Sydney Morning Herald Column

Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs

Published January 12, 2024
The sarcophagus of Ramses II

In Sydney this summer there is one exhibition drawing bigger attendances than all the other shows combined. Ramses & the Gold of the Pharoahs at the Australian Museum feeds on a fascination with ancient Egypt which hasn’t dimmed since 1988, when a previous blockbuster named Gold of the Pharoahs was shown in Brisbane, Perth, Sydney and Melbourne. It reputedly attracted a million visitors, which represented 6% of Australia’s population.

Abu Simbel, arguably Ramses’s greatest hit

To replicate that achievement today would require 1.6 million visitors, which is hardly likely, even allowing for a lengthy season. Nevertheless, with pre-sales exceeding 100,000 the AM is confident it has a winner. It continues a run of success this underrated institution has enjoyed over the past decade under Kim McKay’s eminently practical leadership.

As funds have become available the museum has undertaken a series of important renovations, proceeding one step at a time. Look, for instance at the new Minerals gallery, which deserves to be a major attraction.

One may sneer at crowd-pleasing exhibitions on dinosaurs or ancient Egypt, but it’s worth remembering that the AM is also a centre of scientific research – something that can’t be said about the art museums. There’s nothing wrong with courting popularity when the money goes towards such useful ends.

Queen Tuya’s statue

It would be foolish to under-estimate the appeal of so-called ‘artefact’ shows such as Ramses. The AGNSW has rarely had bigger attendances than for Gold of the Pharoahs or the Entombed Warriors of 1982. The first book I ever bought was on Tutankhamun, and I’ve never outgrown my interest in ancient Egypt. In these days when so much of our experience is mediated by a digital screen, it’s thrilling to see objects that are more than two thousand years old – relics of a civilisation that commands a permanent niche in our popular culture.

Nothing brings history alive more powerfully than a face-to-face confrontation with those relics of the past, which was probably director, Ridley Scott’s thought when he included a scene in Napoleon of Bonaparte staring into the face of a mummy with a striking resemblance to Ramses.

Statue of Ramses kneeling and offering a rebus

Ramses the Great, King of Kings, is a figure who bears comparison to Napoleon, and to every famous autocrat, from Alexander the Great to Mao Zedong. The stats alone tell a story. He lived to the age of 90, at a time when average life expectancy was less than 30. He ruled for 65 years from 1279-1213 BCE, fathered more than a hundred children, and would outlive twelve potential heirs to the throne.

After a turbulent beginning, Ramses’s long reign became an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity – a Golden Age that his successors tried in vain to recapture. He was also the greatest builder since Khufu (c. 2589-2566 BCE), who comissioned the Great Pyramid. Among thousands of temples, monuments and statues spread across Egypt and its client states, Ramses’s most famous achievements were the temple of Abu Simbel, the Ramesseum near Luxor, the renovated temples at Thebes, and a new capital city, Piramesse. The latter has vanished, but the others, especially the gigantic figures at Abu Simbel, are among Egypt’s leading tourist magnets.

Goldem mask of Wenbauendjed

The AM exhibition strives to do justice to Ramses II’s life and works, with sections devoted to these monuments although it’s difficult to convey a feeling of scale, or the sense of awe inspired by such gigantic feats.

Like Napoleon, Ramses was a master of propaganda who turned every skirmish on the battlefield into a triumph. The defining conflict of his life took place in 1274 BCE, only five years into his reign, when he allegedly fought off massively superior Hittite forces singlehandedly. The battle of Kadesh, as it became known, would be celebrated on the walls of temples and tombs forever after. No viewer could have ever imagined the encounter was nothing better than a stalemate in which the Egyptians failed to achieve their objectives.

Collar of Sithathormerit

Ramses’s longevity and his mania for monuments ensured that he would be remembered long after his actual name had become confused and corrupted. In the 5th century BCE Herodotus spoke about the great king, Rhampsinitus. In 1818 Shelley took him as the model for Ozymandias, in his classic sonnet of that name. Ramses was widely believed to be the Pharaoh who “hardened his heart” against the Israelites in the Book of Exodus.

