Ramses II (c. 1279-1213 BCE) was the third pharaoh of Egypt’s 19th Dynasty (c. 1292-1186 BCE). Egyptologists frequently acknowledge Ramses II as perhaps the most celebrated, most powerful and the greatest pharaoh of the ancient Egyptian Empire. The respect with which his place in history was viewed by his successors is shown by later generations referring to him as the “Great Ancestor.”
Ramses II adopted several spellings of his name including Ramses and Rameses. His Egyptian subjects referred to him as ‘Userma’atre’setepenre’, which translates as the ‘Keeper of Harmony and Balance, Strong in Right, Elect of Ra’. Ramses was also called Ramesses The Great and Ozymandias.
Ramses cemented the legend surrounding his rule with his claims of a pivotal victory during the Battle of Kadesh against the Hittites. This triumph boosted Ramses II’s reputation as a gifted military leader.
While Kadesh proved to be more a fighting draw than a definitive victory for either the Egyptians or the Hittites, it did bequeath the world’s first peace treaty in c. 1258 BCE. Moreover, while the story of the Book of Exodus in the Bible is closely associated with the pharaoh, no archaeological evidence has ever been found to support this connection.
Facts About Ramses II
- Ramses II (c. 1279-1213 BCE) was the third pharaoh of Egypt’s 19th Dynasty
- Later generations referred to him as the “Great Ancestor.” Such was his aura that nine later pharaohs were named after him
- His subjects called him ‘Userma’atre’setepenre’ or the ‘Keeper of Harmony and Balance, Strong in Right, Elect of Ra’
- Ramses cemented his legend with his claimed victory during the Battle of Kadesh against the Hittites
- Analyses of Ramses the Great’s mummy revealed he had red hair. In ancient Egypt, red-haired people were believed to be adherents of the god Seth
- Towards the end of his full life, Ramses II suffered major health problems including a hunched back attributable to arthritis and an abscessed tooth
- Ramses II outlived almost all of his family. He was succeeded on the throne by Merenptah or Merneptah, his thirteenth son
- At the time of his death, Ramses II had over 100 children with his numerous wives.
Ramses’ father was Seti I and his mother was Queen Tuya. During Seti I’s reign he appointed the crown prince Ramses as regent. Similarly, Ramses was made a captain in the army at just 10 years of age. This gave Ramses extensive experience in government and the military prior to ascending the throne.
Remarkably for his time, Ramses II lived to the ripe old age of 96, had more 200 wives and concubines. These unions produced 96 sons and 60 daughters. Ramses’ reign was so long that panic broke out amongst his subjects, amidst widespread concern that their world was about to end following their king’s death.
Early Years And Military Campaigns
Ramses father often took Ramses with him on his military campaigns ranging into Palestine and Libya when Ramses was just 14. By the time he was 22, Ramses was leading military campaigns in Nubia accompanied by Khaemweset and Amunhirwenemef two of his own sons.
Under his father’s guidance, Ramses constructed a palace at Avaris and initiated a series of enormous restoration projects. The Egyptians’ relationship with the Hittite kingdom in modern-day Asia Minor had long been fraught. Egypt had lost several crucial trading centres in Canaan and Syria to Suppiluliuma I (c. 1344-1322 BCE), the assertive Hittite king. Seti I reclaimed Kadesh an important centre in Syria. However, the Hittite Muwatalli II (c. 1295-1272 BCE) had reclaimed it once more. Following Seti I’s death in 1290 BCE, Ramses ascended as pharaoh and immediately initiated a series of military campaigns to secure Egypt’s traditional borders, secure its trade routes, and reclaim territory now occupied by the Hittite Empire Ramses felt Egypt held a rightful claim to.
In his second year on the throne, in a sea battle off the Nile Delta coast, Ramses defeated the formidable Sea People. Ramses set an ambush for the Sea People by positioning a small navy flotilla off the mouth of the Nile as bait to lull the Sea People’s fleet into attacking them. Once Sea People were engaged, Ramses enveloped them with his battle fleet, destroying their fleet. Both the Sea Peoples’ ethnicity and geographic origins remain obscure. Ramses paints them as allies of the Hittite and this highlights his relationship with the Hittites during this time.
Sometime prior to c. 1275 BCE, Ramses started building his monumental city of Per-Ramses or the “House of Ramses.” The city was set in Egypt’s Eastern Delta area. Per-Ramses became Ramses capital. It remained an influential urban centre during the Ramesside Period. It combined a lavish pleasure palace, with the more austere features of a military base. From Per-Ramses, Ramses launched major campaigns into strife-torn border regions. While it featured extensive training ground, an armoury and cavalry stables Per-Ramses was so elegantly designed it came to rival ancient Thebes in magnificence.
Ramses deployed his army into Canaan, long a subject state of the Hittites. This was proved to be a successful campaign with Ramses returning home with Canaanite royal prisoners and plunder.
