Ramesses II and Vancouver’s Heb-Sed: Remembering Expo ’86

When a pharaoh neared 30 years of rule, it was commonly expected that he would prove his right and ability to rule through a series of trials. In an example from Saqqara dating to ca. 2,800 BC, Djoser is shown in striding fashion within his burial complex. The King here is celebrating his 30 years of rule: the famous heb-sed celebration. Nearly 5,000 years later, ancient Egypt is still very much present in the thoughts of the modern world.

Marking Vancouver’s Centennial in Style

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Expo ’86 world fair that took place in Vancouver, British-Columbia. Recent news headlines have celebrated the world fair, which was actually organized to coincide with the centennial of the city. In looking over some of the photographs of Vancouver from the 1970s, it is remarkable, how much the city has changed in only three to four decades.

View of the northern parts of False Creek from the Planetarium (1970s – © Vancouver Archives)

Originally slated to be staged near the Pacific National Exhibition lands by the Pacific Coliseum, the world fair was given its location of False Creek only after considerable deliberation (Cotter 2009). The area was in the possession of the Canadian Pacific Railway and luckily through drawn-out negotiations the land was eventually sold to the developers.

Map of the entire compound stretching from where today’s Science World is as far as Granville Bridge (© Urso Chappell – ExpoMuseum.com)

Today the area has seen extensive redevelopments and the rise of many towers for private residences and condominiums. Several of the Expo ’86 structures remain in some form such as the Plaza of Nations, which was at the centre of the fairgrounds. It is still used for local events and concerts. My own interest in Expo ’86 (and to those in the Egyptological community) revolves around the fair’s exhibit on Ramesses II. To illustrate his reign and lifetime to fair goers, artifacts on loan from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo were displayed. I ended up learning about this exhibit after finding its catalogue buried in a book sale at the University of Toronto in late 2015.

Contemporary view of Vancouver’s skyline at False Creek (© Thom Quine – WikiMedia)

The Great Hall of Ramesses II

Located to the western-most part of the fairgrounds within the yellow zone, the Great Hall of Ramesses was built in Egyptianizing fashion with a papyriform colonnade set in front of a pylon-shaped building. While Egyptian columns in temples often bore elaborate decoration, the designers here opted to keep the columns undecorated. However, a massive block of stone rests on top of two columns, which leaves the visitor with a rustic feel in exploring the set of ruins. The hall derives some inspiration from several Egyptian buildings such as the renown Hypostyle Hall at Karnak or the colonnade within Luxor Temple.

The Great Hall of Ramesses II (© Bill Cotter of Worlds’ Fair Photos)

In looking at the inspiration behind this building more closely, Allan Waisman, architect of Waisman Dewar Grout Carter from Vancouver, B.C., remarked:

In the doing of buildings there are different responsibilities. For example, at the level of Ramses [Ramesses II] what we were dealing with was the art of man; a bit of history; magnificent sculptures that went back several thousand years. Putting that in an appropriate setting is the name of the game. It was almost pure theatre.

Admission ticket to enter the Great Hall (H2011.24.34 – © Museum of Vancouver)

Describing the overall aura around the hall, Bill Cotter further remarked that the objects on loan from the Egyptian Museum “gave guests the feeling they were really exploring an ancient tomb, an experience made even more effective by taking them through a maze of dark tunnels” (Cotter 2009).

Model of the yellow zone with the Great Hall of Ramesses II in the centre (© Bill Cotter of Worlds’ Fair Photos)

The lure of Egypt was here. Placing the hall within an Egyptian setting, rows of glass panels were set up against the wall, which gave the moon a chance to reflect on it every day. This ‘moon window’ would have left the visitor with an unforgettable experience, especially for those, who were exposed to pharaonic culture for the first time.

Reflecting the moon on the glass behind the colonnade (© Lloyd Sutton in The Expo Celebration)

Connecting Ramesses II to Vancouver

In the prologue to the catalogue, Jim Pattison, who was the Chairman of Expo ’86 on a salary of $1 a day, wrote about the applicability of Ramesses to Vancouver (Desroches-Noblecourt 1986):

EXPO 86 visitors will have the rare opportunity to see these magnificent treasures, which date back some 4000 years. The exhibit is a tribute to the past, an historical time of great discovery, and a salute to our future.

Speaking about the discoveries Egyptians made to the world in the introduction of the exhibit catalogue, Mr Pattison was enthused about the many objects the organizers chose to display that stem from Egyptian tombs. The exhibit itself had among many different categories of objects the well-known bust of Ramesses II holding a crook (CG 616 – see below) and the visitor could also marvel at a wide-ranging selection of finely made tools and personal items. A column drum shows Ramesses II wearing the blue crown. Apart from the elaborate decoration, the drum also preserves the brilliant colours of Ramesses’ skin as well as the blue paint within the crown.

Column drum of Ramesses II from Elephantine (19th Dynasty – CG 41560 © Desroches-Noblecourt in The Great Pharaoh Ramses)

The drum actually was reused, originally dating to Thutmose IV from a century earlier. In fact, it was found at Elephantine in a context dating to the Roman emperor Trajan over 1,000 years later. Ramesses II himself survived over seven decades and was one of Egypt’s longest ruling pharaohs. In reusing this drum, Ramesses not only paid homage to his ancestor, but hoped the reuse of Thutmose’s name would bring him eternity in the afterlife. He surely would have been impressed that people in such a foreign place as Vancouver would have been exposed to his reign and artifacts.

Bust of ?RamessesII @NK (CG 616)
Bust of Ramesses II from Tanis (19th Dynasty – CG 616 © Desroches-Noblecourt in The Great Pharaoh Ramses)

In the end, Vancouver looked to the past for inspiration and surely wishes were made that the city would perhaps endure just as Ramesses II has done.

Further Reading

  • Cotter, B. Vancouver’s Expo ’86. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2009.
  • Murray, D. et al. The Expo Celebration: the Official Retrospective Book. Expo 86. The 1986 World Exposition. Vancouver, British Columbia May 2- October 13, 1986. North Vancouver: Whitecap Books, 1986.

A catalogue of the exhibit was also produced and edited by C. Desroches-Noblecourt, The Great Pharaoh Ramses II and His Time: An Exhibition of Antiquities from the Egyptian Museum, Cairo at the Great Hall of Ramses II, Expo 86, Vancouver, BC, Canada May 12-October 13, 1986. – Available on AbeBooks

Many thanks to Vancouver Archives and and Bill Cotter for permission to use their photographs for this blog. Thanks also to Nicholas Wernick for some editing.


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