Febuary 2008, Luxor
Today was a chance to revisit one of my favourite of all sites in Egypt, the Ramesseum. It is the perfect site for first time independent travellers to Egypt, since it is an easy site to navigate, and being built all at one point by a single ruler, easy to comprehend, and doable in a single visit, as well as being reasonably easy to get to.
The Ramesseum is an oasis of calm. More than any other place on the West Bank, it gives the impression of being a true mortuary temple, a memorial. The minute you turn off the road and pass the tiny ticket collection booth you forget about the world outside. It’s location at the edge of the fertile strip is both a blessing and a curse. A few trees grow here, providing colour, shade and life.
The House of Millions of Years of User-Ma’at-Ra Setep-En-Ra That Unites with Thebes in the Domain of Amun (or, “The Ramesseum” as it’s, thankfully, also known) has, by Egyptian standards, a relatively simple history. Built by Ramesses II in the 19th Dynasty (New Kingdom) as his mortuary temple and monument, the remains of today give only a hint of the splendour of the original. The temple was begun in the 2nd year of his reign, and took two decades to complete. The architects were Penra of Coptos (modern Qift, Egyptian Gebtu) and Amunemone of Abydos (Egyptian, Abdju). It was a splendid monument that matched it’s splendid name. Hard though it is to imagine, this quiet, secluded “backwater” temple would have been one of the grandest on the West bank. Only Medinet Habu (not yet built at this point) and Amunhotep III’s now sadly destroyed temple would rival it.
However, just like Amunhotep III’s temple, the Ramesseum’s life as a working temple would be sadly brief. By the Third Intermediate Period the temple cult, it seems, was no longer maintained, and the magazines were being used as a necropolis, and several burials of the priesthood have, and continue to be, discovered here.
During the Ptolemaic Period, stone and columns were plundered from the temple to build additions to the Small Temple at Medinet Habu, and in the 1st century CE the heart of the temple itself was converted into a Christian church. The Christians attacked many of the surviving wall carvings, hacking out some details, and adding carved graffiti, an act which would be repeated on numerous occasions by later explorers, whose names are now visible, particularly on the rear surviving wall of the Hypostyle hall. During the Roman/Byzantine period, an earthquake struck the Theban area, causing further destruction when, amongst other catastrophes, the colossal statues of Ramesses fell, destroying the second pylon as it did so, and breaking into the “shattered visage” beloved of Shelley. The temple’s subsequent history, following it’s final abandonment is summed up well by Richard Wilkinson.
“For centuries thereafter the Ramesseum remain a cluttered, broken and puzzling – if romantic – ruin, as impressive for the incredible destruction wrought upon it as for it’s surviving monuments”
Today, only limited reconstruction has been undertaken at the site, and it retains it’s broken and puzzling, if romantic air, especially given that relatively few visitors come or linger here, hurried past it’s tranquil ruins by tour guides to the spectacular setting of Dier El Bahri and elsewhere.
The damaged nature of the site, and the poorly designed modern approach from the North Eastern corner of the complex does nothing to dent it’s wonderful atmosphere . The solitude the site offers, the beauty of it’s surroundings and the temple itself all contribute to one of the most pleasant experiences one can have in Egypt.
Many people, not least Shelley himself, who wrote of this very place, find Egyptian temples overwhelming. Vast edifices, designed, in their eyes, to instil awe, fear and terror of the living gods who built them, into the hearts of lesser beings, the “sneer of cold command” reaching out from every statue. Shelley, however, never visited the Ramesseum. Indeed, he never visited Egypt at all. Had he done so, perhaps he would have found a place rather more like the one I have, a world away from the trunkless legs of stone that he imagined.
I have always found, from my childhood to the present day, Egyptian temples to some of the most welcoming structures. Entering the Ramsseum leaves one with a feeling of being welcomed home by a loving relative after a long trip. A place not of ecstatic joy, but of a reassuring warmth, welcome, tranquility and relaxation. It is everything one could ask for and want in any religious building.
And what of that famous colossus? It still lies where it fell so many centuries ago, the face, larger than my person, beautifully carved in granite, with serene, confident, gently smiling features. With the notable exception of the Middle Kingdom rulers, the Pharaoh’s of Egypt are invariably portrayed with that supreme confidence in their own quasi-divinity and gentle smile, even when smiting a horde of Nubians/Libyans/Sea People/Asiatics/Bedouin.
Modern visitors to the Ramesseum enter the site from it’s North Eastern corner, past a small wooden ticket collection and security kiosk, and down a sloping path past the ongoing excavations of Amunhotep II’s mortuary temple (no standing remains, no access permitted), entering into the temple proper at the ruined first courtyard. Like so many temples, this is a less than ideal approach, for the full impact of approaching up to, and then through the pylon is lost.
The pylon itself is missed by most of the relatively few visitors the temple does receive, for it lies across uneven, salty ground with small yet very spiky grasses. However a visit is recommended, both to appreciate some of the battle scenes (Kadesh, naturally) depicted on it’s western (inner) face and also it’s precarious position. As even a brief glance at the ground will quickly reveal, salt corrosion and the water table are both serious enemies which the temple faces. Large holes and pits can be seen at the foot of the pylon, damp and sometimes even part filled with water, further rotting it’s already damaged foundations. The pylon itself is visibly leaning and skewed (having already survived the major earthquake that shattered the colossi) and the doorway has now been (rather crudely) blocked up, assumeably to prevent it’s collapse.
Across the courtyard are the ground level remains of the southern wall and a part of the palace that once adjoined the temple, and was fronted by a columned portico of which only the bases now remain. On the northern side, beside the entrance path are some stored carved blocks, with some amusing and well executed details of processions and the like. The lack of any surviving paving in the courtyard, and the lonely nature of the pylon leave one with the feeling of the area having always been open, though it was originally enclosed by the Pylon on the east, porticos on the north and south, and a second pylon, fronted by the colossus, in the west.
The western side of the courtyard is the instant draw for most visitors, dominated by the fallen colossus that now straddles the mostly destroyed second pylon. In the scrub and grass around the fallen statue lie feet, hands and various parts and inscriptions, which allow you to get a close up view of the incredible finish of the work. The scale of this project really begins to hit home, and one cannot help but be humbled by the skill of the craftsmen who worked on it, giving such fine finish to a piece so large, and the engineers and overseers who had it transported so far, an installed.
The statue “Ramesses, Sun of Foreign Sovereigns” was made from a single piece of Aswan limestone was almost 70 feet high and weighed over one thousand tons. Like all Egyptian statues, it would have moved to and from a barge via sledges hauled by men. That they all pulled together in the same direction, both figuratively and literally, was quite important.
Originally a twin statue was intended for the north side of the court, though there is no evidence to suggest it was ever installed. Perhaps, for once, the ambitions of the architects exceeded their abilities, and the logistics involved in quarrying and transporting the first one all the way from Aswan were so prohibitive as to make giving it the proposed twin unviable. Time is unlikely to have been the issue, as the complex was finished less than half way into Ramesses’ reign. The colossi it seems, may have shown the Egyptians just how far they could push the bounds of bronze age logistics, even with the most superb organisation and skill. Although never receiving it’s twin, it was flanked to the other side by a statue of Ramesses’ mother, Tuya, and a subsidiary temple existed in the complex dedicated to her and his wife, Nefertari.
A flight of wooden steps leads past the fallen statue (giving a good view as they do so) and through the ruined second pylon into the second court. This feels much more like a surviving temple court, and it’s quite possible to imagine it as the enclosed courtyard it once was. In the North Eastern corner a substantial part of the colonnade remains, with a wonderful scene of the Battle of Kadesh, fairly well preserved and, with an appropriate explanation, quite easy to understand. The colonnade is fronted by Osiride statues, whose vast proportions are disguised by being proportionate to the structure as a whole.
There are two objects of particular beauty in this courtyard. The first, and perhaps one of the most photographed features of the Ramesseum, even more so than the colossos, is the beautifully head of a statue of Ramesses II, displayed where it fell, on a small plinth. The second is a reconstructed basalt feature which has a lovely traditional carving of the Pharaoh. Both depict him with the Nemes headdress, and both are subtly and finely carved in hard, beautifully finished stone, with attention to quality that it is often said is lacking in works ordered by Ramesses II. The Ramesseum, though perhaps in keeping with it’s creators taste for large scale monuments, does, however, tantalise in it’s remains, for it is clear that this was fully intended to be the crowning glory in Ramesses’ architectural legacy, and here quality appears to have been considered every bit as important as quantity.
The Western side of the second court has another surviving colonnade (again with Osiride statues), leading through into a hypostyle hall that gives the impression of a miniature Karnak. Like it’s more famous big brother, most of the roofing blocks have gone, leaving a procession of massive columns, mostly open to the sky, though here the Northern and Southern walls are also missing, giving the impression of a broad corridor rather than the hall it originally was. The Eastern wall features another battle scene, this one with a high degree of realism. Rather than the usual effortless smiting of the vile Asiatics, here we can see a real battle, with Egyptian soldiers shown fighting, and fighting hard, defending themselves against enemy onslaughts with their shields, and even taking casualties, whilst Ramesses charges the enemy in his chariot.
