Was Ramesses II really that great?

Emma Slattery Williams considers whether the fêted pharaoh – master builder, war hero and peace broker – was actually a brilliant propagandist who knew how to curate his image

Ramesses II holding prisoners

Ramesses II is often counted among Ancient Egypt’s greatest pharaohs. He certainly saw himself that way: he spent most of his reign covering his kingdom in monuments dedicated to himself. The third ruler of the 19th Dynasty had an unusually long kingship, fathered hundreds of children and – if you believe his own press – was a mighty warrior who could hold his ground against an entire army. “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley in his 1818 poem Ozymandias, adopting the name the Ancient Greeks used for Ramesses II. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

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Though Shelley’s poem is written as a cautionary tale – his Ozymandias’s mighty empire is long gone, and where it once was, “the lone and level sands stretch far away” – the memory of the real Ozymandias lives on. Ramesses II, son of Pharaoh Seti I and grandson of 19th Dynasty founder Ramesses I, was the mastermind of such an extensive programme of building across Egypt that his presence is difficult to escape even now – from Abu Simbel to Karnak, you can still see colossal statues bearing his likeness.

But does that mean he deserves the epithet of ‘the Great’ that was later bestowed on him? Ramesses II was born in c1303 BC to Seti’s consort Tuya. His first taste of battle came as a boy, during one of his father’s campaigns, though how old he was is unclear. What is known is that he had been named Captain of the Army by the age of ten and, at 14, was appointed as prince regent and bestowed with a household.

Ramesses ascended the throne when Seti I died in 1279 BC, and almost immediately moved the royal court from Thebes to a new site on the eastern Nile Delta. The magnificent city that blossomed here – with the modest name of Pi-Ramesses – would become home to more than 300,000 people. He would go on to rule for 67 years, the longest documented reign for any pharaoh, at a time when Ancient Egypt was at the peak of its power. His lands stretched from the Mediterranean to Nubia in modern-day Sudan.

The virile builder

The early years of his reign saw a focus on foreign policy, during which Ramesses led campaigns to reclaim lost lands and built a series of forts along the Nile Delta. But his longest-lasting legacy is in the form of the buildings and monuments he left behind.

In Ancient Egypt, the pharaohs were seen as alink between the gods and the common people, and were considered to be divine themselves. Ramesses was no exception. To ensure that he was always in the thoughts of his subjects, he commissioned more statues of himself than any other pharaoh. Typically, they featured a cobra on his crown, a sacred animal believed to protect against one’s enemies.

Experts gathered around the mummy of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II
Though he claimed divinity, Ramesses’ mummy revealed that he had poor circulation and arthritis. (Photo by Tony Comiti/Sygma via Getty Images)

He also made a point of ‘renovating’ statues and temples erected by pharaohs who had come before, with his cartouche – a hieroglyphic stamp bearing Ramesses’ name – found on buildings and statues that Ramesses definitely didn’t build. But it’s unclear if, by recycling colossal statues, he was trying to fill the land with his image in a cost-effective way, or if he intended to honour Ancient Egypt’s earlier rulers. Certainly, his influence is helped by the fact that his sculptors adopted the practice of carving ‘sunken’ reliefs that emerged in the 18th Dynasty; the alternative was the raised relief, which was much easier to erase, either by accident or intention.

The pinnacle of these projects was Abu Simbel – representing both a masterwork of building as well as political propaganda. Built to mark the 30th anniversary of his reign, this pair of temples on the Nile’s second cataract were cut directly into the sandstone cliffs.

It's estimated Ramesses had eight official wives and a number of concubines

The first, the Great Temple, was Ramesses’ own: a 30-foot high edifice, the door to which is flanked by four seated, 20-metre-high colossi representing the pharaoh, though it is ostensibly  dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty and Ptah. The neighbouring Small Temple (a still-substantial 12 metres high) is dedicated to Hathor in honour of Ramesses’ favourite and first wife, Chief Queen Nefertari.

As was common amongst pharaohs,Ramesses was married to several women at the same time; it’s estimated he had eight official wives and a number of concubines. But it was Nefertari who is thought to have been his favourite. They married while his father ruled and had ten children together. Indeed, Ramesses’ many children can be seen as more evidence of his great legacy – he is said to have sired more than 100 offspring throughout the course of his life.

Nefertari is assumed to have died by the time of Ramesses’ jubilee celebrations in the 30th year of his reign, and the completion of her temple at Abu Simbel. Her tomb in the Valley of the Queens is considered one of the most beautiful ever discovered. Images of Nefertari found across Egypt suggest she was famed for her beauty, and poetry written for her by Ramesses can be found within her tomb.

The great pharaoh’s greatest monuments

Abu Simbel

The two temples at Abu Simbel were carved into sandstone cliffs as a tribute to Ramesses II and his wife Nefertari. Four statues of the Pharaoh flank the entrance to the larger of the two, the Great Temple, so there can be no doubt asto who it belonged to. Twice a year, at sunrise, the inside of the Great Temple is illuminated, revealing the figures of Ptah of Memphis, Amen-Re of Thebes, Ra-Horakhty of Heliopolis and a deified Ramesses of Pi- Ramesses. In the 1960s, the temples were relocated 60 metres to protect them from the rising Nile.

Ramesseum

The funerary temple of Ramesses II in Thebes was dedicated to the king of the gods. The walls are covered in reliefs documenting the Battle of Kadesh, as well the Pharaoh’s other achievements. A colossal granite head of Ramesses that once stood at the doorway of the temple, known as the Younger Memnon, is now in the British Museum.

