Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Ramesses II (& Belzoni too)

I’ve wondered how I should start this series. I initially thought that I might leave my very favourite piece to last, but instead I felt that it should be true to how I actually interact with London museums – when I’m in the city I always head for the British Museum first and, within that marvelous complex, I first go see my old friend Ramesses II.

This upper portion of a colossal statue is one of a pair from the mortuary temple of Ramesses II in western Thebes, known as the ‘Ramesseum’. The stone for this piece was quarried as a single 20-ton block, far to the south in Aswan and transported here by river. Ramesses is a fascinating character – long lived and a prodigious builder – and, true, some of that is what attracts me to this piece. I love the statue’s serene look, coolly surveying the throngs that come to the museum every day to see him. Even after all these years, I’m still moved by Shelly’s (and, to a lesser extent, Horace Smith’s) ‘Ozymandias’. However, what attracts me time and again to this statue is the interplay between this great Royal and the man who brought him here - Giovanni Battista Belzoni. Belzoni was just as fascinating as Ramesses, but in a wholly different way. He started as a circus strong man, eventually becoming an explorer and an important early archaeologist and Egyptologist. He’s remembered for his discovery of the tomb of Seti I, clearing the entrance to Ramesses temple at Abu Simbel, and his entry of the Khafre’s pyramid at Giga. He also managed to transport this statue fragment (weighing about 6 tons) back to England and flog it to the British Museum.

One way or another, Ramesses II spends his days casually surveying the museum visitors, probably trying to ignore the large drill hole in his chest – put there by some French blokes, intent on using dynamite to make the statue easier to transport …

Belzoni also brought back the magnificent sarcophagus of King Seti I that now languishes in the basement of Sir John Soane's Museum. However, every time I’ve been to see the sarcophagus, it has either been off limits through renovation, cleaning, or simply that they had insufficient members of staff to open that area of the house. Even still, they don’t allow photography … not like I’m bitter or anything!

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