Research Hints That Ramses' Towering Colossus Is of Another King, Retouched


Americans marveled at the towering statue of Ramses II in an exhibit of artifacts from the mighty Pharaoh's reign, but now it appears that the colossus is a retouched image of someone else.

New research indicates that the statue was of a lesser-known Pharaoh who ruled 600 years before Ramses the Great was born. Experts say it became Ramses because he had his artisans retouch the face and inscribe his name.

They also say the ancients would have been worshiping both god-kings when they made offerings to the 24-foot statue of red granite, which weighs 47 tons.

No one doubted that the statue was of Ramses when, in 1987, it was pulled from its grave of mud and weeds in Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital.

So positive were promoters that it was given a royal send-off from the Mediterranean port of Alexandria. A band played the national anthem and boat sirens blared a 20-minute farewell salute.

With American help, the statue was restored at Memphis State University in Tennessee. Then it joined other Ramses artifacts already being exhibited to complete a hugely successful nationwide tour of U.S. museums.

First at Memphis, then in Denver, Boston, Charlotte, N.C., and Dallas, the colossus stole the show.

But it isn't Ramses, says art historian Hourig Sourouzian, who has spent years studying Ramses statues.

"It's Sesostris I," she said. "Ramses touched it up, made it more his style and put his name on it.

"Of course, when Ramses did this, the statue became Ramses. No problem. But when the ancients were giving gifts to the colossus, they were remembering not only Ramses, but Sesostris."

Sesostris I also was called "the Great" and died in 1926 BC He was a Pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom, while Ramses was of the New Kingdom, ruling for 67 years in the 13th Century BC.

Sourouzian said a major problem in identifying large Egyptian statues is that "Ramses had so many of them, and his name was so famous, that any oversized statue naturally was assumed to have been his."

Nevertheless, she said, "something disturbed me even then" when she first saw the colossus in the mud of Egypt.

"The next time I saw it was on exhibit" in Memphis, Tenn., she said. "It was beautifully restored, beautifully lighted, but when I took a deep look, I said, 'It's not Ramses.' "

Rita Freed, who led the restoration team for the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at Memphis State, said she first heard of the Sourouzian research a year ago.

"It's excellent. I think she's right," Freed said by telephone from the Boston Museum, where she now works.

"I didn't think anything about it until we brought the statue to Tennessee," she said. "Once we had it standing, I said, 'Gee, that looks Middle Kingdom,' but I must emphasize it's Ramses. His name is on it and we've done a wonderful job of saving a magnificent statue."

It is no secret that Ramses had a fondness for gigantic statues of himself. He erected them throughout Egypt.

Some depict him standing, some sitting. The largest, estimated to have stood 57 feet and weighed 1,000 tons, lies headless in his ruined mortuary temple, the Ramesseum.

Perhaps the most famous are the four seated statues at Abu Simbel, southern Egypt.

Sourouzian said she discovered Ramses the Great borrowed colossal statues in his customary grand style. She reported finding nine Sesostris I retreads.

Both Pharaohs had connections with Memphis, now Mit Rahina village, 17 miles south of Cairo. Memphis contained several colossi, including one of Ramses now in Cairo's Ramses Square.

Another of him remains at Mit Rahina, on display where it fell. A twin of the colossus that toured America, also a made-over Sesostris, is in pieces at the Mit Rahina outdoor museum, Sourouzian said.

Discovering what is or is not the Ramses look hasn't been easy for the Armenian-born scholar, who is a doctoral candidate at the Sorbonne in Paris and co-author of the official catalogue of Cairo's Egyptian Museum.

Relics of Ramses and his family are everywhere in Egypt. He had at least three queens and scores of lesser wives and is said to have fathered 167 children.

About 300 statues of Ramses have survived, and Sourouzian has used her artist's eye to examine them: clothing, expression, muscles, size of the legs, items in each hand, the crown.

Statues of Sesostris' era had one look, those of Ramses' another.

"In earlier times, statues showed fierceness because the Pharaohs were trying to show they could smite their enemies," Sourouzian said. "Ramses, who truly was great, could have portrayed himself on statues this way, but he preferred a faint smile, a gentleness.

"A Ramses statue has a sweet expression. He has massive legs and wears a longer kilt. He has a triangular or round face with almost almond-shaped eyes, looking down. He wears a uraeus on his crown," an ornamental cobra favored by New Kingdom Pharaohs.

The nine colossi that Ramses recycled are backed by stone slabs and have straight mouths, rectangular faces, thick cheeks and eyes staring straight ahead. The kilts are short.

Despite Sourouzian's research, the identity of the colossus scheduled to arrive home from America on Dec. 6 is not in question, said Egyptian antiquities official Zahi Hawass.

"When the statue is perched on its waiting pedestal in ancient Memphis, the name we'll put under it is Ramses II," he said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World