Temple of Rameses II
The Dynasty XIX temples of Rameses II are scattered throughout the whole of Egypt, but this, his mortuary temple on the West Bank of Thebes, is probably the most famous. It was Champollion who first gave it the commonly used name of ‘The Ramesseum’. It is situated on the east side of the road at Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna.
At one time the waters of the inundation must have reached almost to the temple’s east-facing first pylon and this has contributed to the collapsed condition of this structure we see today. It is still possible, however, to climb up the side of the pylon and stand on the top, which gives a good overview of the temple and the cultivated area towards the river. The outer face was originally carved with scenes of Rameses before various gods in the traditional style. The inner face has reliefs of the Battle of Kadesh, the pharaoh’s most famous battle against the Hittites, which includes a record of the year the battle was fought (year 5 of his reign).
The first court had two columned porticos, but now these are also in a derelict condition. The portico on the southern side led into a small palace which has now largely vanished. On the western side of the first court a gigantic seated colossus of Rameses II, once approximately 20m high, has fallen to the ground and now lies face down, in fragments. It was the romantic aspect of this massive granite statue which inspired the English poet Shelley to write his famous ‘Ozymandias’ in 1817, the name presumably taken from Rameses’ prenomen, Usermaatre.
Only the northern tower remains of the second pylon and here again the Battle of Kadesh is graphically depicted on its inner face, showing the king in his chariot with his tame lion, attacking the Syrian fort. The Chief of Aleppo is shown being rescued from the river below the fort. The register above represents scenes from the Festival of Min.
The second court is on a higher level than the first court and was also surrounded on each side by a portico of columns. In front of the second pylon a row of four Osirid pillars are decorated with scenes of Rameses offering to a variety of gods. The portico on the western side similarly has Osirid statues against its columns and the base of another colossal statue of the pharaoh on its southern side. There were originally a pair of colossi here but only the black granite head of the northern statue remains in the court today, set up in front of the ramps leading to the hypostyle hall. The rear wall of the portico shows the king offering to various deities and receiving Heb Sed symbols from the Theban Triad. Eleven princes, sons of Rameses, are also depicted on this wall.
Three doors lead into the hypostyle hall, its roof supported by 48 elegant papyrus columns which have recently been cleaned to show their original colours and decoration. On the entrance wall (east) of the hypostyle the reliefs once more show Rameses’ military exploits such as his victory in the Battle of Tunip and the capture of the city of Dapur in year 8 of his reign. The king’s mother Tuya, his wife Nefertari and some of his children are also depicted here. The wall on the western side of the hypostyle hall shows Rameses taking part in various ritual functions before the deities and many of his children are again depicted in the registers below.
The small chamber behind the hypostyle hall is known as the ‘Astronomical Hall’ and it was once suggested (by Gardiner) that this may have been a library. It is more likely that the room was a barque shrine as there are many scenes depicting barques of the Theban Triad, Rameses and Ahmose Nefertari carried by priests. These were episodes from the ‘Beautiful Feast of the Valley’. This chamber is famous for its astronomical ceiling which represents the constellations and 36 decans of the night sky. The king offers to the gods of the months in a lunar calendar around the edges. Presumably this celestial calendar would have been used to calculate the timings for the annual festivals. It was this ceiling that Rameses III copied in his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu.
A doorway from the astronomical hall leads to another small chamber called the ‘Hall of Litanies’ in which the king offers libations and incense to Re-Horakhty and Ptah. Offerings are also made to many other deities. On an architrave, three decans, five planets and nine kneeling gods associated with the northern constellations can be seen, with accompanying texts.
The area to the west of these chambers is now destroyed but would have contained the sanctuary, chapels and barque shrines usually associated with a mortuary temple of the New Kingdom. It was similar in style, but larger than the Qurna temple of Seti I, Rameses’ father, and many re-used blocks and fragments of statues from nearby temples were found here.
On the northern side and adjacent to the hypostyle hall is a small double-temple where foundation deposits of Seti I were found in situ. This temple, which was rebuilt by Rameses II appears to have been dedicated to his mother Tuya and his wife Nefertari. Although demolished in Dynasty XXIX when the blocks were re-used in Medinet Habu by the pharaoh Hakor, the bases of the pillars of this contiguous temple can still be seen. Near the north-western corner of the site, a chapel was dedicated to Meritamun, a daughter of Rameses II.
The temple buildings are surrounded by an array of mudbrick storehouses which surprisingly survive in good condition. It is suggested that a chapel of a scribal school was situated among these buildings. Many of these magazines still retain their vaulted ceilings and were probably ignored by those who later re-used the blocks from the stone walls. The whole temple complex is enclosed by a mudbrick wall.
The Ramesseum has been undergoing extensive excavation and restoration by teams of French and Egyptian archaeologists for the past few decades.
The Temple of Rameses II is open from 6.00am to 4.00pm in winter. Tickets should be bought from the West Bank ticket office and cost EGP 30.