Archaeologists have found a statue buried in a Cairo slum that may depict the pharaoh Ramses II.
The discovery was made near the ruins of Ramses II’s temple in the ancient city of Heliopolis (whose surviving remnant is the obelisk of the Temple of Ra-Atum still standing in its original position in the eastern part of modern-day Cairo.)
Destroyed in Greco-Roman times, the Temple of Ra-Atum was one of the largest in Egypt, almost double the size of Luxor’s Karnak, and dedicated to the cult of the sun god Atum, who came to be identified with Ra and then Horus.
Ramses II – also known as Ramses the Great – ruled for 66 years from 1279 to 1213 BCE. Later Egyptians called him the “Great Ancestor”. His reign was marked by numerous military campaigns, most of them to take back territories lost to Egypt during the rule of previous pharaohs.
Ramses II’s most famous battle was at Kadesh, in present day Syria. Fought in 1274 BC against the Hittites, it is believed to have involved up to 6,000 charioteers. The young Ramses made a tactical error, leading to one of his divisions being destroyed, and while the Hittite army was ultimately forced to retreat, the Egyptians were unsuccessful in capturing Kadesh.
It used to be thought that the biblical Exodus took place during the reign of Ramses II. However, archaeological evidence does not support the historical authenticity of the Book of Exodus and the majority of modern biblical scholars believe it was given its final form long after the events it purports to describe.
On this reading, the Book of Exodus is simply a “charter myth” for Israel: the people were delivered from slavery by Yahweh and therefore belong to him by covenant. There is no indication that the Israelites ever lived in Ancient Egypt and even the Sinai Peninsula shows almost no sign of any occupation for the entire second millennium BCE.
Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” – which contains the line “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” – was written soon after the British Museum acquired one of two granite heads from Ramses’ mortuary temple in Thebes. Known as the Younger Memnon, the statue arrived in London in 1821, three years after Shelley published his poem in the Sunday newspaper The Examiner.
In antiquity, Ozymandias was the Greek name for Ramses II, who today lies in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, where he can be viewed up close and personal (closer than any of his subjects could have got) through a glass-topped case. If the statue unearthed at Heliopolis turns out to be him, it will not replace the frisson of gazing on a face whose “shattered visage” in Shelley’s poem displayed the Egyptian dictator’s “frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command”.