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Ramesseum: Ancient Funerary Temple

Ramesseum: Ancient Funerary Temple

The Ramesseum is a monumental funerary temple honouring Ramses II or Ramses the Great. It was commissioned to serve the king’s mortuary cult after Ramses’ death and was also consecrated to Amun the king of Egypt’s gods. Known to ancient Egyptians as the “House of millions of years of Usermaatre setepenra that unites with Thebes the city in the domain of Amun,” it was The Ramesseum by Champollion in 1829.

The Ramesseum complex covers a sprawling site 210 long by 178 meters wide. The complex follows the traditional Egyptian temple design by being aligned north-west and south-east. However, it departs from the usual Egyptian design practice by adopting a parallelogram outline in place of the usual rectangular form. This change in design enabled a shrine to Tuya Ramses’ mother and Nefertari his wife, which pre-dated The Ramesseum’s construction to be included within the sweep of the complex. The revised design also had to retain the orthodox orientation of its pylons towards the Nile.

Facts About The Ramesseum

  • Once a magnificent funerary temple honouring Ramses II’s reign (c. 1279-1213 BC)
  • Set in Upper Egypt in Thebes on the Nile River’s western bank
  • Famous for its now ruined monumental statue of Ramesses II transported 170 miles overland to the Ramesseum.
  • The temple is decorated with reliefs featuring scenes from Ramses II being crowned by Sekhmet, scenes showing Amon-Ra and Khonsu, the famous Battle of Kadesh, the Sieges of Tunip and Dapur and prayers to Ra-Harakty and Ptah

Innovative Architectural Design

The Ramesseum was the first known example where ancient Egyptian architects substituted stone pylons or gateways in place of the previous mudbrick design. Two courtyards together with a hypostyle hall lie beyond the twin pylons. After the hypostyle hall sits the inner sanctuary.

Ramses’ two most skilful architects, Amenemone of Abydos and Penre of Coptos were responsible for planning and supervising construction, which required approximately twenty years to complete.

Scenes depicting Ramses devotion to Egypt’s panoply of gods and his many military victories decorate The Ramesseum’s outer walls and pylons. One spectacular relief shows Ramses pillaging Shalem a town believed by archeologists to be modern-day Jerusalem during his eighth year on the throne. The most notable inscriptions depict images of the Battle of Kadesh, perhaps Ramses most famous campaign against the Hittite kingdom.

The second pylon is inscribed with a list of Egypt’s kings, albeit one that has several omissions compared to the list at Abydos attributed to Ramses’ father.

An Engineering Marvel

Once a monumental statue of Ramses carved from a granite monolith quarried at Aswan dominated the initial courtyard. Originally, it is estimated to have towered approximately 20 meters into the sky and weighed in at roughly 1,000 tons. This would make it perhaps the biggest monolithic ancient sculpture ever raised. Even transporting the stone to its current site would have posed logistical nightmares. Deservedly, the original statue enjoyed a distinguished name, “Ramses, the Sun of Foreign Sovereigns.”

Scores of devotional stelae were excavated nearby recounting heartfelt prayers by the ancient Egyptian faithful hoping to solicit their king’s magnanimity. On its north side, a line of columns outlined the inner courtyard, while the south wall featured a colonnaded portico.

Decorative Themes

On the north wall of the badly damaged second pylon are scenes illustrating the Festival of Min and the Battle of Kadesh. Originally, a colonnaded portico surrounded the courtyard on three sides, with its western and eastern walls holding images of Osiris and statues of the King.

Several colossi were also once erected in this courtyard. The upper remnant of one colossus, the “Younger Memmnon,” is currently housed in the British Museum.

Forty-eight elegant papyrus columns formerly supported the roof over the temple’s hypostyle hall. These symbolised the primordial swamp from whence the ancient Egyptians believed land emerged. Clerestory windows once allowed natural light to illuminate the hypostyle hall.

Images of Ramses appearing before the gods decorate the western wall. There are also scenes of a royal procession by Ramses’ sons and daughters. Each column is also decorated with scenes of Ramses appearing in the presence of the gods. Even today, faint traces of their blue and gold paint used to outline a stellar ceiling remain visible. The eastern walls are decorated with images showing triumphant military campaigns, such as an attack on Dapur a formidable Hittite fortress.

The “Hall of Barques,” is an astronomical room is located beyond the hypostyle hall. Images depicting the Festival of the Beautiful Feast of the Valley decorate the hall. An astronomical ceiling captures the night sky’s decans and its constellations and. After the astronomical room sits the “Hall of the Litanies” another hypostyle hall. It is adorned with scenes depicting ritual offering dedicated to Ra-Horakhty the sun god and Ptah Egypt’s creator-underworld god. Set to the rear of this area is an eight-columned room, another four-columned room, was once home to the barque of the God, together with the Sanctuary of Amun.

Sadly, the temple here is heavily damaged. However, Egyptologists suggest the rooms flanking the Sanctuary were chapels dedicated to Egypt’s solar cult and the Royal Cult.

Sprawling administrative buildings and grain storage facilities surround the Ramesseum complex. Unfortunately, later generations pillaged many of these building for stone. Estimates suggest the granaries and storerooms together could feed up to 20,000 people for as long as a year. It is speculated that a sacred lake was probably included somewhere in the sprawling design, but its location has yet to be identified.

A Source Of Inspiration And Fascination

The Ramesseum complex has fascinated Egyptologists and historians following its rediscovery during Napoleon’s 1798 Egyptian campaign. The engineers surveying the site for Napoleon nicknamed it the Tomb of Ozymandias. The smashed monolithic statue of Ramesses, which dominated the temple’s main courtyard, provided the inspiration for Shelly to write his famous sonnet Ozymandias.

Reflecting On The Past

While the inexorable passage of three millennia has not been kind to The Ramesseum, ever since Champollion visited its ruins in 1829 and recognized the hieroglyphs proclaiming Ramses’ names and titles on its walls, it has inspired generations of artists, poets and archaeologists.

Header image courtesy: Steve F-E-Cameron [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons