Today, Elizabeth the Second (Queen by the grace of God and so on and so forth) becomes the longest-serving British monarch in history. Comparisons are being drawn between Her Majesty and the previous holder of the title, Queen Victoria, for obvious reasons. However there's a better comparison to be drawn.
As an Egyptologist, I tend to see the news through a slightly different filter. When I first read of the impending anniversary, my first thought was - ‘Ramesses II’.
Ramesses II ruled Egypt for 67 years - the longest, or second longest, reign of any Egyptian Pharaoh, depending on how you interpret the chronology of the Old Kingdom. Certainly, his reign was one of the greatest in Egyptian history.
It would be easy to draw parallels between Ramesses II and Queen Elizabeth II based simply on the length of their respective reigns, but if we dig a little deeper, there are more interesting parallels to be found.
Maybe you’ve seen the wonderful Dame Helen Mirren portraying Elizabeth II in the 2006 film ‘The Queen’? One of the scenes that I adored was the Queen asking Tony Blair to form a government. Blair is by turns bumptious and nervous, and Mirren’s Queen takes him down a peg or two, asking if he knows how to start a nuclear war yet. When he jokes ‘you obviously know my job better than I do!’ she replies ‘yes, well, you are my tenth Prime Minister, Mr Blair’. Watch the clip, right, to see more of Dame Helen's magisterial performance.
In total, Elizabeth II has invited 13 Prime Ministers to form governments (Harold Wilson was invited twice).
Ancient Egypt, of course, had no one role that equates to the British ‘Prime Minister’. Rather, there were several important offices, including the Vizier (North and South), Viceroy of Nubia, Chief of the Treasury and High Steward of the King. Leaving aside other religious high offices, Ramesses II saw at least 19 ‘Prime Ministers’ in his reign. The reigns of both monarchs sailed on, despite multiple changes in the ‘administration’.
What’s in a name?
Neither Elizabeth’s family (the Hanover/Saxe-Coburg-Gotha/Windsor dynasty) nor Ramesses’ Dynasty came to their thrones in harmonious fashion.
George I, the first of the Hanover line, came to the throne as the man with the 52nd best claim to rule England. The decades preceding his rule had been tumultuous: civil war, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and Williamite Wars had seen England, Scotland, and Ireland locked in bloody conflicts. The Exclusion Crisis and Glorious Revolution had seen a king of one religion set against a ruling class who fought to preserve their own religious beliefs - so much so that a court conspiracy was willing to depose the Catholic James II.
It was the determination of the English ruling class to maintain their own religion against the perceived threat of Catholicism that saw George I leap-frog fifty-one other candidates excluded on the grounds of their faith.
Ramesses I, first pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty, ascended to the throne in circumstances that were barely less chaotic. After the reign of Amenhotep III, the stability of the Eighteenth Dynasty crumbled.
Amenhotep IV became Akhenaten - beginning the Amarna Period. During the Amarna Period and in its aftermath, with its dizzying succession of short-lived rulers, there were religious upheavals which threatened to tear Egypt apart. On one side were the ruling class, who wanted to promote a new religious cult. On the other were powerful nobles, who wanted the traditional religious beliefs to endure. Sound familiar?
The result in Egypt, as in England, was that a man with relatively little claim to the throne was granted the crown with a brief to maintain the status quo ante. Ramesses I had been set a huge challenge.
Establishing legitimacy after a period of instability is never easy, but one of the time-honoured methods is to give your heirs names that emphasise their relationship to the line of descent. 70% of pharaohs of the Nineteenth and Twentieth dynasties are named either Ramesses (after the founder) or Seti (after his son). Since George I ascended the British throne, all our kings have been called either George, William or Edward. After the reign of Charles III, this tradition looks like it will continue with William V and George VII.
More sophisticated rulers are willing to change their throne names in order to maintain the goodwill of their subjects, and such is the case with both Ramesses’ and Elizabeth’s families.
When Seti I (Ramesses II’s father) ascended the throne, the tensions between the sun-gods Amun and Aten had marred public life for some fifty years. He therefore chose to hark back to the heyday of the Eighteenth dynasty in choosing his throne name: Tuthmosis III had been known as Menkhepere (‘Enduring is the appearance of Re’) and Amenhotep III had been known as Nebmaatre (Lord of Truth is Re), so Seti I chose Menmaatre (Enduring in Truth is Re). Ramesses II continued this tradition by choosing Usermaatre, ‘Powerful in truth is Re’, diplomatically sticking with a long-established sun-god that was neither Aten nor Amun.
When Edward VII (or Edward Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) died in 1910, tensions between Britain and Germany were running high. George V decided that carrying a thrice-German family name was unlikely to improve the popularity of his dynasty, so changed the family surname to a town in the Home Counties (hence why our current monarch was christened Elizabeth Windsor). This tradition of arbitrary naming continues, with Prince William being known as “William Wales” for reasons that have little to do with genealogy and quite a lot to do with public relations.