The show draws on Egypt’s national collections of antiquities and has been curated by Zahi Hawass, who has become a celebrity egyptologist through countless TV appearances. Hawass owes his popularity to his ability to communicate abstruse knowledge to the broadest popular audience, and the catalogue he has written for this exhibition is a kind of ‘everything-you-always-wanted-to-know’ about ancient Egypt.

Outer sarcophagus of Sennedjem

The show proceeds in similar fashion. It wasn’t possible to put together a display based solely on the era of Ramses II, so items relating to the Pharoah have been threaded through the display, along with representative pieces from other dynasties. There is, for instance, a seated stone statue of Ramses’s mother, Queen Tuya, and one of the young Ramses kneeling in worship. The major attraction is not Ramses’s mummy, which remains at home in Egypt, but the wooden sarcophagus in which his body was re-entombed when his original burial place was threatened by tomb robbers.

Such seminal pieces are complemented by roughly 180 other antiquities, large and small, ranging from the mummy of a scarab beetle to an imposing, elaborately decorated box that formed the outer coffin from the tomb of the artist, Sennedjem. It’s one of the pleasures of this show that it contains objects that make us rethink our conceptions of ancient Egypt. We find that Sennedjem, an artist who specialised in tomb decoration, was no mere tradesman but a figure with knowledge and social standing. Rather than cater solely to the royal family and the high priests, he was wealthy enough to invest in his own journey to the afterlife.

Ostracon of a cat herding geese

In the drawings and notes on limestone shards, called ostracons, we see the artists making preliminary sketches and even indulging in jokes. They couldn’t do this on paper because the papyrus used by the Egytians was far too expensive and difficult to make. In these drawings on stone we catch a glimpse of a personalities from 2,000 years ago. Perhaps the most vivid fragment is one that shows a cartoon cat standing upright and herding geese with a stick.

These objects are complemented by a multi-media presentation that includes large-scale videos and even a VR piece in which we meet Ramses’s favourite wife, Queen Nefertari, dressed in something by Issey Miyake, who takes us on a tour of her tomb, until interrupted by the roaring spirit of the Pharoah himself.

If it sounds as if there’s a lot of show business in this show, I can confirm those suspicions, but there’s also a wealth of scholarship and a brilliant array of artefacts, including enough golden jewellery to make one wonder if it was only hyperbole when ancient commentators said that in Egypt, gold was like dust.

Queen Nefertari’s tomb, still looking good after all these years

The only disappointing part of the whole package is the exhibition shop, which is stuffed with all the usual doodads and trinkets but doesn’t include a single noteworthy book apart from the catalogue. This is pretty disgraceful, considering the number of excellent, highly readable books published in recent years by authors such as Toby Wilkinson, Joyce Tyldesley and John Romer, to name only a few. When it came out in 2013, Wilkinson’s The Life and Death of Ancient Egypt, roared up the New York Times Bestseller List. Surely there are plenty of people eager to read a good book about figures such Ramses, Tutankhamun, Akhenaten, Nefertiti or Cleopatra.

Sarcophagus of Ramses II

With ancient Egypt on the school history cirriculum, and the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Cairo set to be the most important museum launch of the 21st century, there’s every reason for us to want to learn more about the land of the Pharoahs. Or indeed, about Ramses himself, who had one stroke of wisdom that shines down the centuries, when he signed the first-ever peace treaty between warring states, making allies out of his former enemies, the Hittites. In doing so he broke an age-old cycle of violence and laid the foundations for the ‘Golden Age’ that followed. Two thousand years later, with the Middle East still torn by hatred and bloodshed, it seems we’re very slow to learn our lessons.





Ramses & the Gold of the Pharoahs

Australian Museum, 18 November 2023 – 19 May 2024


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 January, 2024