I have been very much enjoying the series on Radio 4 called “A history of the world in 100 objects”
Today’s object was the statue of Rameses II, made around 1200 BC, broken up by an ex-circus performer-cum antiquities dealer, and sold to the British Museum.
It caused a sensation- inspiring poetry and art- including most famously, Percy Shelley who wrote this famous sonnet after visiting the museum in 1818
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
Rameses II was perhaps the greatest of all the Pharoes of the new Egyptian Kingdom. He ruled for 67 years, and determined to outshine all other pharaohs, called himself ‘ruler of rulers’ and had more monuments and statues created than any other Pharaoh. He ruled the most powerful nation in his world, but still, his concern was on casting his memory for ever in stone.
Shelley’s poem catches the futility of this ambition so beautifully. And so this statue can be seen as a symbol of the fragility of all human achievement. They remind us that all civilisations, not matter how great- will fall. And no matter how meglomaniacal our leaders become- they too are made of clay. After Rameses II- it was downhill all the way for the Egyptian empire. Each successive Pharaoh was weaker, and had to make more compromises with the surrounding powers. Corruption and decay set in.
I began to think of this desire we all have to be immortal. As a young Christian, I was taught that this was the great selling point to offer as a carrot for potential converts. The promise of eternal life.
I have come to believe that this all consuming pre-occupation with living for ever prevents us connecting with the stuff of here and now. We forget that, as Brian McLaren would say, Christianity is not an ‘escape plan’, but rather an invitation to participate fully in the here and now.
Perhaps we also are affected with the same impulses that drove Rameses II- it can all become about ME. Placing ourselves at the centre of our universe. Including at the centre of our religion.
God exists in order to make me (and others that are like me, and believe in the stuff I believe in) immortal.