Historic artifacts meet 21st-century technology in a blockbuster touring exhibition centered on the 19th-Dynasty pharaoh.
Spears clash and arrows whiz through the air, their ricochets pulsing through the speakers in a dark room. Lions leaping mid-attack flash before transfixed museumgoers. Then the images change—a carved relief, a set of captives, a bombardment of troops. Suddenly, all three screens, including the large map stretched across a tilting triangular platform, fill with figures and enemy chariots swarming in time with the booming narration.
This dynamic recreation of the 1275 B.C.E. Battle of Kadesh, Ramses II’s greatest military achievement, is a feat of technology, its layered display creating an immersive experience without the use of 3-D glasses. The CGI spectacle marks one of several areas where ancient meets ultramodern in “Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs,” an internationally touring exhibition that made its world premiere at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS) in November. The show’s embrace of new tools—a trend that is becoming more and more prevalent in traveling exhibitions—is all in the name of giving visitors a richer Egyptology experience.
“Technology can make the exhibit and the objects a thrill, an adventure, a mystery … that takes you 3,000 years back to the time of the pharaohs,” says the exhibition’s curator, famed Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass.
Regarded by many as one of Egypt’s most powerful pharaohs, Ramses II, the third king of Egypt’s 19th Dynasty (roughly 1292 to 1190 B.C.E.), was also the country’s most recognizable ruler for centuries. He inspired English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and was portrayed iconically by actor Yul Brynner in the 1956 film The Ten Commandments. His incredibly long reign spanned 67 years, from 1279 to 1213 B.C.E., according to Hawass, who previously scanned the pharaoh’s mummy. (Other sources place Ramses’ reign at 66 years.)
“We know things that Ramses left as official records of his reign, but then we have this much, much larger body of material of people who worked for the administration,” says Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist and associate of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. “We know about the men who were building the royal tombs. We know about the priests, about the craftsmen. It was this enormous bureaucracy.”
The son of Seti I, Ramses earned the rank of army captain at age 10 and ascended to the throne as prince regent at age 14. Almost immediately, he found himself facing the Hittite army (of what is now modern Turkey) in the Battle of Kadesh. How much of Ramses’ battle heroics and ensuing victory was embellished by the pharaoh is still debated today, but scholars agree that his peace treaty with the Hittites in 1259 B.C.E. was the earliest known.