Mimicking a Monumental Past: Ramses II and Egyptian National Identity

After decades of building nationalism centered on Arabism and Islam, after simultaneously being prevented from studying Egyptology by colonial powers, modern Egyptians had an opportunity to make their ancient history a central point of their nation’s identity in the wake of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution. Under Nasser, the statue of Ramses the Great would become a symbol of national pride – reflecting the struggle that Egyptians faced while trying to develop an identity that balanced their ancient history with the more recent influences of Islam, Arabism and Western colonialism.

Built around 1300 BCE, found buried in Memphis in the 19th century, the statue of Ramses the Great lent itself to Nasser’s purposes. First, the revolutionary saw an opportunity to link Egypt’s goals for the second half of the 20th century to one of the country’s most powerful rulers. Ramses’ legacy related to Nasser’s ambition to be a global leader. During a reign that lasted 66 years, the ancient pharaoh acted as a warrior and builder. His victories on the battlefield would provide funds and captives that made his works possible. Similar to Ramses, Nasser oversaw many massive construction projects, like the Aswan High Dam, that showed Egypt’s industry and modernization. Also, Nasser stressed economic and political independence; and by taking control of the previously European-dominated archaeological field, he used Egypt’s archaic history to show the state’s greatness during a time of Western intervention.

Flick 2

The Land of the Monuments: Notes of Egyptian Travel by Joseph Pollard, DT54.P77 Williams, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In 1955, the statue of Ramses the Great was shifted from Memphis to Ramses Square in Cairo’s center. The structure would once again be moved in 2006 with the intention of relocation to the Grand Museum of Egypt – as a means of solidifying its status as a national symbol. With the museum’s construction on hold due to the events of the Arab Spring and the current political instability complicating notions of Egyptian identity, the statue of Ramses the Great is now hidden in storage. In the end, its story captures the resurgence and subsequent weakening – over the course of the 20th century – of the Egyptian people’s national identity.

Works Consulted:

Joseph Pollard. The Land of the Monuments: Notes of Egyptian Travel. 2d ed. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1898.

  • Anne Flick BC 2016, Fall 2015 Making History Public Student

The images and content in this blog post are from the exhibit Historical Monuments, Monumental Histories, which is now on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South.    This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Dana Sajdi’s Fall 2015 Making History Public class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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