A new royal tourist has landed in Houston – and his trip only took 7,000 miles and a few thousand years.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS) was selected to install and debut the world premiere of the “Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs” exhibition. The historic pairing is set to run through June 19. After it finishes its run in Houston, the exhibit will embark on a worldwide, multi-country tour.
For almost a year, the museum had closed the entire third floor of the expansive museum in preparation for the exhibit – which now presently holds the largest collection of Ramses II original artifacts from Ancient Egypt to be shown outside the country in 32 years. The exhibit includes 181 rare items as it explores the reign of Ramses II, known as Ramses the Great, the awe-inspiring and powerful pharaoh who amassed one of the largest and richest burial chambers in ancient Egyptian history. King Ramses II, perhaps the most famous pharaoh of the New Kingdom, ruled for 67 years and is remembered for signing the first known peace treaty.
Egyptian Gods and Heroes of Today
This writer and a young budding archeologist, my five year old son, William Atlas Bond, attended the press preview in November. We’d both spent hours in the museum reading and looking over the artifacts, or roaming the impressive paleontology hall on the ground floor. The museum is one the brightest and pride-inducing institutions for the city, and certainly is for our family.
For the exhibit’s debut, lucky patrons might have passed by Dr. Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities and perhaps the most famous and renowned archeologist of our day.
I had heard a rumor that Dr. Hawass has a swift and abrupt personality, to put it mildly. And it did seem at the beginning of the exhibit, while a trail of men in suits followed behind him, that he wasn’t overly loquacious. William and I roamed ahead of the initial crowd, going at the pace of a child seeing this magnificent exhibit for the first time, exactly how I had hoped to see it.
Through the dimly lit exhibit, perhaps in reverence or to evoke feelings of entering Ramses II’s tomb, we peered closely at the splendid artifacts. The pieces are stunningly preserved, and include sarcophagi, animal mummies, magnificent jewelry, spectacular royal masks, exquisite amulets, and ornate golden treasures of the tomb, showcasing the superb workmanship of Egyptian artists. I was bent low reading a description of a sarcophagi to William when he asked a question about one of the gods referenced on the tomb. I looked back for a moment and realized Dr. Hawass had been standing close beside us listening to William and I discuss the artifact. Not one to miss a once in a lifetime opportunity, I turned to Dr. Hawass and said, “I believe you should ask this gentleman,” nodding to the eminent archeologist, “He could give you a much better explanation than me.”
And he did. He kindly spoke to Will about the sarcophagi, and the choices the Egyptian artists would have made, and how talented they were. They both spoke to one another like two children excitedly discovering a new buried treasure — together. It was brief, but they both seemed to orbit one another through the exhibit, but in a funny way like peers and not like the men trailing behind in suits. At one point I watched Dr. Hawass sit down alone, surrounded by faux Egyptian columns. He looked more comfortable in that moment than at any other point we encountered him in the exhibit. Like Ramses’ belongings he seemed to fit better transported back thousands of years, in the sands of the Sahara Desert, not in a facsimile (albeit stunning one) of one of Ancient Egypt’s greatest tombs.
Reflecting the importance of the exhibit on the world stage, Dr. Mustafa Waziri, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, Anthony Tann, President, World Heritage Exhibitions, Andres Numhauser, Managing Director International, World Heritage Exhibitions and Tom Hardwick, HMNS Curator, Hall of Ancient Egypt, who is truly delightful and also exudes a child-like excitement over the collection were also on hand that day for questions.
Face to Face with the Mummy of Ramses in the Virtual and Immersive Components of the Exhibit
This exhibit could truly be your own, once-in-a-lifetime experience, although Dr. Hawass is long gone. An exhibit of rare artifacts to never-before-seen drone footage acquired through unprecedented access to many of Egypt’s most iconic locations, the exhibit is a delight of firsts and possible onlys.
The exhibition also features an immersive virtual reality experience that takes you on a whirlwind tour of two of Ramses’ most impressive monuments, the temples of Abu Simbel and Nefertari’s Tomb. The VR experience, “Ramses & Nefertari: Journey to Osiris,” is led by the ghostly incarnation of Ramses’ illustrious wife, Nefertari, as she attempts to make it back to the afterlife and her loving husband. Nefertari shares how Ramses transformed Egypt as a general, architect, and custodian of the ancient Egyptian religion. With cinematic motion chairs, viewers soar through temples, sandstorms, and come face-to-face with Ramses’ mummy. The virtual reality experience is a bit too spooky for children under the age of 8. (Tip: Separate tickets are required.)
Once in a Lifetime – A Very Long Lifetime
One of the reasons Ramses’ tomb, and the artifacts found within, are so remarkable is because the tomb was long-ago ransacked by robbers. It was believed his mummy and treasures were lost forever. The legend of the great pharaoh increased over the centuries, and through this exhibit patrons can relive the dramatic 1881 re-discovery of a mummy cache in a hidden tomb, where Ramses was found among other long-lost royal mummies. But if you’re wondering, like Will and I, the answer is no. Ramses’ body is safely where it belongs, in Egypt. There is a global effort by archeologists and historians to return artifacts plundered in previous years from countries to their place of origin. The Egyptian people have often denounced the removal of their ancient history, like the bust of Nefertiti which remains in the Neues Museum in Berlin, giving even more weight to the gravity and excitement of this exhibit’s partnership and artifacts displayed.
The Final Resting Place
As far as Ramses’ mummy, you might have even watched snippets of the royal procession in 2021 of his body, and 22 other mummies (18 kings and 4 queens), in a lavish transport from the neoclassical Egyptian Museum to their new (and perhaps final) resting place 3 miles away in the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, in Cairo.
Tickets And More
Tickets to this world premiere exhibition also allow patrons exclusive access to the new Hall of Ancient Egypt. The completely re-imagined 12,500 sq. ft. hall includes 92 cases of objects, some over 5,000 years old. The exhibit is arranged over 8 rooms, covering many aspects of ancient Egyptian life, including fashion, religious devotion, mummification, and burial. Newly available pieces have been carefully selected by HMNS Curator Tom Hardwick to tell a more in-depth story of this enigmatic civilization than ever before.
Admission to Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is $20 for members; $35 for adults; $27 for children and seniors (60+). Visit HMNS.org for tickets and information.
Cover photo courtesy the Houston Museum of Natural Science