National Geographic : 1991 Apr
JN THE YEAR 1279 B.C. the Sphinx, that great man-animal monu ment that stands near the ancient Egyptian capital ofMemphis, was already more than a thousand years old. A young warrior strides between its paws. He is dressed in regal garb, a ceremo nial wig concealing his close-cropped hair. His father, Pharaoh Seti I, has died. The warrior is not only the new pharaoh but also a god-descendant of the lion-bodied Sphinx itself. From his private shrine between the paws the pharaoh surveys the great stone face. The wind-driven sands of time have taken their toll, eroding its once sharp features. The base of the limestone statue is erod ing even more rapidly. The pharaoh is disturbed at the damage. The Sphinx, which he knows as Hor-em-aldhet, embodies the primal sun god Re as well as Horus, the god of kingship. It is from Hor-em-akhet that kings receive their authority to rule. And this king is not about to let that authority erode with the monument. He will order laborers to buttress the base with stones. Freshly cut stones, he will specify, not those scavenged, as was the custom, from some earlier pharaoh's monument. On a colossal statue that scholars now suspect stood between the paws, he orders workers to chisel in his throne name, User-maat-re - Strong-in-truth is-Re. And beside that inscription he com mands them to carve his personal name, Ramesse-or, to us, Ramses the Great. He will reign more than 60 years, sire at least 90 children, bring his empire pros perity and peace, build more colossal structures and have his name carved on more stone surfaces than any other pha raoh. He will be linked also with the Exodus of the Hebrews. More than 32 centuries later I stand on scaffolding that encases the face of the Sphinx. I reach out and touch the crumbling face. No sparks leap from the rock. But then I am no god. I have no ka, or divine spirit, to be recharged. I am what Ramses would have called a scribe - one trying to understand this man whose name symbolizes the gran deur and the great monuments of ancient Egypt. Our perception of Ramses has long been colored by the English Fitfor a pharaoh,agold poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He wrote his famous sonnet "Ozymandias" and lapislazuli bracelet after a magnificent bust of Ramses, found near a shattered colossus at found atBubastis was worn the pharaoh's funerary temple in Thebes, was shipped with great fanfare by Ramses 1 or one of his to the British Museum in 1817. The name Ozymandias came from a favorites. The ducks repre- Greek corruption of User-maat-re by the historian Diodorus, who sent offerings to thegods so described the fallen statue in antiquity. Shelley imagined Ramses as a that they would keep order symbol of tyramnny and unbridled egotism: in the world. ARTIFACTFROMTHE EGYPTIANMUSEUM, CAIRO; Halfsunk a shatteredvisage lies, whosefrown, PHOTOGRAPHED AT AN EXHIBITIONPRESENTED BY THE DALLASMUSEUMOF NATURALHISTORY And wrinkled lip, andsneer ofcold command, Tell thatits sculptorwell thesepassions read ... And on the pedestal,these words appear: My name is Ozymandias,King ofKings, Look on my Works, yeMighty, anddespair!