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Episode 20 - Statue of Ramesses II

Statue of Ramesses II (made around 1250 BC). Granite; found in Thebes, Egypt

"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

That was Shelley, writing in 1818 with a poetic vision inspired by the monumental figure here in the British Museum, whose serenely commanding face is looking down at me from a very great height. Shelley's Ozymandias is our Ramesses II, king of Egypt around 1270 BC, and his giant head dominates this space from a gallery plinth ... although it would once have been even higher.

"It's difficult for us to conceive now, with our air tools and electrical ways of cutting stone, quite what an extraordinary achievement, not simply the scale and weight of a sculpture of this size is, but also the degree of finish." (Antony Gormley)

"There's no way of looking at this man and seeing him as a failure. He absolutely deserves the epithet 'the Great', he really was." (Karen Exell)

When it arrived in England, this was by far the largest Egyptian sculpture that the British had ever seen, and it was the first object that gave them a sense of the colossal scale of the Egyptian achievement. The upper body alone is about eight or nine feet (about 2.5m) high, and it weighs about seven tons. This is a king who understood, as never before, the power of scale, the purpose of awe.

Ramesses II ruled Egypt for an astonishing 66 years, presiding over a new golden age of Egyptian prosperity and imperial power. He was lucky - he lived to be over 90, he fathered around 100 children and, during his reign, the Nile floods obligingly produced a succession of bumper harvests. But he was also a prodigious achiever. As soon as he took the throne in 1279 BC, he set out on military campaigns to the north and south, he covered the land with monuments, and he was seen as such a successful ruler that nine later pharaohs took his name. He was still being worshipped as a god in the time of Cleopatra, over a thousand years later.

Ramesses was a consummate self-publicist, and a completely unscrupulous one at that. To save time and money, he simply changed the inscriptions on pre-existing sculptures so that they bore his name and glorified his achievements. But all across his kingdom he erected vast new temples - like Abu Simbel, cut into the rocky sides of the Nile Valley - and the huge image of himself there, sculpted in the rock, inspired many later imitations, not least the vast faces of American presidents carved into Mount Rushmore.

In the far north of Egypt, facing towards the neighbouring powers in the Near East and the Mediterranean, he founded a new capital city, modestly called Pi-Ramesses Aa-nakhtu, the 'House of Ramesses II, Great and Victorious'.

One of his proudest achievements was his memorial complex at Thebes, near modern Luxor. It wasn't a tomb where he was going to be buried, but a temple where he would be venerated in life and then worshipped as a god for all eternity. The Ramesseum, as it's now known, covers an immense area about the size of four football pitches and contains a temple, a palace and treasuries

.

There were two courtyards in the Ramesseum, and our statue sat at the entrance to the second one. But magnificent though it is, this statue is just one of many - Ramesses is replicated again and again throughout the complex, a multiple vision of monumental power that must have had an overwhelming effect on the officials and priests who went there. We went to see Antony Gormley in the studio where he created his own monumental sculpture - the 'Angel of the North':

"Well for me, as a sculptor, the acceptance of the material as a means of conveying the relationship between human-lived biological time and in a way the eons of geological time, is an essential condition of the waiting quality of sculpture. The fact that sculptures persist, endure, and life dies. And all of Egyptian sculpture in some senses has this dialogue with death, with that which lies on the other side.

"For me there is something very humbling that is, in some senses, a celebration of what a people can do together, because that is the other extraordinary thing about Egyptian both architecture and sculpture. This is engaged upon by vast numbers of people, and is an absolutely collective act of celebration of what they are able to achieve, as a united body of intention.

"Even if we don't understand it in technical terms, the awe-inspiring thing is the way in which, in spite of its scale, proportion and clarity is brought to the surface of the stone. This surface is created entirely by sand abrasion. It's difficult to conceive of a harder material - this is granite - extreme resistance has been overcome by time and elbow grease."

Antony Gormley's point is, I think, a very important one. This serenely smiling sculpture is not the creation of an individual artist, but the achievement of a whole society - the result of a huge, complex process of engineering and logistics - in many ways much closer to building a motorway than making a work of art.

The granite for the sculpture was quarried from Aswan and extracted in a single colossal block - the whole statue would have originally weighed about 20 tons. It was then roughly shaped before being moved on wooden sleds, and pulled by large teams of labourers, from the quarry to a raft which was floated down the Nile to Luxor. The stone would then be hauled from the river to the Ramesseum, where the finer stone-working would take place in situ. So an enormous amount of man-power and organisation was needed to erect even this one statue, and this whole work-force had to be trained, managed and co-ordinated and, if not paid - many of them would of course have been slaves - at least fed and housed. To deliver our sculpture a literate, numerate and very well-oiled bureaucratic machine was essential - and that same machine was of course also employed to manage Egypt's international trade and to organise and equip her armies.

Ramesses undoubtedly had something of the magic touch, and like all great masters of propaganda, where he didn't actually succeed, he just made it up. While he wasn't exceptional in combat, he was able to mobilise a considerable army and supply them with ample weaponry and equipment. And whatever the actual result of his battles, the official line was always the same - knock-out for Ramesses. The whole of the Ramesseum, like our statue, conveyed this consistent message of serene success. This is egyptologist Karen Exell, on Ramesses the propagandist:

"I start smiling when I see this bust, and I think ... you're still there ... and he's still dominating everything around him

.

"He very much understood that being visible was central to the success of the kingship, so he put up as many colossal statues as he could, very very quickly. He built temples to the traditional gods of Egypt, and this kind of activity has been interpreted as being bombastic - showing off and so on, but we really need to see it in the context of the requirements of the kingship. People needed a strong leader and they understood a strong leader to be a king who was out there campaigning on behalf of Egypt, and was very visible within Egypt. We can even look at what we can regard as the 'spin' of the records of the battle of Qadesh in his year five, which was a draw. He fought the Hittites, it was a draw. He came back to Egypt and had the record of this battle inscribed on seven temples, and it was presented as an extraordinary success, that he alone had defeated the Hittites. So it was all spin, and he completely understood how to use that."

This king would not only convince his people of his greatness, but would fix the image of imperial Egypt for the whole world. Later Europeans were mesmerised. Around 1800, the new aggressive powers in the Middle East, now the French and the British, competed to acquire the image of Ramesses. Napoleon's men tried to remove the statue from the Ramesseum in 1798, but failed. There is a hole about the size of a tennis ball drilled into the torso, just above the right breast, which experts think came from this attempt, and by 1799 the statue was broken.

In 1816 the bust was successfully removed, rather appropriately, by a circus-strong-man-turned-antiquities-dealer named Giovanni Battista Belzoni. Using a specially designed system of hydraulics, Belzoni organised hundreds of workmen to pull the bust on wooden rollers, by ropes, to the banks of the Nile, almost exactly the method used to bring it there in the first place. It is a powerful demonstration of Ramesses' achievement, that just moving half the statue was considered a great technical feat three thousand years later. Belzoni then loaded the bust onto a boat and the dramatic cargo went from there to Cairo, to Alexandria, and then finally to London. On arrival, it astounded everybody who saw it, and it began a revolution in how we Europeans view the history of our culture. The Ramesses in the British Museum was one of the first works to challenge long-held assumptions that great art had begun in Greece.

We started the week with the mythical hero-king Gilgamesh, and we've ended it with a king-hero who created his own myth: the myth of power. Ramesses' success lay not only in maintaining the supremacy of the Egyptian state, through the smooth running of its trade networks and taxation systems, but in using the rich proceeds towards building numerous temples and monuments. His purpose was to create a legacy that would speak to all generations of his eternal greatness. Yet by one of the great ironies of history, this statue has come to mean exactly the opposite.

Shelley heard reports of the discovery of the bust and of its transport to England. He was inspired by accounts of its colossal scale, but he also knew what had happened to Egypt after Ramesses - with the crown passing to Libyans and Nubians, Persians and Macedonians, and Ramesses' statue itself squabbled over by European intruders. Shelley's poem 'Ozymandias' is a meditation not on imperial grandeur, but on the transience of earthly power, and in it Ramesses' statue becomes a symbol of the futility of all human achievement.

"... My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

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