REVIEW BY ANNA GARNETT
It is said ‘you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’, but in the case of this exciting new volume by Egyptologist Susanna Thomas, that advice should be disregarded. The contents of this book are just as eye-catching and engaging as the striking cover image. Here, the narrative is dedicated to the story of just one (very imposing) object: the colossal statue of Ramesses II, now installed in the atrium of the eagerly anticipated Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) at Giza. The object biography of such an iconic statue is inherently complex, but here the author presents each aspect of the statue’s history in clear, accessible, and richly illustrated chapters.
The first half of the book sets the scene and the contemporary ancient context of the Ramesses colossus up to its discovery in Memphis, in 1854, by the Armenian engineer Joseph Hekekyan. Here, readers learn about the creation and function of royal statues, temples, and statue cults, as well as gaining a useful general overview of the reign of Ramesses II, and the vast production of royal statuary during his reign. ‘Spotlight’ information boxes are a particularly welcome feature throughout the volume, providing space for the author to delve a little deeper into key related issues, including aspects of kingship. While we have only one object in focus here, these background chapters clearly illustrate how the creation of the colossus was one part of a much larger (and longer) process of royal statue production and cult statue worship during the New Kingdom. The specific geographical context of the statue in the northern capital of Memphis is also explored in detail, with a dedicated chapter on Memphis in the Ramesside Period, including a spotlight on the cult of the important Memphite god Ptah.
The second half of the book reconstructs the afterlife of the statue – its rediscovery, transfer to Cairo railway station in 1955, and subsequent move to the GEM in 2018 – explored within the social, political, and historical contexts of those key dates in the object biography of the colossus. There is far more to this statue than initially meets the eye: the traces of other characters in the decoration and inscription of the statue each play their own part in Ramesses’ story. Two of his children are depicted around the statue’s legs: Prince Khaemwaset and Princess Bintanath, whose stories and achievements are presented in this volume too. The colossus was subsequently altered by Ramesses IV, who added a further layer to its history through the addition of his own cartouches. Ultimately, this imposing statue is a monument to both ancient and modern displays of power, and its layered history continues to fascinate all those interested in royal monuments and in the long and prosperous reign of ‘Ramesses the Great’.
Beautifully illustrated throughout with colour images, maps, and line drawings, and with useful appendices including a timeline of the statue, a glossary, and a list of further reading, this volume is a must-read for general and scholarly readers alike. It is sure to be an essential guide for all future visitors to the GEM.
Ramesses loved by Ptah: The history of a colossal royal statue by Susanna Thomas AUC Press, 2023 ISBN 978-1-64903-185-3 PAPERBACK £19.95