As the British monarch, Elizabeth rules over a union of two crowns: the crown of England & Wales and the crown of Scotland. While she may have been crowned using the British Imperial Crown in Westminster Abbey, three weeks later Her Majesty formally processed up the Royal Mile in Edinburgh to the High Kirk of St Giles, with the Crown of Scotland carried before her, to have her reign blessed by the Church of Scotland.
Each year, Elizabeth spends almost three months in Scotland, acting as an unofficial ambassador for the Scottish tourist industry: she wears tartan skirts, she is pictured with dignitaries amidst the tartan carpets and tartan furniture of Balmoral Castle, she is pictured outdoors in the glories of the Cairngorms National Park. These acts of presentation are not accidental: at her ascension to the throne, the union of England and Scotland was a mere 245 years old, and (as recent developments have shown) the Scots do not like to be taken for granted.
When Ramesses ascended the throne, the union between Upper and Lower Egypt was slightly older - 270 years had passed since Ahmose I ejected the Hyksos from the Delta and united Egypt into what we call the New Kingdom. Ramesses too wore a variety of crowns, most notably the double crown symbolising the union of the two lands. He was as conscious as Elizabeth to be present in both his kingdoms, creating a new royal residence at Pi-Ramesses (Avaris) in the delta in addition to the pre-existing seats in Thebes and Memphis, and even made his new residence the centre of his jubilee celebrations (more on which below).
The job of any monarch involves a great deal of both domestic and foreign travel, and neither Ramesses nor Elizabeth is an exception. It’s impossible to document how many domestic and foreign trips each has taken, but consider this interesting detail: neither had a passport until 1974.
In ancient Egypt such documents did not exist, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that the ruler who received a passport was Queen Elizabeth, right? Wrong. Since British passports are issued in the name of Her Majesty, the Queen has no need of one.
Ramesses, however, had to travel to Paris in 1974 for conservation work on his remains. Not only was he received as any visiting head of state would be, with full military honours, and a red carpet, he was also issued a passport for the journey. His occupation was given as: ‘King (deceased)’.
The image of Ramesses II is one of the most enduring and iconic images of Ancient Egypt - his statues are in almost every major Egyptological collection in the world, he appears on countless Egyptian monuments, he featured on stamps across the world, and has even had a tank and an airliner named after him!
The image of Queen Elizabeth II is equally iconic - from infancy until the present day, we have a huge photographic and artistic archive of pictures of the Queen including no fewer than 129 official portraits (some more flattering than others).
The interesting link here is the use of the official portrait. Egyptian art was not portraiture - it was symbolic. The way in which a person (or king) was painted, carved or drawn, was a reflection of their physical, mental and moral characteristics. So, although we do not have a ‘picture’ of Ramesses II - though we do have his mummy (see 'passport' image, above) - we know how he wanted to be portrayed.
While the portraiture of Queen Elizabeth is (generally) more accurate, it is not necessarily any less symbolic. The first profile of the Queen to appear on British Coinage, in 1953, was evocative of the youth of the new monarch, and showed her wearing a wreath (a symbol of victory) rather than a crown. Since then, this profile has been updated four times to reflect the changing face of Elizabeth II, but it is still imbued with symbolism - she always faces right, a nod to Charles II’s wish to ‘turn his back’ on Cromwell and the Civil War.
The power of such portraits should not be underestimated. It is somewhat ironic that one of the great poems addressing the fleeting nature of human achievement - Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley - chose Ramesses II as its subject. Shelley seems to have been inspired by a large fragment of a colossal statue of Ramesses II, which was accessioned by the British Museum whilst he was writing.
Thanks to Ramesses’ willingness to impose (and superimpose) his image across so much of his domain, his achievements are still remembered more than three thousand years after his death. Shelley died less than two hundred years ago, and is best remembered for a poem inspired by Ramesses. Should Elizabeth wish her memory to endure through the ages, colossal statues rather than poems would appear to be the way forward.
Despite Elizabeth II modestly denying the need for a fuss today, she has celebrated a number of important milestones, including three Jubilees, her 80th birthday celebrations and her Diamond Wedding Anniversary. She also celebrates her birthday twice annually - on the actual day, and on an official date in June. Ramesses II also enjoyed a celebration or two, marking his heb-sed festival slightly more frequently than tradition dictated, notching up 14 during his reign. The heb-sed was a festival in which the king affirmed his divine right to kingship, and his physical prowess - running the ‘White Walls’ of Memphis in ceremonial attire. Her Majesty prefers a demure wave of jubilation.
I’d like to leave you with a description of Ramesses II, written by another colossus of Egyptology - the distinguished Emeritus Professor of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, Kenneth Kitchen: ‘Ramesses II, pharaoh of Egypt, man of boundless energy, by turns stubborn, shrewd, kindly or harsh’. Spot any similarities?