Unearthed: The Secrets of the Man Who Ruled the World

Daily Mail (London), May 20, 1997 | Go to article overview

Unearthed: The Secrets of the Man Who Ruled the World


Byline: Julian Champkin

`AND it came to pass that at midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat upon his throne unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon . . .' (Exodus, xii 29)

THE Pharaoh in question was Rameses II and now the tomb of his first-born son has just been found. The discovery of the burial-place and the body of that son mentioned in the Bible as having been slain by God in the last of the great plagues of Egypt is astonishing.

It also brings to life one of the most extraordinary characters in the history of mankind - Ramses II.

The tomb, beside a tourist-road in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, must have been built by Ramases for his sons. It is a labyrinth, with a great hall of 16 pillars and five levels of underground corridors leading from it.

They lead towards the tombs of Rameses and his predecessor Tutankhamen with room after room off the sides. In each of those rooms, it is thought, a son or daughter of the Pharaoh lies buried.

There are at least 118 rooms - possibly 180. `That tomb is growing all the time,' says John Taylor, assistant keeper of antiquities at the British Museum, `as more and more rooms are discovered.' More and more rooms implies more and more children? `Quite so.'

Rameses II, legendary Pharaoh of all Egypt, had 100 or more children.

Certainly there were 50 sons, probably more, and no one bothered fully to record the daughters.

What kind of a man was this? Rameses was the Pharaoh's Pharaoh. It was not just his virility: the man's achievements are astonishing, in size and scale.

Physically he was impressive: psychologically, he was huge. He ruled all the known civilised world, his empire stretching from the Greek Islands to Palestine and south and west to the Sahara. Rameses' kingdom saw Egypt at the height of her power.

It was a confident place - foreign conquests - against the tribes of Palestine and the Hittites in Asia Minor - had brought prestige. Foreign trade with the Mediterranean and the East brought exotic goods, such as silks and perfumes.

Yet still society was based on tradition that hardly changed in 3,000 years. Authority was everything. Society was rigidly hierarchial, with the Pharoah at the top, and beneath him a bureaucracy of state civil servants responsible for all aspects of life - food, building and transport, which was based on the River Nile.

The construction projects - the obelisks and gateways of Karnak, the carvings at Luxor - were supervised by these people, with technical skill.

Their ancestors had, after all, built the marvels of the pyramids, many centuries before.

But the construction work was carried out by skilled Egyptian artisans who could go on strike and armies of unskilled foreign slaves.

These slaves were from foreign conquests and were at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Rameses is, remember, the Pharoah who tried to make the Israelite slaves make bricks without straw. His monuments were made of stone. But the elegant houses and palaces of middle-ranking officials were of mud.

No other part of the world was civilised then. Britain was a distant forested island where savages in skins had barely discovered farming.

Yet Rameses was not born to power. He was a boy when his grandfather, Rameses I, gained the throne through the will of a childless Pharaoh. …

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