Was Ramesses II the greatest pharaoh of ancient Egypt?
Ramesses the Great was a genius in the art of self-promotion with epic palaces, jaw-dropping temples and sycophantic scribes all projecting his brilliance. But, asks Toby Wilkinson, do the achievements of Egypt’s ‘king of kings’ truly justify the hype?
In the long annals of ancient Egyptian history, only one pharaoh is accorded the epithet ‘the Great’: Ramesses II, third ruler of the 19th dynasty, who reigned for 66 years and two months in the 13th century BC (1279–1213). Lauded, like all pharaohs, during his lifetime, Ramesses also achieved lasting, posthumous fame as an exemplar of royal majesty and might.
Before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb a century ago, Ramesses II was without doubt the most famous pharaoh. When writers wanted to conjure up the world of ancient Egypt – its divine kingship and monumental architecture, its abundance and imperial grandeur – they thought of Ramesses.
Watch: Did Ramesses really have a passport?
A simple list of his achievements is impressive enough: he sired more children, and left behind more monuments, than any other pharaoh; he celebrated 13 jubilees and lived into his nineties; he fortified Egypt’s borders, and maintained its commercial and diplomatic influence; he negotiated the earliest known comprehensive peace treaty in history with Egypt’s arch-enemy, and presided over a glittering court which drove innovations in literature, art, architecture and scholarship. But other Egyptian pharaohs could – and did – claim similar accomplishments.
What made Ramesses II a truly great king?
To examine that question we might first turn to the opening five books of the Hebrew Bible, compiled 700 years after Ramesses’ death, where the pharaoh is mentioned by name no fewer than four times. The Greek writer Herodotus, now regarded as the ‘father of history’, recounted tales he had heard about a pharaoh called ‘Rhampsinitus’ and claimed to have seen some of the king’s constructions in the ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis. In the first and second centuries AD, the Roman authors Pliny and Tacitus mentioned ‘Ramses’ and ‘Rhamses’ respectively.
Most influential, in terms of Ramesses’ enduring reputation, was the first-century BC Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. He had heard of a pharaoh called ‘Remphis’. Yet when writing about his magnificent memorial temple on the west bank of the Nile opposite modern Luxor (a building known today as the Ramesseum), Diodorus referred to it as the “tomb of Osymandyas”, a garbled Greek rendering of Ramesses’ throne-name, Usermaatra.
When writers wanted to conjure up the world of ancient Egypt – its divine kingship and monumental architecture, its abundance and imperial grandeur – they thought of Ramesses
Thus the legend of Ozymandias was born. Diodorus claimed (fictitiously) to have read an inscription carved into the stones of the temple: “King of Kings am I, Osymandyas. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.” These lines would later prove the inspiration for Shelley’s famous sonnet: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings / Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Ozymandias was published in January 1818, as a colossal bust of Ramesses II, hauled from its resting place in the Ramesseum, was making its way to England to become the prize exhibit at the British Museum. Its acquisition confirmed 19th-century Britain’s own aspirations: a new empire basking in Ramesses’ aura.
The excitement surrounding Ramesses and his achievements was rekindled, too, in the 20th century. In the 1960s, the Unesco campaign to salvage the monuments of Nubia from the rising waters of Lake Nasser was exemplified by the rescue of Ramesses’ great temples at Abu Simbel. In 1976, the French brought the mummified body of Ramesses to Paris, for conservation and scientific study.
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The dead pharaoh was received with full military honours at Paris’s Le Bourget airport; his return journey to Cairo the following year was in a casket draped with a mantle of deep blue velvet, adorned with the water lily and papyrus (symbolising Upper and Lower Egypt) embroidered in gold thread. Intoxicated with Ramesses’ legend, the wilder elements of the press ran the story that he had been issued with his own passport, listing his occupation as “King (deceased)”.
Does Ramesses II deserve his reputation as the greatest pharaoh?
