“What made Ramesses II great?” asked the new child-friendly item label in the British Museum gallery of Egyptian sculpture.
The answer, according to the label, is that he was a great self-publicist. Well that’s a hard allegation to deny for the man who at one site alone – the rock-cut temple of Abu Simbel – had four colossal statues of himself carved, each over 60 feet high. And it was certainly something that struck a chord with the consummate showman Belzoni who brought the famous bust of the king from his shattered temple in Thebes to the Museum in the early 19th century. De Quincey, who viewed the bust soon after its installation, saw in the features “the breathlessness which belongs to a saintly trance” and recognized the look in the eyes as the personification of opium reverie. For my own part, when I saw the work for the first time as an adult in 2005 I was struck by both the great feat of engineering by which Belzoni had moved the piece to its present place and the great, noble, eternal work of art that it is.
Every time I have looked up at his face since then I just can’t keep my eyes from meeting those of this man who, following a reign of more than sixty years, died over three thousand years ago. But when I saw him most recently – two days ago – his calm look at me across the mass of tourists who crowded the Egyptian galleries brought to mind a single thought. He was a great bloke.