Ramesses the Great – Legendary Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt Documentary
The man known to history as Ramesses the Great, known simply as Ramesses in his lifetime, was born in the late fourteenth century BC. Scholars tend to hold that he was most likely born in the year 1303 BC, but there is no extant information as to his exact date of birth. His father was a member of a leading aristocratic and military family which hailed from the northern part of Egypt, probably from one of the several fortified urban centres of the Nile River Delta. His original name is unclear, but he would later become known as Seti I, as we will see. Ramesses’s mother was Tuya, the daughter of a military officer named Raia, and so a member of the Egyptian military nobility herself. Ramesses was born into a world that had been going through one of the first golden ages of ancient times.
This was the height of the Bronze Age and powerful, centralised states had emerged in many parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. The Greek world was dominated by powers like the Mycenae on the mainland and the Minoans on the island of Crete, and, throughout this time, complex literary and artistic societies were beginning to emerge in ways which would shape the ancient world for centuries to come. In what is now Turkey the powerful Hittite Empire had emerged, centred on the city of Hattusa. Shortly before Ramesses’s birth it had begun conquering parts of the Levant and Mesopotamia and was effectively Egypt’s most significant rival for power in the region. Further to the south-east a number of significant states existed in Mesopotamia proper and Persia, notably the Babylonian Empire and the Assyrian Empire.
Each of these polities was wealthy, had complex bureaucracies and was engaged in extensive trade across this Bronze Age world. For instance, a trader or merchant in a city like Tyre or Sidon in the Levant in the fourteenth century BC could purchase pottery from Knossos in Crete, olive oil from Athens in Greece, papyrus from Egypt and textiles from Mesopotamia and Persia, all bought and sold in copper, gold and silver mined in places like western Anatolia under the Hittites’ control or Cyprus, a major centre of copper mining, a necessity in order to make bronze chariots, weapons and other utensils. Egypt itself was no exception to this story of prosperity.
This was an era known as the New Kingdom period, one which had begun in the sixteenth century BC and which would extend beyond Ramesses’s own time. The term ‘New Kingdom’ is a relatively modern construct, having been coined in the nineteenth century, but it is typically accepted by Egyptologists as accurately describing a distinct period of Bronze Age culture in Egypt which was more prosperous than anything which had preceded it there, even the Old Kingdom culture of the pharaohs who built the great pyramids at Giza a millennium earlier. During this New Kingdom period the pharaohs developed a powerful government overseen by viziers and many scribes. A large military was also kept at the ready, powered by new technologies such as chariots and weapons made of bronze. With all this in train the pharaohs were not only able to collect a greater amount of taxes and govern more efficiently at home, but the New Kingdom empire expanded in all directions, with outposts being established further down the River Nile than ever before into what is now Sudan, but which was then known as Nubia, and a growing amount of territory being acquired on the Sinai Peninsula and northwards into Canaan and Lebanon.
This empire had reached a particular peak in the fifteenth century BC during the long reign of Pharaoh Thutmose III, whose conquests extended the Egyptian kingdom north-east into parts of modern-day Syria and northern Iraq. Little is known about the specifics of Ramesses’s own childhood, but the political developments of the time were extremely significant. At the time he was born Egypt was ruled by Pharaoh Horemheb, a member of the 18th Dynasty of Egyptian Pharaohs. Horemheb is known for having restored a certain amount of stability to Egypt’s domestic politics after a tumultuous period during which a near predecessor, Akhenaten, had attempted to establish a monotheistic cult of the sun, replacing the traditional religious and political structures of Egypt.
This caused enormous unrest within Egypt and led to its decline as an international power. Horemheb reversed many of these decisions and quelled the unrest Akhenaten had created along the course of the River Nile, but he appears to have had no surviving sons and no biological successor. As such he decided to designate the head of his government, the grand vizier, Paramesse, as his successor. Paramesse was Ramesses’s grandfather and so the family ascended to become the 19th Dynasty of Egyptian Pharaohs when Paramesse became the Pharaoh, adopting the regnal name Ramesses I, around 1292 BC. He ruled for just a few short years, before his death, at which time Ramesses’s father succeeded him as second pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty, adopting the name Seti I in honour of Seth, the Egyptian god of war.
Ramesses was now the heir to the throne of New Kingdom Egypt, as he was soon appointed as prince regent by his father who would reign for just over a decade, during which time he began to re-establish Egyptian control over some of the territory which had been held to the north-east in Canaan and Syria under earlier rulers such as Thutmose III, but which had been lost as a result of the divided state of the kingdom during Akhenaten’s reign and religious reforms. Ramesses doubtless accompanied his father in some of his campaigns north-east into the Levant and gained valuable military experience during his time as prince regent. He would soon need this experience, as he ascended to the throne as a relatively young man.
He is known to have become pharaoh on the 27th day of the Season of the Harvest in a particular year of his father’s reign, one which is believed to equate to an accession date of 31 May 1279 BC. He would reign for the next 66 years in what is typically accounted as the most significant reign of any Egyptian pharaoh, adopting the full regnal name Usermaatre Setepenre, meaning roughly, ‘the law or harmony of Ra, the Egyptian sun god, is powerful, I am chosen of Ra’. Ramesses’s first major act as the new ruler of Egypt was to deal with a threat which had been growing in the northern parts of the kingdom for several years.