Setting aside the hype and hyperbole, was Ramesses II really that ‘the great’? He certainly had the good fortune to reign at a time when Egyptian power was at its zenith. The New Kingdom (1539–1069 BC) was a period of imperial dominance, when the kings of Egypt ruled a territory that extended from Syria to the fourth Nile Cataract, a distance of more than 1,000 miles. Within this vast realm, the pharaohs had access to the great timber stands of Lebanon, the copper mines of Sinai, the gold reserves of Nubia, the trading networks of the near east, and the ports of the eastern Mediterranean.
Egypt under Ramesses was the richest and most powerful it would ever be. Ramesses used this unprecedented wealth and influence in keeping with the age-old ideal of Egyptian kingship, but also with new-found zeal. The first defining theme of his reign was the projection of Egyptian power in the near east, in particular against Egypt’s arch-rival, the Hittites.
Born around 1304 BC, Ramesses himself came from a military family. His grandfather and founder of the 19th dynasty, Ramesses I (reigned 1292–1290), after whom he was named, had forged a successful career in the army before being named heir to the throne. Meanwhile, his father, Seti I (r1290–1279), was a successful warrior-pharaoh, leading a series of campaigns to secure Egyptian hegemony in the near east, and restoring Egypt’s reputation on the international stage.
5 of the other ‘greatest’ pharaohs of Egypt
Djoser (reigned c2650–2620 BC)
Succeeding to the throne after a period of instability, Djoser was the first king of the third dynasty. Presiding over a peaceful and prosperous kingdom, he surrounded himself with a glittering court whose members included the architect and sage Imhotep, later venerated as a god of wisdom and healing.
Djoser was the first great builder in pharaonic history, and commissioned Egypt’s first large-scale stone monument, the Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara. Later historians regarded Djoser’s reign as marking the start of a new era. In art, architecture and administration, he inaugurated the first flowering of Egyptian civilisation, the Pyramid Age.
Khufu (reigned c2545–2525 BC)
Famous as the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, Khufu reigned over Egypt at the height of the Old Kingdom. The pyramid itself represents an unprecedented feat of architecture and engineering. The administrative apparatus that underpinned pyramid building was equally impressive in scale, and meticulous in planning and execution.
It included copper mining in Sinai to supply bronze tools, the construction of a new city to house the workers, and the development of new agricultural estates to feed them. But such an ambitious project did little for Khufu’s reputation: he was vilified by later generations as a tyrant.
Mentuhotep II (reigned c2010–1960 BC)
Mentuhotep II was regarded by the ancient Egyptians themselves as one of their greatest kings. He reunified the country after a protracted civil war (leading his Theban troops to a decisive victory), reorganised the administration and established his home town of Thebes as a royal and religious capital.
Mentuhotep built the earliest temple at Karnak and the first memorial temple in western Thebes, but also patronised cults throughout Egypt. He conquered Lower Nubia to secure access to the region’s gold supplies, and was a great patron of the arts, commissioning outstanding reliefs and sculpture.
Thutmose I (reigned c1493–1481 BC)
Having been adopted into the 18th dynasty royal family, Thutmose I brought new energy and determination to the kingship. His greatest achievements were as a military leader and empire builder. He extended the borders of Egypt, winning by force of arms a territory that stretched from the banks of the Euphrates in central Syria to the Fourth Nile Cataract in Upper Nubia.
The wealth that flowed from these conquests made New Kingdom Egypt the dominant power in the near east. Subsequent pharaohs sought to match, but never surpassed, his success on the battlefield.
Amenhotep III (reigned c1390–1353 BC)
Known in his lifetime as ‘the dazzling sun’, Amenhotep III presided over a golden age of pharaonic civilisation. Reaping the rewards of his predecessors’ military achievements, he spent Egypt’s vast wealth on a series of breathtaking monuments, including the solar court of Luxor Temple.
His memorial temple at western Thebes dwarfed its predecessors, with the Colossi of Memnon standing guard at its entrance. Amenhotep promoted the legend of his own divine birth, and the jubilee celebrations marking the 30th year of his reign were unprecedented in their scale, featuring gilded boats sailing on vast artificial lakes.
