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September 04, 2003


This article evokes the cacophony and commotion of contemporary Cairo while explaining the etymology of the name Ozymandias. With apologies to Shelley, the Flea remains impressed with Ramesses' mighty works after all these years.

Ramesses the Great, King of Kings, is traditionally believed to be the Pharaoh of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt. He was one of Egypt’s most active and effective rulers, coming to power at the age of 25 and ruling for 67 years. His patron deity was the sun-god Re. At birth, he was given the name Ramesses (Fashioned by Re), and later, when he became pharaoh, he took other names, called throne names, including Setepenre (Chosen by Re) and Usermaatre (Power and Truth of Re).

The Greeks rendered Usermaatre as “Ozymandias,” which is how Ramesses has long been known in the West. In the first century B.C., the historian Diodorus Siculus visited Ramesses’ mortuary temple at Thebes, the Ramesseum, and recorded a thousand-year-old inscription on the pedestal of one of the site’s colossal statues: “King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works” (Library of History 1.47). Two thousand years later, these words inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (1817), in which the poet, like the modern city of Cairo, mocks the pharaoh for his bombast: A traveler in an “antique land” comes across the pedestal of a statue—now “two trunkless legs of stone,” whose “shattered visage” lies half sunk in the sand—bearing the inscription, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, / Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Posted by Ghost of a flea at September 4, 2003 10:16 AM