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Book Review: Ramesses The Great

According to the prize-winning Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson in his new book Ramesses The Great: Egypt’s King of Kings, part of the Yale University Press Ancient Lives Series, Ramesses was the most “megalomaniac” tyrant of ancient times.

You may not know the name Ramesses II the 19th dynasty pharaoh who reigned for 66 years -1279 to 1213 BC, dying at the age on 90.

But I bet you’d recognize Ramesses by his Greek name, especially if you read English literature. It was. . . Ozymandias, King of Kings, whose half-ruined pedestal in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias audaciously challenged even the “mighty” to look upon his works and “despair.”

Shelley, who composed the sonnet in late 1817, called poets the ”unacknowledged legislators of the world.” His 14-line poem is full of sarcasm, the theme of which is that Ozymandias’s “wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command” show that he was seen for what he was by the sculptor who captured his cruelty for the ages. As the closing lines have it, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

That last iambic pentameter line, impossible not to stretch out for lasting effect, intimates Shelley’s hope that poetry triumphs over brutality. Wilkinson, though, shows that for Ramesses art and power were one.

Ramesses came to power at a time Egypt was rich and powerful, with ample resources and envious neighbors. He was an effective though not great militarist, but he had an instinct for “diplomatic strategy,” a shrewd sense of propaganda, and a big ego. As his unwrapped mummy suggests, he may have been tall and fair-skinned, with red hair, a nice touch that would have added to his exotic image.

Once in power he started immediately to build an extensive number of monuments to himself, announcing first that he was king of kings, then a cult figure, a demi-god, and eventually, a god. He sanitized battle records so that inconclusive maneuvers were seen as victories carved in stone. He was a genius at “mythmaking,” Wilkinson asserts, and even stamped his presence on the monuments of others. He had over 100 children and made sure that his temples carried inscriptions about them as well.

Where 18th dynasty tomb chapels tended to be filled with scenes of daily life, Ramesses focused on the afterlife, associating himself with the most powerful gods and goddesses, while increasingly honoring himself.

“In our own time, Wilkinson writes, “we have a deeply conflicted attitude toward megalomania. Some of us thrill at their audacity and ambition of rulers while others recoil at their despotism and vanity.”

Sadly so. I wish he had also, however, extended his observation to the so-called acquisitions of the 19th and 20th century by archaeologists who would make the British Museum the chief repository in the world for Egyptian art and ancient artifacts.

Still Ramesses the Great, fascinating as history, and highly readable and scholarly, evaluates evidence-based data in the context of the times.

Ramesses was not “exceptional” or even very sophisticated. In fact, as many despots do, he came from ordinary roots, not royal lineage – but he was “different, special and noteworthy in the long line of pharaohs,” Why? Wilkinson says that was the question he wanted to explore. With a sly implication he suggests there are lessons here for our own time.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.