When Ramesses II came to the throne in 1279 BC, a tall, striking, red-haired man in his mid-twenties, he felt the need to maintain – and if possible enhance – his father’s and grandfather’s legacy. After a small-scale operation to test the battle readiness of his troops, he launched a major offensive in the spring of 1274.
Its bold objective was to recapture the strategic city of Kadesh, situated on the river Orontes in northern Syria, which had fallen under Hittite control. Over the previous 50 years, the Hittite kingdom had expanded from its heartland in central Anatolia to become the dominant power across a vast swathe of the near east. This brought it into direct confrontation with the Egyptians. The clash between the two powers at Kadesh would prove the defining event of Ramesses’ reign.
What happened at the battle of Kadesh?
In simple, military terms, the battle of Kadesh was a strategic failure and a near disaster for Egypt. Misinformation relayed by Hittite spies lulled the Egyptian army into a false sense of security. One of the pharaoh’s four divisions was attacked as it headed unsuspectingly towards camp, and panic ensued, troops scattering in all directions.
Ramesses himself, at the vanguard of his army, was left dangerously exposed, surrounded by enemy chariots. Only the nick-of-time arrival of an Egyptian reserve force saved the day for the pharaoh; the following morning, the Egyptian and Hittite armies fought each other to a stalemate. Ramesses failed to recapture Kadesh, and his army headed home, its tail between its legs.
Ramesses’ genius was to transmute defeat into a myth of his personal heroism, and then to promulgate that myth – in word and image – for the rest of his reign, in a relentless propaganda campaign. Royal scribes composed a prose account of the battle (which Egyptologists call ‘the Bulletin’) and a much longer, epic poem (‘the Poem’). Both took as their central theme the leadership, sang froid and bravery of the king, which were pointedly – and repeatedly – contrasted with the cravenness and cowardliness of his army:
There was no officer with me, no charioteer,
No soldier of the army, no shield bearer.
My infantry and my chariotry ran away before them [the enemy];
Not one of them stood firm to fight with them…
I am all alone and there is nobody with me!
My great army has deserted me;
Not one of my chariotry looks out for me.
I keep shouting for them,
But none of them heeds my call
This approach was unprecedented in Egyptian literature: earlier kings had asserted superhuman powers of insight and leadership, but always in comparison with foreign enemies, never at the expense of their own subjects. Ramesses’ very personal propaganda campaign broke new ground.
It was also pursued with unparalleled intensity. The mythologised events of the battle of Kadesh were depicted in two large scale artistic compositions, with the king at their centre, which were then carved on the walls of major temples the length and breadth of Egypt, often on the outside where they could be seen by the general population.
Indeed, the second, defining theme of Ramesses’ reign was the projection of his own image – in word, art and, above all, architecture. In pursuit of this objective, he became the greatest builder in ancient Egyptian history. He appropriated huge numbers of his predecessors’ temples and statues, carving his name over theirs in hieroglyphs cut so deeply that no successor would be able to erase them. (Tourists to Egypt soon learn to recognise the names of Ramesses II, from this feature alone.) He also commissioned a record number of new monuments, on a grander scale than anything seen before or after.
What building projects did Ramesses II complete?
The list of Ramesses’ building projects is astonishing. In Nubia, he constructed a series of eight rock-cut temples, foremost among them the twin temples at Abu Simbel dedicated to the king and his first (and favourite) wife, Nefertari. In western Thebes, in addition to the Ramesseum, he commissioned seven royal tombs: for himself, his chief wives and his children. The tomb of Nefertari ranks as perhaps the most beautiful in Egypt, while the tomb excavated for Ramesses’ sons is the largest discovered in the Valley of the Kings.
On the opposite bank of the Nile, Ramesses completed the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak – the temple’s most impressive feature – and added a new court and façade to Luxor Temple, complete with a pair of obelisks and two colossal statues of himself. At Abydos, cradle of Egyptian kingship, he completed his father’s memorial temple and built another for himself.