The Western wall features a procession of Ramesses’ sons, with their side-locks of youth. Sadly this scene is quite damaged, unlike the battle scene, though both lack the beautiful colours which are retained to a surprising degree on the columns. Despite the bird droppings and their exposure to the sun, many shades of reds, greens and blues can be seen, particularly around the capitals. It really is a most pleasant and unexpected surprise.
Beyond the Hypostyle hall is a smaller room with an intact roof which contains a 12 month calendar. It is believed to be something of a first, though, frustratingly, I have been unable to find any details concerning it, so am unable to provide any information as to exactly what makes it a first, or how to interpret it. Taking time to try and interpret it oneself is also difficult due to it’s height, and it’s position on the roof. Short of lying on the floor with a pair of opera binoculars, it is not the easiest carving to study in detail! Maybe next year I shall do just that, for I am determined to write about such a significant scene in my most beloved temple.
Beyond this bring you to the Western side of the last standing wall of the temple proper, the back of which (now open, originally a further chamber) contains scenes of a pilgrimage to Abydos and Ramesses before various deities, including Ra-Horakhty, to whom Ramesses dedicated several temples in Nubia. Although little colour remains in these scenes, the quality of the carving is good, and in the late afternoon in particular, as the sun allows shadows to return, the scenes are vivid and clear. Indeed, the late afternoon is perhaps the most beautiful time of all at this temple, and it is a lovely place to watch colour return after the bleaching sunshine of midday. In winter, it’s a lovely place to catch a sunset too, though sadly the temple closes too early to be able to spend a long, warm summer evening here.
This completes the most accessible of the standing remains of the temple. Beyond, to the North West lies the extensive and uniquely well preserved remains of the mud brick magazines, which with the barrel vaulted construction do a lot to dismiss the myth the common misconception that the arch was a Roman invention, and it’s use in Egypt goes back at least to the 3rd Dynasty.
The temple has one of the most pleasing, tranquil and reassuring atmospheres of any Egyptian site. Although it’s remains are often noted for the degree of destruction wrought upon them, it is still easy to loose oneself in the quiet shade of remains of the hypostyle hall, take in the beauty of the surroundings from the second peristyle court and relive the Battle of Kadesh upon it’s walls. As such it deserves far more time than the half or single hour devoted to it by the groups that make it this far, especially given the delightful Ramesseum Resthouse that lies next door, with it’s lush gardens and polite, quiet staff. Indeed, for those who dedicate a quiet day or half day to the site, it’s often possible, if you speak kindly to the site guards, to leave the temple to visit the resthouse, and then return on the same ticket. The owner of the resthouse is the grandson of one of the workers in Howard Carter’s team that excavated the tomb of Tutankhamun, and has a good number of photos of the personalities involved in the excavation, and some of the finds.
Overall, the Ramesseum is one of my favourite sites in all Egypt, for it’s beauty, tranquillity, welcoming, calm atmosphere. And, perhaps most of all, because it so defies the unfair and unkind words levied against it and it’s creator by a certain British poet.
Access: Easily accessible from Luxor via the National Ferry (LE1). From here walk to the main road out of town and hail a bus (25pt flat fare) heading to the SCA Ticket Office, where you can purchase tickets. From here either walk (approx. 15 to 20 min, fine in winter, but not summer as there is no shade or shelter on the road) or take another bus, again 25pt., heading toward Gurna Ta’rif. The Ramesseum is on the right hand side of the road, along with the Ramesseum Resthouse, opposite the surviving core of Old Gurna. Note that you MUST go to the ticket office first, as no tickets are sold at the site entrance. A taxi from the ferry should cost no more than LE10, and can be arranged for a one way trip, as there are many taxis plying the road outside the temple, so getting stranded is extremely unlikely. Prices given are for March 2008.
Tickets: From the SCA ticket office, LE25 for foreign non-student adults. If you wish to go tot he resthouse, speak to the staff at the ticket barrier, as it’s usually possible ot arrange with them to be allowed re-entry. Bring pens, small notes, or something similar.
Opening Hours: 7:00am – 5:00pm (6:00pm in summer)
Facilities: None at all on site. Next door Ramesseum Resthouse has full range of drinks and a selection of (mostly light) meals for reasonable prices. As such, it’s only really necessary to bring water.
Photography: No restrictions on private photography.