Even before his accession sea pirates, known as the Sherden sea pirates, had been raiding the northern coast of the kingdom into the River Nile Delta from the Eastern Mediterranean. This was one of the most prosperous and important parts of Ramesses’s kingdom and it was vital that these encroachments be stopped. Thus, beginning in the second year of his reign he began establishing forts along the northern coast of the kingdom and north-eastwards towards Sinai and Canaan.
New ships were also constructed to patrol the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean and warning posts were set up to signal to larger settlements when raiding parties were making their way towards the Egyptian kingdom. All of this culminated in a major sea battle in which Ramesses and his navy were victorious. A stele or memorial stone commemorating this at Tanis in the north-east of the Nile Delta has survived down to modern times and provides evidence of this victory today, but the exact details of how it occurred or what it involved, other than that Ramesses scored an early victory, remain unclear. Having stabilised the Northern shores of Egypt and the Nile Delta, Ramesses’s primary aim became to restore Egyptian control over Canaan and other parts of the Levant, as had existed in earlier times. This was a paramount concern.
While Egypt itself was an affluent land based on the bounteous agriculture practiced along the shores of the River Nile and the production of pottery and papyrus in cities like Thebes and Memphis, the most affluent cities in the Late Bronze Age world lay in Canaan, cities like Tyre and Sidon which were at the crossroads of all the major empires and were major trading centres as a result. Consequently, Ramesses was anxious to restore Egyptian rule over the region, as had existed two centuries earlier in the time of Thutmose III. However, while there was no state with an army sufficient to withstand Egypt within Canaan and the southern reaches of the Levant, the region was also coveted by the Hittite Empire to the north.
Much of Ramesses’s rule would be concerned with trying to seize control of this region and stave off counterattacks by the Hittites. In the course of doing so he would fight arguably the most significant battle in the history of the Bronze Age. One of Ramesses’s first actions early in his reign was to construct a new capital in the north-eastern parts of the Nile Delta, in an effort to increase Egyptian power to the north-east into the Levant. The capital of pharaonic Egypt had moved around over the centuries. For instance, in ancient times during the Old Kingdom period it lay at Memphis near what is now Cairo. However, the capital during the New Kingdom Period was typically located well down the River Nile at what was known then as Thebes, but which we call Luxor today.
Akhenaten, the controversial pharaoh who a half century before Ramesses’s birth had attempted to establish a monotheistic religion centred on the worship of Aten, had established a new capital at Amarna as a centre of the new religion. Thus, there was a substantial precedent for moving the capital of the pharaonic kingdom. Ramesses named his new capital Pi-Ramesses near what is now the town of Qantir. Ramesses’s father, Seti I, had previously had a summer palace in the region and it seems likely that Ramesses had spent much of his youth here. Now, in the 1270s, he established it as a quasi-military capital with large workshops and factories erected to begin churning out significant quantities of weapons, armour and chariots. As such, Pi-Ramesses became a kind of administrative capital of Lower Egypt, but as we will see from Ramesses building programme, he never abandoned the belief that Thebes or Luxor was the religious and spiritual capital of Egypt.
In the earliest part of his wars against the Hittites Ramesses faced King Muwatalli II, the ruler of the Hittite Empire since the mid-1290s. This Muwatalli had taken advantage of Egyptian weakness early in his reign and moved his capital south from the traditional site at Hattusa in what is now central Turkey to Tarhuntussa in the south-east of the Konya Plain. It was indicative of how both rulers saw Canaan, Syria and the wider Levant as a contested region which they needed to be near that both Ramesses and Muwatalli moved their capitals to be closer to the Levant. In the earliest years of his reign Ramesses conducted annual military campaigns north-east from the Nile Delta. The first of these around 1275 BC resulted in the pharaoh cementing his control over southern Canaan, before campaigning further north to the region around modern-day Beirut. Here he had a commemorative stele or pylon erected at Nahr el-Kalb.
The text of this has been obliterated over time, but it almost certainly proclaimed Ramesses’s successes in campaigning this far north, a statement of Egypt’s claims to control the region. Similarly he engaged in further campaigns against the Amurru, a people who occupied much of what is now Syria as vassals of King Muwatalli and the Hittites. However, whatever nominal control over this region Ramesses was able to establish in 1275 was ephemeral. No sooner had he withdrawn back to Pi-Ramesses at the end of the campaigning season, than Egyptian influence in Syria effectively collapsed and the Hittites were able to re-impose themselves. The war between the Egyptians and the Hittites at this time has become widely renowned for a battle which it is generally accepted occurred in the year 1274 BC. This was the Battle of Qadesh or Kadesh near the city of Kadesh on the banks of the Orontes River in western Syria.
The Battle of Kadesh was clearly a highly significant one, involving armies of a very substantial size by the standards of the Late Bronze Age, but also being regarded as a unique or significant event by the parties involved. It is, for instance, the best documented military encounter of the second millennium BC, with both sides making extensive records concerning it in years to come in the form of tablets, wall paintings and inscriptions throughout Egypt and other parts of the Late Bronze Age world. Thus, the Battle of Kadesh was unquestionably believed by contemporaries to have been an era-defining military engagement. The background of the battle was Ramesses’s new campaign into Syria in 1274 BC. As with the previous year’s campaign his goal was to extend Egyptian power further north into Syria at the expense of the Hittites. Ramesses led four divisions of troops into Canaan and then north towards Syria that year.
These were named for some of the paramount Egyptian deities, Amun, Ra, Seth and Ptah, and consisted of perhaps as many as 40,000 men, with 2,000 chariots also provided for the campaign. These were augmented by thousands of Canaanite mercenaries who joined the pharaoh’s forces. However, not all of these forces were deployed at Kadesh and it seems probable that Ramesses forces did not exceed 30,000 men in total on the field of battle. Arrayed against him was Muwatalli’s army of somewhere between 25,000 and 45,000 men, with several thousand chariots also brought south into Syria.
Consequently the armies of the two sides were relatively evenly matched. A striking aspect of the engagement was the number of chariots deployed, with many Egyptologists and Hittite scholars speculating since that this was the largest chariot battle in history. In its initial stages Ramesses was caught off guard at Kadesh. He received false intelligence about the location of the main Hittite army far to the north, whereas in fact Muwatalli’s armies were stationed near Old Kadesh not far from the Egyptian advance party.
As a result, when the Hittites attacked, some of Ramesses’s main divisions of troops were far to the south and could not be brought into the field of battle. As a result the Ra division was scattered by a Hittite chariot assault in the first stages of the battle near Kadesh. However, this is the point at which Ramesses’s leadership is believed to have proved pivotal, as he steeled the Amun division of his troops and counter-attacked against the Hittites, breaking their chariot assault.
Some accounts have it that the fault also lay with the Hittites, who believing that their initial attack had proved conclusive had stopped to plunder the baggage trains and goods of the Ra division, leaving them exposed to Ramesses’s co-ordinated counterattack. Thereafter Muwatalli ordered his troops to retreat towards the Orontes River. Later Egyptian accounts suggest that the Ptah division now arrived to Kadesh and harried the Hittites. Muwatalli ordered a new counterattack led by his chariot divisions, but this was unable to break the Egyptian advanced. Eventually the Hittites were forced to flee northwards over the River Orontes, in many cases throwing their weapons and armour aside in order to swim through the river to safety. It is unclear exactly how conclusive the alleged Egyptian victory at Kadesh was.
Some Egyptologists believe that the battle was a major military victory for Ramesses. He certainly depicted it as such. For the rest of his long reign the pharaoh consistently erected stelae and had inscriptions and wall paintings placed in temples and in his palaces depicting Kadesh as a great victory for Egypt in Syria. These include the Kadesh Inscriptions or Bulletin and the Poem of Pentaur, a prose account of the Egyptian victory which is repeated on the walls of temples all along the course of the River Nile. The Poem is extant in eight different places, while the Bulletin is to be found inscribed in seven different locations around Egypt.
Consequently it is clearly something which Ramesses tried to establish as the official version of his alleged victory at Kadesh. But other scholars of the Late Bronze Age world are more sceptical, with some arguing that Kadesh was probably more of a stalemate than a victory for either side. Certainly it cannot have been the kind of comprehensive victory which Ramesses attempted to depict it as, for the battle did not lead to any major shift in the strategic situation in Syria. Rather the Egyptians and the Hittites continued to contest the region for many years to come. The Battle of Kadesh did not bring the war between Egypt and the Hittite Empire to a complete conclusion, though it did signal the end of the most intense initial period of clashes between the Egyptians and the Hittites. Skirmishes continued for years thereafter.
For instance, in 1269 BC Ramesses launched a new campaign into Syria during which he conquered the city of Dapur, however the pattern during the 1260s was that Ramesses was able to briefly acquire control over parts of Syria while he campaigned personally there, but longer term control over the region could not be maintained once the major Egyptian military presence was withdrawn. In recognition of this situation around 1259 BC the Egyptians and the Hittites agreed to what is variously called either the Egyptian-Hittite Treaty or the Eternal Treaty or Silver Treaty. This was signed between Ramesses II and Hattusili III who had succeeded as ruler of the Hittite Empire at some point in the 1260s.
The Eternal Treaty effectively brokered a lasting peace, one in which the two powers agreed to cease hostilities as it was costing both governments exorbitant amounts of money and achieving little for either. Thus, Syria was to become a sphere of Hittite influence, with Egypt largely confirmed in its control of Canaan and other more southerly parts of the Levant. Bonds were agreed and pledges made and the gods invoked as overseers of the Eternal Peace.
The Eternal Treaty is one of the most famed international agreements made in ancient times. This is owing to the highly unusual survival of multiple copies of the text over three millennia later in different languages. Copies of the text of the treaty in Egyptian hieroglyphics were found inscribed in two separate locations in Luxor in central Egypt in the first half of the nineteenth century. Then, in the first years of the twentieth century, the German archaeologist, Hugo Winckler, uncovered a copy of the text in the Akkadian language, the lingua franca of the Hittite Empire and other states of the Middle East in the thirteenth century BC, as part of a cache of approximately ten-thousand tablets which were discovered while excavating the ancient Hittite capital at Hattusa in Turkey. Thus, we have a remarkable example here of an international treaty being copied out and deposited in royal archives and temples in cities 2,000 kilometres away from each other over 3,200 years ago.
As to the motives of the respective parties, it is clear that both Ramesses and Hattusili had both come to believe that peace and the fostering of trade in the Levant would be more beneficial than a continuation of their rivalry, while both states were quite likely wary of the rise of the Assyrian Empire to the east in Mesopotamia and believed a united front against this upstart power was better than ongoing warfare in Syria. The signing of the Eternal Treaty also provided a respite for Ramesses in order for him to concentrate militarily on matters to the south of Egypt. For roughly a millennium between the middle of the third millennium BC down to roughly 1500 BC the region of modern-day Sudan had been independent of Egypt.
