The Ramesseum


If you want to know how an Egyptian  temple really worked, or indeed how a palace really worked, or indeed how Egyptian society really worked, the best place to look is the Ramesseum.

The best preserved feature of the Ramsesseum are statues which front the second court. They represent Osiris, the god of death with his arms crossed and carrying a crook and flail.

The Ramesseum is one of the biggest temples in Egypt.  It is situated in Thebes on the West Bank and it inspired Shelley to write one of his most famous poems: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert …  In the second, inner court is another pair of statues, the upper part of one of which is also trunkless because the head and chest has been carted off to the British Museum where it forms the prize exhibit in the Egyptian Gallery.  It is said that the statue cannot be moved because it is so heavy that it stands on a special plinth with its own solid foundations: there are store rooms under the rest of the gallery, and if the statue were to be moved, the floor would collapse. Enough said!

The huge scale of the great statue of Rameses can be seen from this gigantic hand, its size emphasised when my wife Wendy put her hand over the top of it

The Ramesseum is in fact the mortuary temple of Rameses II who was the last of the great pharaohs of Egypt.  Not the least reason for his greatness was that he reigned for no less than sixty six years, from 1269 – 1213 BC. He was the last great king of the New Kingdom and after him Egypt, and indeed most of the civilised world of the east Mediterranean gradually declined into the dark ages. He was both a great warrior and a great builder.  The great kings in the middle of the New Kingdom, Amenhotep III and Akhenaten, were great builders, but not great fighters, and their reigns were relatively peaceful.

Many of the walls of the Ramesseum are decorated with scenes from the battle  of Kadesh fought against the Hittites in 1274  BC. Here we see Rameses  standing in his chariot and firing his bow – photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Rameses began by campaigning to the north. He smote the Canaanites and largely conquered them, and took the boundaries of Egypt two thirds of the way up the coast of the east Mediterranean until he came up against the Hittites, who were expanding south from what is today Turkey.  At the battle of Kadesh in Syria in 1274 BC, they both won a great victory – or so they claimed, which probably means that the result was a draw.  Rameses left two accounts of it – one called the Poem, the other  the Bulletin, from which military historians can draw up an account of the battle: it is often claimed to be the first battle in the history of the world for which such a plan can be prepared.  At least two thousand chariots took part in it – which again is claimed as a world record of the greatest number of chariots that have ever taken part in a single battle.  But if the Hittites stood firm, the Canaanites in Palestine in the middle remained pacified for the rest of his reign.

He also campaigned to the south and smote the Nubians.  The Egyptian empire was extended to its furthest degree southwards and at Abu Simbel he built one of his greatest temples, which obtained great notoriety in the twentieth century when it was flooded by the building of the Aswan high dam and was moved bodily to a higher position above the lake, forming the first great UNESCO heritage campaign and leading to the decision to invent world heritage monuments.  Abu Simbel was the first – long live Rameses II.

He was also a great builder, leaving monuments up and down Egypt, and where he did not actually build a temple himself, he would have his cartouche, his signature carved on the  temple to make it appear that he was the builder.  Like Akhenaten, he also founded his own capital at Piramese in the delta, adjacent to Avaris which was the former capital of the Hyksos, the Canaanite invader kings of the Second Intermediate period.  He wanted a new capital in the north so that he could keep an eye on his conquests in what is today Palestine and southern Syria.  Piramese was both more and less successful than Amarna.  It was more successful in that it lasted longer, but being in the delta it has been covered by alluvium and subjected to heavy cultivation so that less of it survives (though modern techniques are revealing remarkable details of its plan).

Barry Kemp’s map of plan of the Ramesseum. Unlike most other plans, which simply show the Temple, Barry Kemp also emphasises that the storehouses and other facilities that surrounded the Temple were in total area much more extensive than the temple itself. The shaded portion to the top and to the right of the plan are the storehouses.

But the greatest monument of all was the Ramesseum –his huge mortuary temple at Thebes. In the front of it were the great statues that Shelley enthused over, with the huge hands still surviving to impress visitors.  Inside the temple however, to the left there is a ‘palace’ for the pharaoh, with a Window of Appearance facing onto the temple forecourt, where the pharaoh could appear and present gifts as tokens of his wealth and generosity to his people.

And behind it all – behind the temple and the palace, were huge and extensive storerooms.  Most of them appear to have been for grain, and had a hole in the roof through which sacks of corn could be poured.  Barry Kemp has calculated that to fill all the granaries would have taken 226,328 sacks of grain, which would have been enough to feed 3,400 families for a year, and assuming an average sized family, this  would mean 17,000 to 20,000 people.

Some of the huge granaries where the Pharaoh’s  wealth was stored. How far are these typical of all temples in Egypt?  Did they in fact exist, attached to most temples, but ignored by most excavators? Or is the Ramesseum rather exceptional in the extent of its storehouses?

“The major temples”, says Barry Kemp, “were like reserve banks. Grain was wealth and great stores of it were there for shipping around the country and even abroad for the realisation of grandiose royal schemes … The larger temples possessed their own merchant ships equipped with traders. Traders seemed to have been a regular component of temple staffs and bore the responsibility of exchanging grain for linen, or sesame oil, or papyrus rolls.” Gold was also acquired, for gold was used to acquire gods from abroad, and for building purposes.

This aerial photo by Steve Cameron in Wikipedia shows not only the size of the temple itself but also the huge extent of the storerooms and other buildings that surrounded it.

Here then the secret of success.  For the most successful of all the pharaohs,  the temple was essentially the front end of a huge system of storehouses and granaries, and within the temple was a palace where the pharaoh could make his appearance and display his lavish generosity. “Look on my works ye mighty, and despair” wrote Shelley.  But the real works that one should look at, are  not the temple but the storehouses,  for it is the storehouses that would make any commoner despair of ever being able to challenge or even approach the huge wealth and power of his beloved pharaoh.

To see how exchange worked among the ordinary members of society, let us take a look at the workmen’s village of Deir el-Medina where the workmen lived who built the tombs for the pharaohs,  and who left behind, written on broken sherds of pottery, the evidence of their everyday transactions.