with the wars he fought and the monuments he erected.

Ramses II, more commonly known as Ramses the Great, ascended to the throne at a time when Egypt was emerging from a period of turmoil and change. He would rule for almost 67 years, the second-longest reign of any pharaoh, and live for an astonishing 92 years.

Ramses II had several Great Royal Wives, including Nefertari, whose famous tomb is in the Valley of the Queens, and Isetnofret. He is believed to have fathered more than 100 children, some of whom played a crucial role during his reign.

Through securing and expanding the country’s borders and negotiating treaties with its neighbours, Ramses II expanded the Kingdom to its original borders, providing Egypt with peace and great prosperity. He embarked on an unprecedented construction campaign, leaving behind an unequalled legacy of monuments such as the Temple of Luxor, the temple known as the House of Millions of Years in Abydos, and the temples of Abu Simbel.

During his long lifetime, Ramses II was closely associated with Amun-Re, the sun god, and worshipped as a deity by his subjects. In the temples of Abu Simbel occurs the solar alignment, a phenomenon that can still be witnessed today: the sun’s rays penetrate the rooms at each equinox and travel across the interior until the light strikes three of the four divine images sculpted in the naos.

Ramses II’s body was mummified and placed in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

The gold of the pharaohs

Ramses II’s era marks the climax of Egyptian civilisation — a time when riches flooded the region from across the world, converging on Piramesse, the capital Ramses II founded in the eastern delta. After the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE), the capital was relocated to the site of Tanis, the Thebes of the North. The Ramesside monuments were dismantled in the old capital so they could be re-used to build the new city. When Pierre Montet excavated Tanis in 1939, he discovered the untouched treasure trove of Ramses II’s royal heirs in front of the entrance to the great Temple of Amun: vases, goblets, statuettes, necklaces, bracelets and rings.

Some of the artefacts uncovered were even older than Ramses II’s reign since they were objects that had been re-used. Most of these royal funerary treasures are on display in the exhibition, made of every kind of precious material: gold, silver, electrum, lapis lazuli, obsidian, turquoise stone, cornelian and chalcedony.

Necklace with falcon heads and counterweights of Princess Neferuptah
Necklace with falcon heads and counterweights of Princess Neferuptah, on display in Ramses & the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition. Image: Supplied © NEON/World Heritage Exhibitions

The exhibition's 10 iconic works

Limestone colossus depicting Ramses II standing and clasping a mekes, the cylinder used as a document case to hold papyri. Image: Supplied © NEON/World Heritage Exhibitions

1. Limestone colossus

This limestone colossus depicts Ramses II standing and clasping a mekes, the cylinder used as a document case to hold papyri. Ramses II is wearing the nemes (a striped headdress worn only by kings) and sports a false beard. He also carries a dagger, which he has squeezed into the belt of his pleated skirt. This statue immortalises the image of the pharaoh par excellence, Ramses II.

This is only the second time this work has been exhibited outside Egypt.

Gold mask of King Amenemope from the Third Intermediate Period, Dynasty 21. Image: Supplied © NEON/World Heritage Exhibitions

2. Mask of King Amenemope

This mask of King Amenemope was part of the mummy-shaped gilded-wood coffin of Amenemope. The mask, which is 46 centimetres tall, is composed of thick sheets of gold moulded with the king’s features and is made of gold, wood, bronze, carnelian and lapis lazuli. His round face is surmounted by the uraeus, the royal cobra, which is attached to the forehead. It is from the Third Intermediate Period, Twenty-First Dynasty.

Gold funerary mask of Wendjebauendjed, an army general of Psusennes I from the Twenty-First Dynasty. Image: Supplied © NEON/World Heritage Exhibitions

3. Mask of General Wendjebauendjed

We can only admire the soft and serene look exuded by this mask of General Wendjebauendjed, who was in the service of Psusennes I in the Twenty-First Dynasty. Made of gold (the flesh of the gods) and with eyes highlighted with glass inlay, it was designed to preserve the idealised portrait of the deceased. The funerary mask would have been placed on the mummy so the General could contemplate eternity.

Limestone ostracon depicting Ramses IV in his chariot, discovered in the Valleys of the Kings. Image: Supplied © NEON/World Heritage Exhibitions

4. Ostracon

This ostracon, a limestone sherd with writing or drawings scratched on it, was discovered in the Valleys of the Kings. It represents Ramses IV in his chariot, grabbing his terrified enemies by the hair. This study highlights the king’s warlike aspect, royal power and domination over evil forces.