At the time it was known as Nubia and was dominated by the Kerma culture which produced states like the Kingdom of Kush. However, during the New Kingdom Period and in particular during the reign of Thutmose III Nubia had gradually been brought more and more under the control of pharaonic Egypt. As with Canaan and Syria, Egyptian control declined here as a result of the unrest created by Akhenaten’s rule in the fourteenth century BC, but Ramesses was now in a position to reverse this situation. Early in his reign he had already campaigned south of the First Cataract of the Nile. These cataracts are a series of locations along the course of the River Nile where the white-water rapids predominate, and were used at the time as intermediary points where Egyptian arms were extended as far as was possible in campaigns against the Nubians. By the 1260s Ramesses had effectively extended Egyptian control as far as the Second Cataract, which lies south of Abu Simbel and Wadi Halfa in what is now northern Sudan.
But the period following the establishment of the Eternal Treaty with the Hittites provided a military respite which allowed Ramesses to send forces further south again to the Third Cataract. This lies well into Sudan at the northern margin of the Dongola River. Here Ramesses was able to establish a southern military colony at Tombos, as evidenced by the discovery of pharaonic and royal inscriptions here in tombs built at the height of the New Kingdom in the thirteenth century BC. Thus, by the 1240s BC Ramesses had effectively brought a significant amount of Nubia under outright Egyptian control. Ramesses was soon campaigning westwards as well.
Our knowledge of Libya in ancient times is surprisingly limited for a region which was in close proximity to major centres of civilization such as Egypt and Crete. Generally speaking, the main settlement points here were a series of ports and oases along the north coast or slightly inland, but proximate to the Mediterranean Sea. The land here was known as Tjehenu to the Egyptians.
Libya is a name derived from later Greek descriptions of the region. Despite the lack of historical knowledge about the society that existed here in ancient times, there was significant contact between the Egyptians and Libya throughout the New Kingdom Period, mostly in the form of Berber raids into the western branches of the Nile Delta and Egyptian efforts to establish coastal colonies along the north of Libya. Ramesses attempted to further this effort by establishing new forts along the Mediterranean coastline and reinforcing a fort at Zawyet Umm El Rakham which his father, Seti I, had established earlier after campaigning against the Libyan tribes of the region. In the course of Ramesses’s reign this became the major western extremity of the Egyptian kingdom, though trade centres and vassal states were to be found further to the west in Libya proper.
These accomplishments, as with nearly everything else to do with Ramesses’s military endeavours, were recorded in a series of stelae and other monumental inscriptions in southern and central Egypt later in his reign. With these campaigns in Nubia and Libya, and the earlier endeavours in Canaan and Syria, by the middle of his reign Ramesses had succeeded in extending the Egyptian kingdom to the greatest point it had been at since the days of Thutmose III two centuries earlier. Beyond the pharaoh’s core control of Egypt, his forces had moved south along the River Nile, effectively repossessing Nubia after it had broadly regained its independence during the period of instability under Akhenaten in the fourteenth century BC. Elsewhere Ramesses had campaigned westwards into the deserts of the Sahara and along the north coast to bring Libya into a partial vassalage. However, it was his conquests to the north-east that were most substantial. Here Ramesses had captured Canaan and much of Syria.
It wasn't simply that this was one of the richest parts of the world at the time, with affluent trading cities like Tyre and Sidon, but in order to achieve some hegemony here Ramesses had to defeat one of the most substantial powers of the ancient world, the Hittite Empire. In doing so he carved out one of the largest territorial empires ever seen up to that time. Thus, in the Late Bronze Age Ramesses had arguably transformed New Kingdom Egypt into the most powerful state in the known world, a major achievement after the period of instability that had characterised Egypt as recently as the fourteenth century.
Throughout his military campaigns of the 1270s, 1260s and 1250s Ramesses was accompanied by an ever growing number of his sons. This is unsurprising when we consider that Ramesses is believed to have had approximately 100 children, of which a roughly equal amount were sons and daughters. Such a large brood was a by-product of the practice of polygamy by ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Ramesses had many wives, the details of several of which are well known.
For instance, his primary consort was Nefertari, the first of Ramesses Great Royal Wives. Her background is not precisely known, but some have speculated that she was descended from Pharaoh Ay who had ruled Egypt four decades prior to Ramesses’s accession as part of the 18th Dynasty. She and Ramesses evidently married quite young, as she became queen consort as soon as he ascended to the throne around 1279 BC.
They had many children together and on the strength of the numerous temples and shrines which Ramesses had built in her honour, there is no doubting that she was the most revered of his wives. She is also somewhat unique as a queen consort of the New Kingdom Period for whom we have extant correspondence. Nefertari wrote on multiple occasions to King Hattusili III, ruler of the Hittite Empire, and his wife, Puduhepa, in the 1260s and 1250s and tablets of this correspondence have been unearthed in the Hittite capital Hattusa. Nefertari died around 1255 and since Ramesses lived for many decades to come, new great wives emerged in the years that followed. Paramount amongst these was Isetnofret.
She too seems to have married Ramesses before his accession as pharaoh, but she was clearly a junior consort while Nefertari lived. Her seniority from the mid-1250s is attested to by numerous inscriptions and records of her which appear on statues and temple walls across Egypt. Other great wives of the pharaoh emerged from political arrangements. For instance, as part of the Eternal Treaty of 1259 BC with the Hittites, Ramesses took one of the daughters of King Hattusuli III and Queen Paduhepa as his wife, although the marriage to Maathorneferure was not solemnised until the mid-1240s BC, presumably as the Hittite king’s daughter was considered to be too young for the marriage to be formalised in the early 1250s BC. Curiously enough some of Ramesses’s other great royal wives included some of his daughters. Bintanath, for instance, was born from Ramesses’s marriage to Isetnofret, before later marrying her own father.
Such familial relationships were common throughout the history of Pharaonic Egypt and resulted in significant complications of inbreeding, the most famous example of which had been Tutankhamun fifty years before Ramesses’s reign. Tutankhamun suffered from multiple physical ailments, the exact nature of which are still debated, but which Egyptologists concur were most likely owing to the species of inbreeding that characterised Ramesses II’s own familial life in the thirteenth century BC. This extensive royal family was intimately connected throughout Ramesses’s long reign with the cult of Ra, the sun god and one of the paramount deities in the Egyptian religious system, who was also worshipped as Amun-Ra in a slightly different form. Ra, along with others such Ptah and Horus, were the paramount deities of the New Kingdom and, as we will see shortly, Ramesses’s extensive building programme across Egypt from the 1260s onwards made continuous efforts to associate the pharaoh with the cult of these particular deities.
From the early 1240s BC onwards, once Ramesses had reigned for over thirty years, he was also able to become the centre of his own species of religious cult in the shape of the Sed Festival or Feast of the Tail. This was a religious festival which was held annually to celebrate the reign of any pharaoh who had ruled for over thirty years. It was nominally held in honour of the wolf god, Sed or Wepwawet. The origins of the festival are somewhat macabre. It may have been the case that the Sed Festival was originally held as a ritual in which a long-lived pharaoh was ritually murdered, the idea being that once he reached a certain age it was time for him to be removed from power.
Over time the festival changed to one in which the king was honoured, rather than killed. Under Ramesses the Sed Festival was celebrated at the traditional capital, Thebes, for the first time in 1249 BC. Thereafter it was held every three years for as long as Ramesses lived. Such was the length of his reign that he went on to celebrate an unprecedented number of Sed Festivals.
If the first half of Ramesses’s reign was primarily dominated by warfare and the extension of the realm’s borders, the second half of it was remarkable for the extensive building projects which were undertaken by the Pharaoh. Ancient Egypt is synonymous with brilliant architectural achievement, but this was achieved at irregular intervals. For instance, the First Intermediate Period of Egyptian history, which occurred in the late third millennium BC prior to the advent of the subsequent Middle Kingdom, was a period of lacklustre building projects.
Conversely the New Kingdom Period, which had begun in the sixteenth century BC, saw a new age of major building projects commissioned by the pharaohs along the River Nile. Ramesses’s II was the greatest proponent of this new age of pharaonic patronage of religious and mortuary architecture. In fact his reign witnessed the most significant building programme seen since the days of pharaohs such as Cheops, who in the twenty-sixth century BC constructed the pyramid complex at Giza near modern-day Cairo, including the Great Pyramids, the only surviving wonder of the ancient world.
However, by the New Kingdom Period such monumental buildings as were constructed by Ramesses focused more on erecting great temples, obelisks and statues to honour the Pharaoh and the gods, rather than on giant pyramids to act as mortuary tombs. One of the most significant building projects undertaken by Ramesses was at Thebes or Luxor in central Egypt, the traditional capital of New Kingdom Egypt. Here Ramesses had the Ramesseum built on the Theban Necropolis, an elevated region on the west bank of the River Nile in the city where many other pharaohs had erected mortuary and religious buildings over the centuries.
The Ramesseum took roughly twenty years to complete and is effectively a temple with several courtyards surrounding it. Large stone pylons and gateways lead from courtyard to courtyard with a gigantic statue of Ramesses towering over the inner court. The temple itself consisted of three rooms with columns and terra-style cells dividing up the sanctuary. Throughout them stand many statues of the Egyptian gods and goddesses, while several colossal statues of Ramesses once adorned the temple.
Unfortunately, several of these were removed from Thebes in the nineteenth century and are now found in places in Europe such as the British Museum. On what remains, reliefs commemorate Ramesses’s victory at Kadesh and other accomplishments both inside and outside the temple. What is particularly interesting about the Ramesseum is that there is evidence that a scribal school was also established here, while a small royal palace stood next to the courtyard, indicating that this was a site with several other uses beyond its religious functions. It clearly served as a centre of pharaonic government in Thebes when Ramesses based himself out of the traditional New Kingdom capital.
Ramesses also ordered some construction work at Saqqara. This is a site not far from the great pyramids of Giza and where the first major pyramid ever built in ancient Egypt, that of Pharaoh Djoser of the 3rd Dynasty, was built in the twenty-seventh century BC. And Saqqara remained a major centre of monumental building work over the centuries. Ramesses decided to make his own contributions to the complexes here, in association with one of his eldest sons, Prince Khaemweset. For instance, the pair had the pyramid of Unas, a pharaoh of the 5th Dynasty who had lived in the twenty-fourth century BC, repaired and added an inscription to the southern façade of the edifice to indicate that they had overseen this restoration work.
Ramesses and his son also enlarged the Temple of Serapis or Serapeum at Saqqara, a major centre of the cult of Apis, the bull god of Egyptian mythology who was believed to be the physical manifestation of Ptah, the Egyptian god of crafts, merchants and the dead. Recent archaeological discoveries at Saqqara have also unearthed the tomb of Ptah-M-Wia, who served for a time as grand vizier and treasurer in the government of Ramesses II. His was not the only tomb built at Saqqara for senior government officials of Ramesses’s reign and the site at Saqqara highlights the esteem such bureaucrats were held in at the height of the New Kingdom in ancient Egypt. One of the most significant aspects of Ramesses’s building programme was the manner in which he used grand temples and buildings as a way of expressing the extension of Egyptian power into regions which had largely become independent of pharaonic rule in the fourteenth century BC. This was particularly the case to the south towards Nubia along the course of the River Nile. Ramesses had many temples constructed here on the way to what is now Sudan as an expression of the rejuvenation of Egyptian rule here.
