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Five Things of Note at the HMNS 'Ramses the Great' Exhibit

Betsy Denson

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Sculpture of Ramses the GreatPhoto by author

I'm a sucker for anything Egypt, so I was excited about "Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs" exhibit which is now at the Houston Museum of Natural Science through the end of May 2022. Ramses lived to age 90 and had 100 children. He ruled for more than 60 years. For this reason, Ramses is considered one of the greats and I wanted to know more.

The exhibit also encompassed more than Ramses' rule and there was much to learn about Egypt in the New Kingdom.

Here were five takeaways - although there are many.

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The mummy of Ramses II is at Cairo's National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.Egypt Today

1.) When you live a long time, you get a lot done

The mummy of Ramses II did not travel to Houston. Due to its fragile condition it does not travel anywhere anymore but resides at Cairo's National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. But you can tell by looking at it that Ramses was old when he died - around 90 years.

He became Prince Regent in his teens and took the throne in his 20s upon the death of his father Seti I. And then he ruled for 66 years. He outlived many of his sons who he had put in line for the throne. It was his 13th son who outlived his dad to become Pharaoh.

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Sculpture of Ramses II making an offering to the gods in a temple.Photo by author

After using his military might to secure Egypt's borders, and also add a little to it, Ramses embarked on a big building campaign. There were tombs for his family, temples for the gods and monuments to him everywhere. Some of these artifacts are in the museum while others, like the Abu Simbel, a massive temple in Southern Egypt, were recreated in miniature for the exhibit.

His tomb in the Valley of the Kings was no doubt amazing, but it was looted and his body ended up elsewhere in a wooden coffin.

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Queen Nefertari Playing SenetThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

2.) Ramses really loved wife #1

It is not known if Ramses married Nefertari first but she was definitely first in his heart - and his Great Royal Wife, even though it's estimated he had around 200 wives and concubines. Nefertari looms large in the exhibit - she adorned the walls of tombs and her likeness was carved on statues and stellas (stone slab or columns).

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Queen Nefertari being led by Isis, art on tomb wallWikiPhotos

Ramses gave his favored wife her own temple at Abu Simbel and an extravagant tomb in the Valley of the Queens, near Thebes. It was also robbed, and Nefertari's mummy was never found, but at HMNS they've recreated it. Historians think that a red granite sarcophagus containing the queen's mummy sat at the center of the original tomb, which was brightly colored and contained scenes from The Book of the Dead on its walls.

Queen Nefertari lived 25 years into her husband's reign which meant that he had to live a long time without her. But maybe having her likeness all around was a comfort. Plus the 199 other wives.

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Gold toe stalls (gold jewelry used to protect digits during burial)Photo by author

3.) No expense was spared, in this life and the next

The full title of the exhibit is also called "Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs," and there is plenty of gold to go around.

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Death mask in goldPhoto by author

Whether it is a funerary mask or toe stalls for the dead or intricate jewelry for the living, the exhibit offers a number of examples.

Archaeologists think that the gold came from mines along the Nile River, with some mines located as far away as present day Sudan. Ramses' military campaigns made the country prosperous and rulers lived large because of it.

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A mummified lion cubPhoto by author

4.) Humans weren't the only things mummified

I was surprised to find a lot of animal mummies - and not just dogs and cats. There was a mummified mongoose in the exhibit as well as a lion cub. The estimate is that there are 70 million animal mummies across Egypt.

A video by Egyptologist Salima Ikram explains that while some people wanted their pets in the afterlife, most of the mummified animals were sacrifices to the gods. Certain animals were seen as physical manifestations of specific Egyptian gods.

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Cat sarcophagusPhoto by author

An ibis was Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and wisdom, because of its pen like beak. The cat was the animal for Bastet, the goddess of pleasure and fertility. Sobek, the god of strength and power, was the crocodile. Anubis, who controlled the afterlife, was represented by the dog.

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Granite sarcophagusPhoto by author

5.) Egyptian rulers weren't afraid to recycle

During Ramses II reign, he could afford to have a lot of new things created. After he died, this wasn't always the case. I wish I had taken a photo of the plaque by the sarcophagus above to know the name of the ruler (or priest) who reused the sarcophagus of one of Ramses' sons. It said that the person would consider it an honor to be associated with such a great ruler in this way.

In the The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Steve Vinson said that the much later Ramesses VI even kicked Ramesses V out of his tomb. The predecessor was relocated to a smaller space.

In the same vein, pharaohs would carve over the names and likenesses of previous rulers to put their own stamp on history.

Thank goodness for the archaeologists who still work to sort out and interpret Egyptian history for a modern audience.

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