The coffin of King Shoshenq II from the Twenty-Second Dynasty. Image: Supplied © NEON/World Heritage Exhibitions

5. Coffin of King Shoshenq II

The coffin of King Shoshenq II from the Twenty-Second Dynasty contained a fragile cartonnage adorned with gold leaf. Following a painstaking restoration, it is now virtually complete. The king bears the face of a falcon god, his arms crossed over his chest as he holds the sceptres.

He is accompanied by images of goddesses and the sons of Horus, who safeguarded the king’s organs. The royal mummy was then protected for eternity, watched over by the Egyptian pantheon so he can be forever reborn.

Clean shots of Ramses & the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition in Sydney, Australia by James Alcock Image: James Alcock © Australian Museum

6. Colossal head

This colossal head in pink granite was discovered in 1888 in Memphis, Egypt, in the Temple of Ptah, a creator god and patron deity of goldsmiths, who was of special importance under the reign of Ramses II. The head bears the white crown symbolising Upper Egypt and also sports a false beard — straight, smooth and quite majestic.

This could be a re-use: the sovereign would have recycled an older royal image and re-sized it in his own image. In fact, we do find various facial characteristics of Ramses II: eyes slanting slightly towards the temple, tear duct curving downward, hooked nose and a faint smile.

This is only the second time this work has been exhibited outside Egypt.

Greywacke statue depicting Ramses II making an offering to the gods. Image: Supplied © NEON/World Heritage Exhibitions

7. Greywacke statue

The hiding place at Karnak gave up thousands of statues, including the example pictured here in greywacke (a type of schist), which depicts Ramses II with his left leg bent at the knee, his right stretching backwards, making an offering to the gods.

This kind of image, which emerged in the New Kingdom, was found in temples and served to petrify the king’s offering. Here, Ramses II holds a tiny naos, above which we can see images of Amun, Ra-Horakhty and what appears to be a child. The hieroglyph in front of their feet reads: “Ramses, beloved of Amun.”

This is only the second time this work has been exhibited outside Egypt.

Gold vase found in the tomb of Psusennes I, used to pour water required for libations on display at Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition. Image: Supplied © NEON/World Heritage Exhibitions

8. Golden vase

The tomb of Psusennes I, discovered by the French Egyptologist Pierre Montet on 16 February 1940, housed a remarkable treasure. The gold and silver objects included some much older items: not just a Ramses II brazier, but also this beautiful ewer, known as a hes in ancient Egyptian. The vase was used to hold and pour the water required for libations.

An inscription chiselled on the front informs us that it was dedicated to Ahmose, the first king of the Eighteenth Dynasty (circa 1550 BCE): “The perfect god Ahmose just of voice, beloved of Osiris lord of Abydos.”

Granodiorite bust of Ramses II discovered in the Temple of Amun in Tanis. Image: Supplied © NEON/World Heritage Exhibitions

9. Granodiorite bust of Ramses II

This granodiorite bust of Ramses II was discovered in the Temple of Amun in Tanis, the new capital city, built with stones from Piramesse. It formed part of a statue of the king sitting on a throne like the version in the Egyptian Museum of Turin.

The fine details and rendering of the body under the garment’s thin linen are characteristic features of the reign’s early works, still bearing the imprint of the style of his father, Seti I. Ramses II holds against him the heqa sceptre (in the shape of a hook) and wears a headband adorned with the uraeus, a broad necklace (usekh) and a bracelet adorned with a wedjat eye.

Superb golden mirror of Princess Sithathoriunet. Image: Supplied © NEON/World Heritage Exhibitions

10. Precious mirror

This superb mirror belonged to Princess Sithathoriunet, in all likelihood a daughter of Sesostris II (Middle Kingdom, Twelfth Dynasty). She was buried in his funerary complex at El Lahun (near Faiyum), and her treasures were not ransacked by looters.

In addition to jewellery, this mirror made of gold, silver, electrum and obsidian is a masterpiece of the goldsmith’s trade. The polished silver disc is fastened to an obsidian handle in the form of a papyrus stem. Underneath the umbel, we find the head of Hathor (goddess of love, inebriation and music), whom we can recognise by her cow ears and eyes made of lapis lazuli.

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