Meet Khaemwaset, the history-loving magician
Ramesses II was a pretty legendary pharaoh. He lived to be 90, was great at spreading military propaganda, and had over 100 children. One of those kids was Prince Khaemwaset, who honored his country’s heritage by restoring monuments (while his dad plastered his own name all over previous kings’ statues). Needless to say, Khaemwaset was a true #ThrowbackThursday before it was really cool.
Khaemwaset was a son of Ramesses and one of his most important wives, Isetnofret. She produced four children, including Khaemwaset, another son named Ramesses, a daughter named Bintanathwho, in true Egyptian fashion, married her own father, and Ramesses’s eventual successor, Merenptah. Since he didn’t outlive his dad, Khaemwaset never became pharaoh, but he did achieve significant status in his lifetime. He became high priest of the god Ptah in that deity’s chief city of Memphis and got involved in building a new Serapeum, the tomb complex where the sacred animals of Ptah, the Apis bulls, were buried. But his true passion was in restoring the great history of Egypt.
Khaemwaset strikes a pose. Image via Global Egyptian Museum.
Khaemwaset restored a few pyramids of long-dead Old Kingdom pharaohs in Memphis, showing reverence to his father’s predecessors and a fascination with the past. On the casing stones (the outer blocks) of the pyramids, he wrote the names and ranks of the people for whose buildings the blocks were used, making sure no one could claim somebody else’s pyramid.
He revered the rulers of the Old Kingdom, as he copied some of that period’s stylistic conventions on his own monuments. When he came across the statue of a prince named Kawab, son of Khufu of Great Pyramid fame, Khaemwaset must have felt like he’d met a kindred spirit; he placed Kawab’s representation in the Temple of Ptah. On the statue, he inscribed, “Khaemwaset…was happy because this statue of Kawab, once doomed to turn into rubble…had survived intact…” Khaemwaset also admitted that “he so loved those sublime ancient ones, who came before and the excellent of their works – as a matter true a million times.”
So it’s clear that Khaemwaset was involved in restoring the monuments of Egypt’s past, but does that make him the first Egyptologist? Not so much, says Egyptologist Aidan Dodson in Monarchs of the Nile, who have noted that he probably only stumbled across these artifacts while reusing old blocks of stone for new buildings. Still, that makes Khaemwaset was a salvager of the finest sort.
However, Egyptians remembered Khaemwaset not as a proto-archaeologist, but as a magician. Greco-Roman stories depicted Khaemwaset as a man in search of a magic manual written by Thoth, god of wisdom; he entered a dead guy’s tomb while looking for it and played a board game with that man’s ghost-wife to win the book. Khaemwaset lost, but stole the text anyway on his way home; when he took the book to his father, Ramesses told him, “Take this book back to the tomb of Naneferkaptah like a wise man, or else he will make you take it back with a forked stick in your hand and a lighted brazier on your head.” But Khaemwaset didn’t listen.
Another tale of Khaemwaset as a magician featured him asking a pretty woman to sleep with him for money. She convinced him to give up everything he owned and his own children in exchange for some time alone with her; when he woke up, he realized he’d been tricked by the spirit of the dead guy, so he went to return the book. Finally!