He made extensive additions at the temples of Heliopolis and Memphis, and he added new shrines at sites from Buto in the north-western Delta to Gebel el-Silsila in the southern Nile Valley. Brand new temples were erected at Herakleopolis and Sheikh Ibada, and a string of forts constructed along Egypt’s border with Libya.
Surpassing all these was Ramesses’ most ambitious project, begun at the start of his reign: the transformation of his father’s summer palace in the north-eastern Delta into a vast new imperial capital. It was named, with typical bombast, ‘The House of Ramesses beloved of Amun, great of victories’. Per-Ramesses, as it is known today, covered an area of some 250 acres. It was a city of waterways, extensive residential neighbourhoods and grand temples; its numerous places of worship catering to a multicultural and multi-faith population, constituted perhaps the greatest collection of religious foundations ever built by a single ruler.
Per-Ramesses, as it is known today, covered an area of some 250 acres. It was a city of waterways, extensive residential neighbourhoods and grand temples; its numerous places of worship catering to a multicultural and multi-faith population
Per-Ramesses also had a magnificent complex of palace buildings, complete with ornamental pleasure gardens and a royal zoo. “It is a very beautiful place that, although it resembles Thebes, has no equal,” observed an early visitor named Pabasa. “Life in the residence is pleasant; its fields abound with all sorts of good produce; each day it is well endowed with good food. Its canals are filled with fish, and its marshlands with birds… Its granaries are filled with barley and wheat.”
And that was not all. Per-Ramesses was also designed, from the outset, as a military base. It had a royal stud with stabling for 460 horses, a huge chariotry garrison, and a bronze foundry covering more than seven acres (the largest known from the ancient world), complete with specialised, high-temperature furnaces for the production of weapons. Military-industrial complex, royal residence, commercial centre, religious and ceremonial capital: Per-Ramesses epitomised the vaunting ambition of its royal creator.
From the moment he came to the throne, Ramesses had one eye on his inheritance – determined to prove a worthy successor to his father and grandfather – and another on his legacy – determined to ensure the legitimacy and continuation of the dynasty.
These two preoccupations coloured the tenor of his reign and all his major decisions: to campaign against the Hittites at Kadesh; to mythologise the outcome of the battle; to build on an unprecedented scale; to commission his own historical research (the compilation of Egypt’s most accurate lists of kings); to promote his own deification, in his own lifetime; and to father a record number of offspring (at least 50 sons and as many daughters).
What is the legacy of Ramesses II?
For all the self-aggrandisement and jaw-dropping architecture, Ramesses’ record of achievement was mixed. On the positive side of the ledger, the battle of Kadesh, though a strategic failure, paved the way for a diplomatic triumph: a comprehensive peace treaty with the Hittites which ushered in an era of stability across the near east. The ‘peace dividend’ enabled Ramesses to concentrate on his building projects, including the fortification of Egypt’s western frontier, thus safeguarding the country from invasion a century later when many other civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean succumbed.
On the negative side, Ramesses’ urge to father a dynasty had the unintended consequence of destabilising the line of succession in subsequent generations, when countless royal offspring emerged as possible claimants to the throne. (Ramesses himself outlived three of his designated heirs, eventually being succeeded by his 13th son, Merenptah.)
Yet, for all the triumphs and failures, Ramesses II’s own reputation, so assiduously promoted during his long years on the throne, endured for centuries. Like rulers before and since, he created his own myth, adjusting the facts to suit his desired narrative. It is surely Ramesses’ achievements as a self-propagandist, given concrete form through an astonishing architectural legacy, that justify his claim to greatness.
- On the podcast | Toby Wilkinson explores the reign of Ramesses II and considers whether he really was the most accomplished of all Egyptian pharaohs
This article was first published in the August 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Toby Wilkinson is an Egyptologist and author of Ramesses the Great: Egypt’s King of Kings (Yale University Press, 2023)
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