One of the most impressive was the Temple of Beit el-Wali, which was built on an island in the middle of the River Nile just a few kilometres from Aswan in southern Egypt. This was dedicated to some of the foremost Egyptian deities of the New Kingdom Period, Amun-Ra, Re-Horakhti, Khnum and Anuket. It is notable for having some of the best preserved and most impressive wall painting reliefs from ancient Egypt, many of which depict Ramesses’s campaigns into Nubia and his subjugation of the region. His campaigns into Syria and Libya are also depicted. Over a hundred kilometres to the south, on the west bank of the River Nile, Ramesses had the two temples of Wadi es-Sebua also constructed, renovating one earlier temple in the process.
The site here was used as a stop off point for boats traversing the Nile to and from Nubia. Ramesses thus had the temples constructed in a location where many people visited and dedicated them both to himself and Amun-Ra. Perhaps the most striking architectural feature here are rows of sphinxes which depicted Ramesses as individuals entered and left the temples. Perhaps the greatest building project undertaken by Ramesses, though, lay far to the south of Luxor near what is now the border between Egypt and Sudan at the Second Nile Cataract. This was the temple complex near what was then known as Ipsambul, but which we know today as Abu Simbel.
Here Ramesses had initiated the construction of two temples back in the mid-1260s. They would take twenty years to complete, but eventually resulted in two large temples carved in a sheer rock-face near the village. One of these was dedicated to Ramesses himself and the smaller one was in honour of the pharaoh’s primary consort, Queen Nefertari. When it was completed in 1244 BC the Great Temple was inscribed as having been built as, quote, “The Temple of Ramesses, beloved of Amun.”
It consisted of a grand entrance which led into a temple dedicated to several of the major Egyptian deities. Sculptures and reliefs adorned the interior. It is also believed that the temple was built in such a way that the chamber flooded with sunlight on the 22nd of October and the 22nd of February every year, illuminating the statues here. It is speculated that these dates are significant as possibly being the dates of Ramesses’s birth and coronation as pharaoh. Moreover, the reliefs and sculptures are celebratory of Ramesses’s reign, with his military campaigns and his victories depicted on the walls, notably the Battle of Kadesh. While the interior of the Temple of Abu Simbel is impressive, the most notable aspect of the temple complex is the series of colossal statues, which were erected on either side of the main entrance outside the temple.
At the grand temple there are four such colossal statues, two to either side of the entrance. All four of these depict Ramesses and stand approximately twenty metres tall, making them some of the largest pharaonic statues ever carved during the three millennia of ancient Egyptian history. It is difficult to get a precise idea of how vast these statues are from looking at photographs, but if one stands next to them an individual only reaches up to the pharaoh’s feet, with the remainder of the statues towering well above. On each statue Ramesses was depicted wearing the dual crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, a statement here in the border region between Egypt and Nubia, that the pharaoh was lord of the land of the River Nile both to the south and the north. Thus, the Temple of Abu Simbel was meant as a statement of Ramesses’s power and rule over Egypt, a proclamation of sorts to those south of Abu Simbel that the pharaohs reigned here yet again. Abu Simbel is the pinnacle of Ramesses’s building programme.
Ramesses’s reign is notable for its length. Having most likely succeeded his father in 1279 BC he is believed to have ruled for over 65 years. However, what is somewhat unusual about this long reign is how unremarkable the second half of it was and in particular the last two decades or so of Ramesses’s reign.
All of the notable events of his time as pharaoh, from the Battle of Kadesh to the Eternal Treaty and the campaigns west to Libya and south into Nubia, all occurred in the first twenty or so years of his rule. Even the monumental building programmes which he undertook at Abu Simbel, Thebes and elsewhere, although many of them took upwards of twenty years to complete, were generally finished by the early 1230s BC. By way of comparison, the last twenty or so years of Ramesses II’s reign are something of a mystery. There is little evidence of major events or what he may have been doing. This is quite possibly because the pharaoh spent many years ill towards the end of his life and with his health declining. Scientific analysis of his mummy in recent times has revealed that Ramesses suffered from a range of ailments in old age, including arthritis, atherosclerosis and severe dental issues.
But he survived for an immense amount of time despite these illnesses. Such evidence as we have indicates Ramesses II did not die until 1213 BC in the 66th year of his reign, probably aged around 90, an extraordinarily long life by the standards of the time. He was originally interred in the Valley of the Kings where many pharaohs were interred in the hills outside Thebes, but owing to looting of the graves here his body was moved on several occasions. Like all the ancient pharaohs he was mummified, meaning that his body was partially preserved across the centuries. Ramesses was succeeded by his son, Merneptah, who took the regnal name, Ba-en-re Mery-netjeru, which means, “The Soul of Ra, Beloved of the Gods.” This Merneptah is believed to have been the thirteenth son of Ramesses, a development which should have placed him well down the pecking order of possible successors to his father.
However, Ramesses had lived for so long, that a huge number of his older sons had died. Indeed Merneptah was probably well into his sixties by the time of his own accession and his reign would only last ten years. The most significant development during his reign was a victory which he won over the tribes of Libya at the Battle of Perire in 1208 BC. Thereafter there was a quick succession of pharaohs before the 19th Dynasty came to an end with the dying out of Ramesses’s direct line of descent in 1189 BC.
Thus, the dynasty lasted for just over a century and was completely dominated by the reign of Ramesses II. However, in recognition of the extraordinary reign of Ramesses the Great, many pharaohs of the 20th Dynasty adopted his regnal name. In all there were eventually eleven Ramesses, the last being Ramesses XI of the 20th Dynasty, who died around 1077 BC. In death Ramesses II has acquired an even greater historical fame over the years as it has been regularly speculated that he is the pharaoh of the story of the book of Exodus in the Old Testament. This is one of the earliest sections of the Old Testament and is central to both Judaism and Christianity. In it the story of the Jews who are effectively living as slaves in what is termed the Land of Goshen, but which is Pharaonic Egypt, is related.
This picks up from the book of Genesis, which had related how Joseph, the son of the Hebrew prophet Jacob, had been tricked by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt. Over the next several generations a large community of Jewish slaves came to live in Egypt under the subjucation of the Egyptian pharaohs. In Exodus we read the story of how the Jewish prophet Moses, is placed in a reed basket and sent down the River Nile by his mother, Jochebed, after the Pharaoh had ordered the murder of Jewish children following concern about the number of Jews or Israelites that were then present in Egypt. Moses is subsequently found and adopted into the pharaoh’s household where he gains the affection of the Egyptian king, but Moses clashes with the pharaoh’s biological son. Eventually he realises he is one of the Israelites and leads his people out of Egypt by parting the Red Sea as the pharaoh’s forces attempt to chase him.
The debate on Ramesses is whether he could be identified as being either the ruling pharaoh of the book of Exodus or his biological son who becomes Moses’s rival. There is really no substantive case, however, in either instance for speculating to this effect. The book of Exodus makes no effort to identify the historical figures who might have been involved in Pharaonic Egypt at the time and the historicity of the events of the Old Testament are, of course, open to speculation as well.
Consequently, different writers have speculated that a wide range of pharaohs dating from as early as the seventeenth century BC and as late as the twelfth century BC may be the pharaoh of the book of Exodus or his biological son. An unusually high proportion of people have been anxious to suggest it was Ramesses II who was the pharaoh at the time, with this line being favoured in more than one prominent Hollywood treatment of Moses’s life, notably The Ten Commandments of 1956 in which Ramesses was depicted by Yul Brynner. These depictions are largely due to Ramesses being the most prominent pharaoh of this age—his reign was lengthy and he was involved in military conquests in the Levant which would fit with oppression of the Israelites. These things aside, though, there is no historical basis for suggesting that Ramesses II is the pharaoh of the Book of Exodus. Indeed, that Ramesses should be identified with the biblical pharaoh of Exodus is perhaps fitting. After all, much of the tale of Moses portends doom for Egypt for impeding the destiny of the Israelites to return to their ancestral homeland and establish a new kingdom there.
And there is no doubting that New Kingdom Egypt quickly headed towards a period of immense decline shortly after Ramesses’s reign. Beginning around 1200 BC the Eastern Mediterranean, the Levant and adjoining areas were struck by a series of attacks by a mysterious confederation of warlike people who have typically been identified as the Sea Peoples. There is no consensus even today as to who these people were or where they had come from, although it has plausibly been speculated that they came eastwards from the Western Mediterranean, possibly from Italy and parts of southern France or the north-western Balkans. Wherever they came from, what we do know is that the onslaught of these newcomers, along with the arrival of other warlike peoples such as the Dorians who came from northern Greece around this time, was an immediate threat to the Late Bronze Age world and began to destabilise societies such as those of New Kingdom Egypt in the decades that followed. What followed is typically referred to as the Late Bronze Age Collapse in the historiography of the ancient world, as the powerful states which had dominated the region for several centuries either declined dramatically or collapsed.
The Hittite Empire splintered into several smaller states during the course of the twelfth century BC, while Bronze Age Mycenae and the Minoan civilization of Crete were almost entirely destroyed. New Kingdom Egypt also entered a period of pronounced decline, though it survived as a substantial polity, albeit much weakened internally, divided by civil wars and reduced in terms of its territorial expanse. This reflected much of what occurred elsewhere. Trade collapsed across the Bronze Age world for the space of two centuries or more and the economy was so impacted that whole cities were abandoned and famines struck many regions, such that many historians of the ancient past refer to this as being a Dark Age of the ancient world, similar to what followed the collapse of the Roman Empire nearly two millennia later. What is known as the Third Intermediate Period of Egyptian history followed the end of the New Kingdom as new regional powers began to dominate what remained of Pharaonic Egypt, some of them hailing from Nubia in the south. Ramesses II’s tomb was discovered during the late nineteenth century.
This was a time when Egyptology, the study of Pharaonic Egypt, was entering its first golden age following the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone. The great pharaoh’s tomb was discovered at Deir el-Bahari in 1881 near Thebes within a wider cache of royal tombs dating to the New Kingdom Period. Ramesses’s tomb, like nearly all other pharaohs, had been looted at some stage in the past and revealed nothing to rival the riches of that of Tutankhamun which would be discovered forty years later by Howard Carter.
