One of the most famous busts in the British Museum is this one of the Egyptian king, who had to overcome an obstacle course from Egypt to Great Britain.
The British Museum proudly displays a colossal bust of Pharaoh Ramesses II (2.67 m high, 7.25 tons in weight), with which Egypt lived a golden age.
The piece, nicknamed “the young Memnon”, is one of the masterpieces of the institution. However, the story of how he came to London is less well known .
Pharaoh Ramses II (13th century BC), who knew how to express his absolute power through monumental and propagandistic art, erected buildings throughout the entire Nile Valley.
His monuments include his funerary temple, on the western shore of Thebes, known today as ramesseum. It dates from his early years of rule, and was meant to honor his memory as a victorious and divine king.
The primacy of its clergy made the ramesseum become both a religious and an economic nucleus. In its walled enclosure there were courtyards, administrative buildings (such as accounting centers for the scribes), warehouses for the grain of the entire region … The temple was so powerful that it even remained active after the death of the pharaoh.
Due to the neglect of the place, and with the abandonment of the hieroglyphic writing, the identity of the enormous statues was lost.
The Hellenic historian Diodorus of Sicily, in the 1st century BC, thought that the temple was the tomb of Ozymandias (deformed transcription in Greek of Usermaatra, one of the names of Ramses II).
Later, Strabo mistakenly associating it with the nearby temple of Amenhotep III (whom the Greeks also called Memnon).
Over time, the colossi suffered serious damage. It is believed that when the Danish traveler Frederic L. Norden (1708-42) drew them, the one we describe was still in one piece.
However, Napoleon found both already fragmented in his 1798 campaign, with their heads on the ground. Even so, Bonaparte and the scholars who accompanied him were captivated by the majesty of the place.
The French perpetuated the errors of the Hellenic historians by giving it the name Memnonium. Then, much to their regret, they had to give up the idea of taking either of those two magnificent heads with them. They couldn’t transport them, although it was a matter of time before someone would be able to.
The one who would become known as the young Memnon was the head of the statue located on the south side.
The British Museum chose it because the one in the north was more deteriorated. It stood out for its light gray color, which progressively reddened towards the head, which is associated with the power of the Egyptian solar god, Ra, with whom the pharaoh was identified.
Both colossi were sculpted in granite extracted from the quarries of Aswan, in southern Egypt.
Giovanni Battista Belzoni
Napoleon’s expedition brought Pharaonic civilization to light, but it also opened the ban on the antiquities trade.
The most important museums in Europe were nourished by the pieces found in excavations or bought from the locals. In this lucrative business for all, consuls played an essential role , acting as agents for institutions and collectors.
Bernardino Drovetti would work on the French side, and Henry Salt on the English side, which fueled the legendary rivalry between the Louvre and the British Museum.
Those were times of questionable morals, from an archaeological point of view. Discipline was confused with business, pillage, and adventure.
Egypt welcomed many curious characters who sought fortune and glory. Among them was Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823), a lover of challenges without much scruples. His ingenuity and cunning made him famous, and for his works he is considered, regardless of his original intentions, one of the pioneers of Egyptology.
Belzoni was born in Padua into a Roman family, although he soon left Italy. In 1803 he moved to London, where he made a living working in the circus. He devised a number (“the human pyramid”) in which, using a metallic device, he held several men suspended in the air. That, together with his height and extraordinary strength, earned him the nickname “The Titan of Padua.”
In the following decade he passed through Portugal and Spain, before moving to Malta in 1814. There he met an agent of the Pasha of Egypt, Mohamed Ali, and offered to work for his government.
Thanks to his knowledge of hydraulic engineering, he became another of the Europeans recruited by the Egyptian leader, determined to modernize the country. Belzoni had to create a machine to improve the irrigation of the fields .
In two years the contraption was ready, but the opposition of the Mohamed Ali government boycotted it. It was not in their interests that this new initiative of the monarch was successful. Belzoni had to find another job.
It was then that he met Henry Salt, newly released in his mandate as consul general in Egypt, and when he made his foray into archeology, of which he had no training.
Better skill …
The bust of Ramses II was too tempting a piece. It only took a museum to pay for its transport, and Salt, who saw Belzoni as the perfect ally, received funding from the British Museum.
The Italian volunteered to do the job, but given the region’s limited means, he was going to need more than money to carry out his mission. In addition, he had to hurry: if he did not start immediately, the rising waters of the Nile, which takes place in summer, would delay the campaign for a year.
The transfer began in July 1816. Belzoni raised the stone mass using elevators and ropes made from palm leaves. Once raised, he placed it on a wooden structure that would slide on logs.
A group of men towed the structure using ropes, while others re-positioned the logs as the group advanced, very slowly. The piece was so large that, to remove it from the temple grounds, Belzoni had to destroy part of the bases of two columns.
Diplomatic obstacles were no less difficult to overcome. Belzoni had the necessary signatures (the pasha’s authorizations), but the local authorities, far from the central power of Cairo, did not always obey orders.
The corruption that existed allowed the French consul Drovetti, Salt’s arch enemy, to put all kinds of obstacles to the Belzoni’s mission. Every time he needed men, permits or materials, he faced a sea of problems.
Even so, young Memnon reached the bank of the Nile in August. There, again Drovetti made sure that Belzoni did not find a boat available for the river transfer, so Belzoni asked Salt to send him one from Cairo. It never arrived, probably because it had been requisitioned, again, by some bribed official under Drovetti’s orders.
Belzoni did not sit idly by. While waiting for his ship, he took the opportunity to travel to other temples and collect new pieces.
Finally, seeing that no ship arrived, he managed to rent one and embark the colossus on November 17.
He did it using a kind of bridge that allowed him to place the piece directly in the center of the boat, preventing it from destabilizing with the weight.
From there he sailed for the port of Rosetta. Salt and the agents of the English consulate would take care of continuing the transfer to Alexandria and, from there, to England.
The bust arrived in London in 1818. The exhibition of the colossus was an event. The experts surrendered to Egyptian art, and for the general public, already in love with Egyptomania by the stories of various authors and artists, the young Memnon became the face of Egypt, embodying perfectly the history of an entire civilization.
The true identity of the statue was revealed four years later, when the French philologist Jean-François Champollion managed to decipher the hieroglyphic writing. It was known then that it was not the representation of Memnon (Amenhotep III), but of Ramses II the Great, the pharaoh who, with his conquest of London, had found another way to regain his popularity.
Source: Historia y Vida