By Christian Leblanc
One of the most significant sites from antiquity in western Thebes is the Ramesseum, the funerary temple of Ramses II—a site admired since ancient times and celebrated in Percy Shelley's famous poem "Ozymandias." Since 1991, the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt (SCA), the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), and the Association pour la Sauvegarde du Ramesseum (based in Paris) have collaborated on the exploration and conservation of the Ramesseum. Our knowledge of the functioning of this great royal establishment of the New Kingdom in thirteenth-century BC has been enhanced by the systematic excavation undertaken in the ceremonial portions of the building and in its vast mudbrick economic and administrative complex. These investigations have not only provided better understanding of the peripheral layout of the temple but also clarified the long history of the site, since discoveries of tombs or funerary chapels dating back to the Middle Kingdom confirm the occupation of this space long before the memorial to Ramses II.
Like other West Bank sites, the Ramesseum faces a number of threats. A raised and widened asphalt road cuts the temple off from its panoramic cultural and natural landscape. The encroaching agricultural fields and resulting high water table are a continuing problem, as is the uncontrolled rural development in proximity to the archaeological sites. The solution to these problems must be part of a greater plan for the whole West Bank that takes into consideration both cultural and socioeconomic factors.
Within the precincts of the Ramesseum itself—and in tandem with archaeological investigations—the work of presentation, restoration, and protection of this prestigious complex has progressed systematically. Protection of the site's monumental first pylon (i.e., gateway) is currently the subject of study and analysis by the SCA and the California-based Institute for Study and Implementation of Graphical Heritage Techniques (INSIGHT). The portico, blocked up in 1991 to prevent collapse, requires a large-scale intervention that will span many years. A drain installed in the agricultural fields that encroach upon the temple precinct now transports water away from the temple—which suffers from the rising water table—and should permit a progressive drying of the structure as early as 2009. After this operation achieves its results, we will be able to plan the clearing of the length of the pylon in order to study the state of preservation of the courses still hidden under centuries of alluvium.
The dismantling to which the temple proper was subjected to in the distant past—particularly during the Ptolemaic and Roman epochs—as well as the destruction suffered subsequently make it difficult for the visitor to understand the layout of this edifice. To improve the legibility of the temple’s layout, a number of interventions were undertaken, particularly in the second courtyard. There the walls and bases of pillars and columns were restituted with a slight elevation to suggest a built structure whose foundation was preserved but whose superstructure is no longer extant. Similarly, two staircases that provide access to the large hypostyle hall were also rebuilt, and the ancient pavers of certain floors—ripped up long ago—were replaced.
Other operations involve restoration or conservation of temple elements. Greater legibility of the scenes depicted in the temple and increased stability of the structure were achieved through a program of cleaning the columns of the large hypostyle hall, uncovering the preserved colors hidden by centuries of dust, and grouting pillars and walls. The fragile and often deteriorated mudbrick structures within the complex—occasionally subject to torrential rains—also required protection. Under the circumstances, the most appropriate solution was to cover the ancient walls with courses of modern bricks made of the same material as the original bricks—and indicating the additional height by a slight protrusion. To ensure the aesthetics of this protection, it was preferable to follow the structural shape of the wall ruins rather than make the restoration too rigid by imposing a uniform elevation. The work done in the temple’s kitchen and bakery areas, as well as in the school for scribes (only recently identified), demonstrates that satisfactory results are possible—with the advantage that they are reversible.
Following a combined approach of protection and presentation of the site, many colossal statues conserved in situ were placed on bases, and a signage project is being developed to help turn the Ramesseum into a true site museum. To make the Ramesseum more coherent for visitors, a new entry to the site (established in 2004) permits direct access into the first courtyard and then flows more logically through the temple spaces to the now-excavated sanctuary, whose plan is being developed. Consideration should be given to the enormous colossus of Ramses II, which was shattered through human action during the first centuries of Christianity. If its reinstatement remains a questionable option for ethical and aesthetic reasons, it nevertheless would be worthwhile to find an appropriate solution to prevent its further deterioration. One possibility is to situate the colossus on a protective layer after moving it a few meters, while retaining its current orientation to the ground; in this way, the “Ozymandias” of Shelley will finally be protected. At the same time, its relocation would free the axial passage leading from the first to the second courtyard and offer visitors an exceptional perspective of the large hypostyle hall.
Finally, to enhance the presentation of the temple for the increasing numbers of visiting schoolchildren, an illustrated, bilingual (French/Arabic) educational pamphlet is distributed free of charge at the site entrance. Funded with the support of a Franco-Egyptian bank (NSGB), it allows young people to learn about their history while encouraging respect for efforts expended in service of cultural heritage.
Christian Leblanc is director of the French Archaeological Mission of Western Thebes (MAFTO), which is a program of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (UMR 171-CNRS).