Museum Treasure: Bust of Rameses II

The Egyptian galleries in the British Museum in London, perhaps, receive the maximum number of visitors every day. These galleries are full of mummies, figurines of gods and shabtis, sculptures of boats, doors, beetles, the Rosetta Stone, busts of various pharaohs, etc. Amidst all these objects and artifacts from Egypt, is the towering stone of Rameses II.

Rameses II was the king of Egypt from 1279 to 1213 BC, an age of prosperity and plenty in the land he ruled. He is remembered as an achiever among achievers, who initiated and won several military campaigns, built monuments in his name all over Egypt (like the ones in Abu Simbel and Thebes), lived up to the age of 90, fathered 100 children, and by the time Cleopatra came a 1,000 years later, was venerated as a god. He was so successful, that 9 later pharaohs took on the name of Rameses.

The Rameses II bust in London’s British Museum is made of granite reportedly quarried and excavated as a single block of stone in Aswan. According to A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil McGregor,

When it arrived in England, this was by far the largest Egyptian sculpture that the British public had ever seen… The upper body alone is 2-5 metres (8 or 9 feet) high and weighs about 7 tonnes. This is a king who understood, as none before, the power of scale, the power of awe.

And this bust does awe the visitor. When I entered the room where the bust is displayed and saw it towering over everything and everybody else, all objects and people in the room blurred away leaving only Rameses in front of me. As I walked towards the bust, I was reminded of the fact that the noted poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, had been inspired by this very bust of Rameses II to write his most quoted and remembered poem, “Ozymandias”.

And before I knew it, I was murmuring the opening lines of the poem.

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of the colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

What sort of king was Rameses II, I wonder as I gaze upon the bust? What went through the sculptor’s mind as he carved this regal-looking bust with a beatific smile? Did Rameses II really look like this or did he, like most kings, have his image “photoshopped” (or whatever the equivalent was in those times) by his sculptors?

We’ll never know, will we? πŸ™‚

The Museum Treasure Series is all about artifacts found in museums with an interesting history and story attached to them. You can read more from this series here.

20 thoughts on “Museum Treasure: Bust of Rameses II

  1. I had loved the Egyptian section in the museum too and spent some time admiring the bust as well as all the mummies — yes all of them πŸ˜€ You certainly make things more interesting Sudha.

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    1. Thanks, Zephyr πŸ™‚ Actually I had loved the Assyrian and Greek sections in the British Museum more. But Rameses was something altogether and I was so glad to make his acquaintance.

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    1. Thanks, Aakanksha. Ozymandias is one of my favourite poems and you can imagine my delight when I came across the bust of Rameses II. And there were so many others who were standing there and reciting the poem under their breaths πŸ™‚ It was a sight to behold

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