However, Ramesses’s tomb is nevertheless significant, particularly a series of inscriptions on the sarcophagus which listed Ramesses’s various names and titles and also provided an inventory of his burial goods. The inscriptions also indicate that Ramesses was not immediately interred at Deir el-Bahari, but rather he was first laid to rest in the tomb of his father, Seti I. It remained there for the next eighty years until such time in the mid-twelfth century that his tomb was relocated. What is especially strange about all of this is that Egyptologists now believe that the wooden and painted death mask and sarcophagus used in Ramesses’s new tomb were actually recycled from the tomb of one of his near successors, Horemheb, the last ruler of the 18th Dynasty. It is also evident that renovations were carried out on Ramesses’s tomb in subsequent years, indicating that the ancient Egyptians did not simply seal the tombs of dead pharaohs for all time when they were laid to rest, but viewed some of these tombs as shrines which were to be maintained and improved where possible. Unsurprisingly, given the extent of the building programme he oversaw, Ramesses II has continued to feature regularly in studies of ancient Egypt and new archaeological projects.
Indeed in the case of Abu Simbel his temple here was central to one of the most extraordinary relocation projects ever undertaken. In the 1950s the new government of General Abdel Nasser, who had seized power in Egypt following the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, determined to build a vast new dam at Aswan in order to henceforth control the annual flooding or inundation of the River Nile on which so much of the country’s agriculture depended. The resulting flooding and the creation of what was to be named Lake Nasser near the dam would have submerged Abu Simbel.
Accordingly, in 1959 the Egyptian government applied to UNESCO to move the temple. This petition was granted and over the next several years several Swedish engineering firms undertook the project for the Egyptian government. The work involved was highly complex, as Abu Simbel was not constructed out of blocks of stone, but was carved into a cliff-face. Thus, the temple was rescued by effectively making a giant incision into the mountainside and then transplanting the temple piece by piece to a site several hundred metres inland and much higher above ground.
Thus, Abu Simbel now overlooks the River Nile much as it has for over three millennia, but from a different vantage point and site. Owing to the length of his reign and its significance, Ramesses has also featured extensively in modern popular culture. For instance, Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, published in 1983 by the American author, was an enormous fictional account of Pharaonic Egypt set on one evening in the late twelfth century BC, but in which the characters repeatedly discuss the reign of Ramesses II. The Battle of Kadesh is a major feature of the work. Ramesses was also the subject of works by the noted historical fiction writer Christian Jacq, while he is the central character too of Anne Rice’s The Mummy. So too does he appear in many numerous Hollywood treatments of Ancient Egypt.
But surely the most notable popular cultural reference to the victor of the Battle of Kadesh appeared two centuries ago in the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, the Greek name for Ramesses. Here Shelley used Ramesses as an example of how all great rulers are destined for decline or death. It was meant to be a reflection by Shelley primarily on Napoleon Bonaparte, who had fallen from power in France and Europe just a few years before Shelley’s time of writing, but Shelley used Ramesses as his analogy as news was circulating around London at the time that the British Museum had just acquired one of the colossal heads of the Pharaoh from the Ramesseum.
Shelley’s repetition of the inscription which once adorned the Tomb, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” must rank as amongst some of the most famous lines of nineteenth-century poetry. Ramesses II or Ramesses the Great was arguably the greatest of all ancient Egypt’s pharaohs, of which there were over 170 across three millennia. His reign is notable for many things. From a political and military perspective he extended the Egyptian kingdom to the greatest point it had seen since the reign of Thutmose III two centuries earlier, the point at which Egypt reached its greatest extremity by conquering much of the Levant, Syria and parts of Mesopotamia. Ramesses did this primarily by defeating the Hittites in his nation’s ongoing struggle with them for hegemony over the rich coastal cities of Canaan and Syria such as Tyre and Sidon.
The peak of his success in this respect was victory at the Battle of Kadesh and the Eternal Treaty of 1259 BC. But it was not just here where Ramesses was militarily successful. He also campaigned against the Sherden sea pirates early on in his reign, which had been plaguing the northern coast of Egypt for many years prior to his accession and later campaigned westwards along the Mediterranean coast towards Libya.
Finally, to the south he extended the Egyptian kingdom’s influence much further down the course of the River Nile into what is now Sudan, but which was then known as Nubia. This New Kingdom Empire of Ramesses II was one of the most formidable empires of ancient times. However, there is also the distinct possibility that Ramesses has been accorded the prominence which he has in studies of ancient Egypt and amongst Egyptologists owing to his own self-promotion.
Ramesses was one of history’s first great propagandists. There was no success which he achieved on the battlefield or aspect of his reign that he did not commemorate in stone in such a way as it would be remembered for centuries or even millennia to come. Thus, for instance, we find him setting stone stelae and other markers in the Nile Delta and the Levant to proclaim his victories over the Hittites and the Sherden sea pirates there to the world and to future generations. But it was his building programme in places like Luxor, Saqqara and above all Abu Simbel way down the Nile near Aswan which afforded him his greatest legacy.
Here in stone he proclaimed to all his magnificence as a ruler, his ties to the sun god Ra and his many military accomplishments. Yet, while these building works may have been acts of propaganda, there is no denying their brilliance. Accordingly, from the perspective of the twenty-first century surely Ramesses’s greatest accomplishment was in having these magnificent temples, statues and obelisks erected across Egypt nearly 3,500 years ago. What do you think of Ramesses the Great? Was he Ancient Egypt’s greatest pharaoh or is the greatness of his legacy partly due to a shrewd policy of propaganda concerning his building projects as well as his promotion of his own military victories? Please let us know in the comment section, and in the meantime, thank you very much for watching.