Ozymandias, c. 1303 BC –1213 BC; Colossal Wreck

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Ozymandias, Ozymandias-  wait, don’t tell me. Dusty fellow, immortalized by Shelley. Big broken statue of some sort? “Legless legs of stone,” something, something.  Curious sort of name, at any rate.  Obviously not Roman. Not Greek.  Something middle eastern, though. Mesopotamia, maybe, or one of the other dry places.  Sumerian?  Babylonian?

Nope, give up, haven’t got a clue. Who was he?

It’s a trick question, and the picture is a giveaway.  Ozymandias is a Greek transliteration of Ramesses, and the fellow in question is Ramesses II, third Pharoah of the Nineteenth Dynasty of the Egyptian New Kingdom.  Which sounds like a yawn in the same way that referring to a fellow named Lincoln was the 16th president of the American Republic Dynasty.  But as with Lincoln, there’s more to the story.

Bear in mind, of course, that the story is largely official records carved in the side of large structures (Ramesses threw up a large number of large structures) and gives us stories of his early days fighting in Asia Minor, in ridding the Mediterranean of pirates,* and, most notably, in defeating the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh.

It was a famous victory to be sure, the largest chariot battle ever fought, and rightfully studied by military historians;  Ramesses himself led from in front and at one point found himself cut off from his troops with nothing but his wits and bravery to get him out.  Many died, but he came back and won the day for Egypt.

He didn’t exactly win Kadesh itself, the enemy still held that at the end of the day, and the Hittite cuneiform version of the battle makes it out as not quite so one- sided or striking as the hieroglyphs do.   In any event, the next chapter was the peace treaty between the two empires, still extant, and the oldest of its kind on record.  A closer reading of the text suggests that the signatories were more concerned less with each other than with the threat of third parties menacing their borders,  parties like the sea people.

We read of Ramesses turning his attention west to Libya and south to Nubia, but without expanding the borders all that much.  Indeed, at about this time we see defense walls going up near some frontier cities, a thing superfluous to a truly powerful nation.  Rather ominous, really.

But these were just the first whispers of later trouble, easily brushed aside, especially by a man like Ramasses.   For Ramesses’ subjects – he had over sixty years to rule over them – the obvious changers were in the landscape, those statues he made of himself,  carved sometimes into the rock.   When, in his thirtieth year of ruling he was promoted to a living god, he wanted buildings to take note of it. Among the most notable are those at the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, where Ramesses sits next to his fellow gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty, and Ptah (that’s Ramesses on the right).  When his masons were too slow, he cut time by having them put his cartouche in the place of other men’s and so appropriated whatever glory other men might have had.

In his defense – or at least, as a way of explaining this megalomaniac behavior  – we should note that he had the pyramids, already 1,5oo years old by his time, to live up to.  Hard act to follow, the pyramids.  Perhaps this is why he uprooted the capital and moved it upriver to Thebes, far beyond the sight of – the pyramids

He did some extraordinary work, much of it still with us.  In Thebes he built the many columned Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, as well as the temple complex of the Ramesseum near Luxor.  As the decades of his ever lengthening reign dragged on (the man was king for over sixty years), quantity and size was winning out of quality, and much there has since been re-cyled, which makes its former magnificence some imagination to conjure up.

But the end was in the cards.  Those outsiders, the threat to his world, carried new fangled bronze, and even iron weapons.  His son Ramsesses III was the last Pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty. No poems for him.

Which gets us back to Shelley.   What exactly was the inspiration for the poem?   As we have seen, there was much to choose from, but the standard assumption was it was the sixty foot colossus at Ramesseum,

Surprisingly, his mummy has survived. You can see it at the Cairo museum.  Men trembled at this man’s feet, yet now he looks more like Montgomery Burns on a bad day.  Well, nearly three thousand years underground will do that to you.

Still, dust or not,  it’s pretty impressive to be remembered even if vaguely after three millenia.  I’m willing to bet I won’t be.  I’d even put better than even money that Shelley won’t be.  (Mrs. Shelley – maybe, just maybe.)

One thought on “Ozymandias, c. 1303 BC –1213 BC; Colossal Wreck

  1. Pingback: Horace Smith, 1778-1849: Look on My Works, ye Mighty, and Despair | A History Blog by Bruce Ware Allen

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