Hidden History: the passport of Pharaoh Ramesses II

Mon Feb 11, 2019

You think YOUR passport photo looks bad? Consider yourself fortunate that yours wasn’t taken more than three millennia after your death. Such was the fate of the mummified corpse of ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II in 1975, when a group of fast-thinking Egyptologists concluded that his mummy’s condition was rapidly deteriorating and had to be flown to Paris for examination and preservation.

Ramesses II ruled in the 12th century B.C. for a reign of about 66 years in a period that brought Egypt to a time of abundance and successful military conquests. Coming to rule at some point in his early 20s, Ramesses II led several successful conquests in modern-day Syria and Sudan, and his obsession with building was responsible for the creation of many of ancient Egypt’s distinctive architectural marvels (including massive statues of himself).

Upon his death around the age of 90 or 91, Ramesses II was buried in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings before the constant issue of looters led to him being moved to the tomb of a high priest named Pinedjem II. This tomb was discovered in 1881 in almost pristine condition, with his skin and hair still intact. He was then placed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but by the 1970s it was noted that his condition was rapidly deteriorating. The only hope for preserving Ramesses II was to transport him to preservationists in Paris, France.

However, at the time, French customs laws dictated that all persons, living or deceased, needed valid identification to enter the country. Thus, Egyptian authorities created and issued a valid passport for Ramesses II listing his occupation as “King (deceased).” His mummy was then received at Paris-Le Bourget Airport in a full military ceremony with the honors befitting a king, making him the first pharaoh in history to receive full military honors from France. The now-restored Ramesses II is currently back on display in the Cairo Egyptian Museum.

An additional piece of historical trivia is that the legacy of Ramesses II is the basis for Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” his Greek name. Perhaps Shelley’s most famous work, the poem is a sonnet written in loose iambic pentameter that features the speaker remarking upon a statue of the king half-broken and buried in the sand. While Shelley’s poem touches upon the themes of hubris and the inevitable decline of a ruler’s greatness in the sands of time, even this work cannot deny the unique historical distinction of Ramesses II holding perhaps the least-flattering passport photo of all time.



Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons



Appears in
2019 - Spring - Issue 3