Egypt: Poetic license in the land of the fallen pharaohs

By Peter Calder

The Oxymandia Colossus, the fallen statue of Ramses II at the Ramesseum. Photo / Peter Calder
The Oxymandia Colossus, the fallen statue of Ramses II at the Ramesseum. Photo / Peter Calder

Egypt is a land of tombs and temples in various stages of disrepair, but none is more evocative than one of the most badly ruined - the toppled statue of Ramses II in his massive temple, the Ramesseum, between Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.

This Ramses, who bestrode the 13th century BC like a colossus, was fond of big sculptures. He was responsible for the main temple at Abu Simbel, which was moved in the 1960s to escape drowning in the lake created by the damming of the Nile.

Abu Simbel remains an awesome sight: it's easy to see how its seated figures, gazing sightlessly south, struck fear into the hearts of intending invaders. But the toppled statue at the Ramesseum, by contrast, is a potent symbol of the vanity of human ambition.

This statue prompted the English poet Shelley to pen his famous sonnet Ozymandias, in which he observes "on the sand / half sunk, a shattered visage".

Using the contrast between Ramses' boastful intentions and present-day condition to make his point, Shelley fancifully imagines that on the pedestal of the statue are written the words "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair" which makes him a better poet than an Egyptologist since no such words appear.

That's not the only evidence that Shelley, who never saw the statue he was writing about, had not been there.

The Ramesseum is on a small area of flat land between the Nile floodplain - the river's waters contributed much to its destruction - and steep hills.

But the poet concludes that "boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away".

Plainly he was not one to let the facts get in the way of a very good poem.

- Herald on Sunday

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