When a Pharaoh flew to France

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Ramses II is considered the greatest and most powerful pharaoh of the Egyptian empire. 

He fought the Hittites, signed the world’s first peace treaty, undertook an unparralled building programme, had more than 100 children and reigned over Egypt for 67 years.

Ramses temple at Abu Simbel – one of the many building programmes by the pharaoh

Ramses II was born around 1303 BC and died in 1213 BC, also known as Ramses the Great, he was the third pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty of Egypt.

Nine more pharaohs took the name Ramses in his honour, but none equalled his greatness.

No other pharaoh constructed so many temples or erected so many colossal statues and obelisks

He was said to have lived to be 99 years old, but he probably died around 90 years old, which is a remarkable achievement in the modern world and was extremely rare in ancient Egypt.

Colossus of Ramses II in Luxor Temple (photo: wikipedia)

In ‘Chronicle of the Pharaohs’ by Peter Clayton, he sums up Ramses stating that, “During his long reign of 67 years, everything was done on a grand scale. No other pharaoh constructed so many temples or erected so many colossal statues and obelisks.

No other pharaoh sired so many children. Ramses’ victory over the Hittities at Kadesh was celebrated in one of the most repeated Egyptian texts ever put on record. By the time he died, aged more than 90, he had set his stamp indelibly on the face of Egypt.”

The four colossal statues of Ramses II outside the temple in Abu Simbel

As with many very old people it is believed that Ramses was crippled with arthritis and walked with a hunched back for the last decades of his life.

When he died Ramses was buried in KV7, in the Valley of the Kings, but looting and tomb-robbing, led to his body being moved. Each move was carefully documented on the wrappings of his mummy.

In 1881, the mummy of Ramses II, along with those of more than 50 other rulers and nobles, were discovered in a secret royal cache at Dier el-Bahri.

Ramses’ mummy was identified based on the hieroglyphics, which detailed the relocation of his mummy by the priests, on the linen covering the body of the pharaoh.

Mummy of Ramses in Egyptian museum in Cairo

Gaston Maspero, the French Egyptologist, who unwrapped the mummy of Ramses wrote, “On the temples there are a few sparse hairs, but the hair is quite thick, forming smooth, straight locks about five centimetres in length.

White at the time of death, and possibly auburn during life, they have been dyed a light red by the spices (henna) used during embalment…the moustache and beard are thin…The hairs are white, like those of the head and eyebrows…the skin is of earthy brown, splotched with black…the face of the mummy gives a fair idea of the face of the living king.”

Samples of the pharaoh’s hair

Microscopic inspection of the roots of Ramses’ hair proved that the king’s hair was originally red, which suggests that he came from a family of redheads.

This is significant as in ancient Egypt people with red hair were associated with the god Seth, the slayer of Osiris, and the name of Ramses II’s father, Seti I, means “follower of Seth.”

In 1885 his mummy was moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

The mummy of Ramses II in Egyptian museum in Cairo

In 1974 Egyptologists noticed that the mummy’s condition was rapidly deteriorating and decided Ramses needed to go to Paris for examination.

The pharoah was issued an Egyptian passport that listed his occupation as ‘King (deceased)’. The mummy was received at Le Bourget airport, just outside Paris, with full military honours befitting a king.

The mummy was treated for a fungal infection in Paris

In Paris, it was found that Ramses’s mummy was being attacked by fungus, for which it was treated.

During the examination, scientific analysis revealed battle wounds and old fractures, as well as the pharaoh’s arthritis and poor circulation.

X-ray of skull of Ramses showing the filling with resin after extraction of brain

After treatment, the pharaoh was flown back to Egypt where he belongs and now rests in the mummy room of the Egyptian museum in Cairo.

After treatment in Paris the mummy returned to Cairo and now rests in the Egyptian museum

But the story of Ramses doesn’t end there, as in 2006 French police arrested a man who tried to sell what he claimed were strands of hair and tiny pieces of funeral cloth from the mummy of Ramses on the internet.

The man, identified as Jean-Michel Diebolt, a postman, had allegedly obtained the pieces after his late father, who had been a French researcher, analysed the body of the 3,200-year-old mummy back in the 1970s when the mummy was in Paris receiving treatment.

“I am selling a lock of hair that belonged to Ramses II,” the advert on the internet read. “A team of four researchers, including my father, were given the task of analysing the hair, resins, pieces of bandage at the CEA Grenoble. As proof, I can provide a copy of the results of these analyses . . . I must be the only person in the world to possess such samples.”

Police seized a number of small plastic sachets and boxes containing minuscule samples of hair and cloth that he alleged came from Ramses.

Zahi Hawass former Secretary General of Supreme Council of Antiquities (L) and former Egyptian Culture Minister Farok Hosni (R) show samples of hair from Pharaoh Ramses II’s mummy at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

In 2007 Egyptian antiquities official Ahmed Salah travelled to Paris to retrieve the stolen items, thirty years after being stolen. “It was wonderful mission. I felt very great when I had the lock of hair of Ramses II in my hand,” he said.

The small tufts of hair were displayed alongside pieces of linen bandages and 11 pieces of resin used in the mummification of Ramses and his son in a glass display case.

The greatest of all the pharaohs now rests peacefully and serenely in the Egyptian museum in Cairo.