Perhaps Ramses most momentous decision was to prepare his forces towards the end of 1275 BCE, to march on Kadesh. In 1274 BCE, Ramses led an army of twenty thousand men from their base in Per-Ramses and onto the road to battle. His army was organized into four divisions named in honour of the gods: Amun, Ra, Ptah and Set. Ramses personally commanded the Amun Division at the head of his army.
The Epic Battle Of Kadesh
The Battle of Kadesh is recounted in Ramses’ two accounts The Bulletin and Poem of Pentaur. Here Ramses describes how the Hittites overwhelmed the Amun Division. Hittite cavalry attacks were decimating Ramses’ Egyptian infantry with many survivors fleeing for the sanctuary of their camp. Ramses invoked Amun and counter-attacked. The Egyptian fortunes in the battle were turning when the Egyptian Ptah Division joined the battle. Ramses forced the Hittites back to the Orontes River inflicting significant casualties, while countless others drowned in an attempt to escape.
Now Ramses found his forces trapped between the remnants of the Hittite army and the Orontes River. Had the Hittite king Muwatalli II committed his reserve forces to the battle, Ramses and the Egyptian army could have been destroyed. However, Muwatalli II failed to do so, enabling Ramses to rally his army and drove the remaining Hittite forces triumphantly from the field.
Ramses claimed a magnificent victory at the Battle of Kadesh, while Muwatalli II likewise claimed victory, as the Egyptians had not conquered Kadesh. However, the battle was close and nearly resulted in an Egyptian defeat and Ramses death.
The Battle of Kadesh subsequently resulted in the world’s first international peace treaty. Ramses II and Hattusili III, Muwatalli II’s successor to the Hittite throne, were signatories.
Following the Battle of Kadesh, Ramses commissioned monumental construction projects to commemorate his victory. He also focused on strengthening Egypt’s infrastructure and reinforcing its border fortifications.
Queen Nefertari And Ramses Monumental Construction Projects
Ramses’ directed the construction of the enormous Ramesseum tomb complex at Thebes, initiated his Abydos complex, built Abu Simbel’s colossal temples, constructed the amazing hall at Karnak and completed countless temples, monuments, administration and military buildings.
Many Egyptologists and historians believe Egyptian art and culture reached its apogee during Ramses reign. Nefertari’s fabulous tomb decorated in lavish style throughout with its evocative wall illustrations and inscriptions is frequently cited to support this belief. Nefertari, first wife to Ramses’ was his favourite queen. Her image is depicted in statuary and in temples across Egypt during his reign. It is thought Nefertari died quite early in their marriage during childbirth. Nefertari’s tomb elegantly constructed and sumptuously decorated.
After Nefertari’s death, Ramses promoted Isetnefret, his second wife to rule with him as queen. However, Nefertari’s memory appears to have lingered on his mind as Ramses had her image engraved on statues and buildings long after he had married other wives. Ramses appears to have treated all his children with these subsequent wives with comparable respect. Nefertari was his sons Rameses and Amunhirwenemef’s mother, while Isetnefret bore Rases Khaemwaset.
Ramses And The Exodus
While Ramses has been linked in the popular as the pharaoh described in the Bible’s Book of Exodus, zero evidence has ever been discovered to substantiate this association. Cinematic depictions of the biblical story followed this fiction despite the absence of historical or archaeological corroboration. Exodus 1:11 and 12:37 together with Numbers 33:3 and 33:5 nominate Per-Ramses as one of the cities the Israelite slaves laboured to build. Per-Ramses was similarly identified as the city they fled Egypt from. No corroborating evidence of any mass migration from Per-Ramses has ever been found. Nor has any archaeological evidence of a major population movement been found in any other Egyptian city. Similarly, nothing in the archaeology of Per-Ramses suggests it was constructed using slave labour.
Ramses II’s Enduring Legacy
Amongst Egyptologists, Ramses II’s reign has acquired an air of controversy. Some academics claim Ramses was more a skilled propagandist and an effective king. Surviving records from his reign, both written and physical evidence gleaned from monuments and temples dating to around this time point to a secure and affluent reign.
Ramses was one of the very few Egyptian pharaohs who reigned long enough to participate in two Heb Sed festivals. These festivals were staged every thirty years to revitalize the king.
Ramses II secured Egypt’s borders, enhanced its wealth and influence, and expanded its trade routes. If he was guilty of boasting of his many achievements over his long reign in his monuments and inscriptions, it’s as a result of having much to be proud of. Moreover, every successful monarch needs to be a skilled propagandist!
Ramses the Great’s mummy reveals he was over six feet tall, had a firm jaw and a thin nose. He probably suffered from severe arthritis, arterial hardening and dental problems. Most likely he died from heart failure or simply old age.
Revered by later Egyptians as their ‘Great Ancestor,’ many pharaohs honoured him by adopting his name. Historians and Egyptologists may view some like Ramses III as more effective pharaohs. However, none surpassed Ramses’ achievements in the hearts and minds of his ancient Egyptian subjects.
Reflecting On The Past
Was Ramses really the brilliant and fearless military leader he liked to depict himself as or was he simply a skilled propagandist?
Header image courtesy: The New York Public Library The series of battles and conquests of Ramses II