The Ptah Colossus

Near the ancient city of Memphis, temples were constructed for the creator god Ptah. Next to one of these temples, Ramesses had a colossal red granite statue of himself built. The 11-metre statue was found in 1820, broken into pieces. It has since been reconstructed and moved to Giza, in anticipation of the planned Grand Egyptian Museum due to open in 2020.

The tomb of Nefertari

Situated in the Valley of the Queens, Luxor, the tomb of Ramesses II’s first wife is one of the most exquisite tombs in all of Egypt. Nefertari was buried in a red granite tomb and surrounded by colourful scenes of her amongst the gods, emphasising her beauty. Looting over the years means that only fragments of her tomb remain, and of her mummy only her knees have been recovered.

Pi-Ramesses

Seti I built a palace on the site of Pi-Ramesses – now thought to be the modern-day village of Qantir. When Ramesses II ascended the throne, he moved Egypt’s capital there, creating a magnificent city full of lakes and lush trees. It was later superseded by the city of Tanis when its branch of the Nile silted up.

The mighty warrior

Artwork on the interior of the Grand Temple commemorates the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC, which Ramesses seems to have considered his greatest triumph – he had it recorded in reliefs across many other temples, too, as well as in poetry.

The city of Kadesh once belonged to Egypt, but had fallen to the Anatolian Hittite Empire during Seti I’s reign. It was perched in a precarious position, on the frontier of these rival empires. After leaving a detachment of soldiers at nearby Amurru, Ramesses set his sights on recapturing Kadesh. His army numbered 20,000, divided into four divisions of infantry and chariotry. On the way, he managed to apprehend some Hittite deserters, who brought him the welcome news that the terrified Hittites were still more than 100 miles away. “is fuelled Ramesses’ self-belief in victory – he saw himself as the living incarnation of Montu, the Egyptian god of war.

With an unshakeable confidence in his might, he marched towards Kadesh only to come across more Hittite soldiers, who were this time more honest in their confessions. Ramesses had fallen for the oldest trick in the book: the Hittites, under the leadership of King Muwatalli II, had already reached Kadesh and were waiting just over the hill. Ramesses’ armies weren’t prepared, with two divisions still on the wrong side of the Orontes River. The royal family, which had come with the army to witness Ramesses’ triumph, were swiftly taken to safety as many of his men fled in terror.

His near defeat was spun into a masterful retelling of victory, applauding the fearless king

How the rest of the battle played out is unclear as Ramesses created a fantastic tale of his godlike prowess as a warrior and swift victory – if we are to believe the Pharaoh, he defeated them single-handedly after praying to Amen-Re to make him stronger than any other man: “I found that my heart grew stout and my breast swelled with joy. Everything which I attempted I succeeded … I found the enemy chariots scattering before my horses. Not one of them could fight me. Their hearts quaked with fear when they saw me and their arms went limp so they could not shoot.”

What is likely is that the Egyptians had the superior technology that was better suited to the environment, in the form of lighter, more mobile chariots. What’s more, the forces that had been left in Amurru unexpectedly arrived, forcing the Hittites to retreat. With the armies on opposing sides of the river, a truce was negotiated – though both sides claim it was the other who pleaded for peace. Though victory was a close-run thing, you wouldn’t have thought it on Ramesses’ return. His near defeat was spun into a masterful retelling of victory; accounts subsequently inscribed on temples across his kingdom all applaud the fearless warrior king.

“His Majesty was confident, an unstoppable fighting force,” reads one. “Everything near him was ablaze with fire – all the foreign lands were blasted by his scorching breath. He slaughtered all the troops of the doomed Hittite, his nobleman and his brothers, along with the chiefs of all the countries which had supported him. His infantry and chariotry fell on their faces, one on top of the other. His majesty struck them down and killed them where they stood.”

The first peace

Ramesses returned victorious, but he still hadn’t retaken Kadesh – the city remained in Hittite hands, and their accounts recall a humiliated Ramesses being forced to retreat. Several local rulers were inspired by the battle to try and take on the Pharaoh, forcing him to reassert his power in Syria, Amurru and Canaan, and over the next few years he regained several cities and regions that had previously been lost.

The unexpected death of the Hittite King Muwatalli in c1272 BC prompted a succession crisis that wasn’t fully resolved until c1267 BC, when Muwatalli’s brother, Hattusilis, staged a coup against his nephew, Urhi-Teshub. Urhi- Teshub sought refuge in Egypt, leading to a diplomatic crisis when Ramesses denied all knowledge of his whereabouts to Hattusilis.

War was nearly resumed, forestalled only when the two rulers realised that the Assyrians were becoming a greater threat than either were to each other. Sixteen years after the Battle of Kadesh, they negotiated a treaty to respect each other’s territory and defend each other against attack. This treaty is believed to be the earliest surviving peace treaty in the world and the only ancient Near East treaty where both sides of the agreement still exist.

As Ramesses’ reign went on, his building campaigns seemed to decline – economic uncertainty in Egypt is hinted at as a possible reason. In Ramesses’ later years, his eldest surviving son, Merenptah, began taking on royal duties and was pharaoh in all but name during the last decade of his father’s life. Ramesses II is believed to have died in the August of his 67th year of rule, at the age of 91.

Emma Slattery Williams is Staff Writer on BBC History Revealed.

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This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed