Pharaoh Ramesses II, also known as Ramses, in many ways epitomizes the might of the New Kingdom Period (circa 16th century – 11th century BC), which is often equated to the ancient Egyptian Empire that conquered regions and retained vassals beyond the traditional boundaries of Egypt itself, including ancient Nubia, Levant, Syria, and Libya. However, pertaining to latter, archeologists have found evidence that suggests a state of harmony rather than the (claimed) conflict that existed between the ancient Egyptians and Libyans, during Ramses’ reign (1279–1213 BC). The assessment was carried out by researchers from the University of Manchester at the late Bronze Age fortress of Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham, 200 miles east of present-day Libya.
This evidence in question comprises a trove of objects, including 3,300-year-old sickle blades, hand-stones, querns and cow bones. And interestingly enough, most of these ‘peace-time’ specimens were found around 8 km (around 5 miles) away from the main fort structure. Simply put, the scope does allude to a scenario where ancient Egyptians peacefully practiced their crop harvesting and raising of cattle herds inside a territory that was traditionally considered Libyan (or at least under the influence of the local Libyan nomads).
According to Dr. Nicky Nielsen, these Egyptians living beyond the border possibly even struck a symbiotic relationship with the local Libyan tribes. He said –
This evidence demonstrates the degree to which the Egyptian occupants of Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham relied on local Libyans not just for trade, but also for their knowledge of the local environment and effective farming methods. [So] how on earth could Ramses have been fiercely at war with Libyan nomads- when his soldiers were living in peace with them deep in their territory? It just doesn’t add up.
Now it should be noted that even ancient Egyptians records are sketchy when it came to the foreign policy of Ramses concerning the Libyan tribes (who were attested as the Libu or R’bw in Egyptian). So while there are generalized accounts of how Ramses ‘conquered and crushed’ many of these nomads, some of them were possibly propaganda measures or records that juxtaposed (or confused) the feats of the renowned Pharaoh with that of his predecessor (and his father) Seti I.
Quite intriguingly, the most famous military encounter during Ramses’ lifetime arguably relates to the Battle of Kadesh, fought between the ancient Egyptians and Hittites (of Anatolia). And while two Egyptian sources – the Poem of Pentaur and Bulletin proclaimed a resounding Egyptian victory, modern assessment has suggested how the conflict rather ended in a draw, thus leading to what is considered as the world’s first known official peace treaty. In other words, Ramses, like many of his contemporaries, was prone to exaggerating his military achievements, with the propaganda playing its practical part in bolstering the centralized control of the Egyptian state by the ruling class.
As we discussed in one of our previous articles covering the Egyptian armies of the New Kingdom period –
Much like the modern office of the American president, the Pharaoh of the Ancient Egyptian realm was considered as the head of the state as well as the supreme commander of the armed forces. But unlike his modern-day counterpart, the Pharaoh also boasted absolute control over his kingdom’s resources and the administrative sector. Such an incredible scope of wielding unmitigated power was complemented by the Pharaoh’s association with divine entities, and as such various Ancient Egyptian inscriptions and iconography (especially from 18th and 19th dynasties period) depict Pharaohs in the style of the sun-god. Some of these portrayals even project the Pharaohs as incarnations of the god of war and valor Montu (falcon-god) or as personifications of Egypt itself.
Suffice it to say, the Pharaoh was the most important figure in the state machinery of Ancient Egypt, and thus he was provided with the military education befitting a supreme commander of an empire. This training for warfare, often imparted by state-appointed veterans, not only included physical regimens and weapons handing but also entailed lessons in tactical and strategic planning (with the latter being far more important for military campaigns). And as documented events had proven, the Pharaoh epitomized the spearhead of the Egyptian army with his elite chariot corps, thus suggesting how the rulers, with examples like Amenophis II and Ramesses II, took particular pride in maneuvering chariots, handling bows (perceived as a weapon of esteem) and personally leading their armies in battle. On the other side of the proverbial coin, much like their Assyrian contemporaries, the Egyptian state was overly dependent on its ruler. Consequently, a weak ruler usually mirrored the ‘bad times’ faced by the empire; though luckily in case of Egypt, many New Kingdom pharaohs exhibited their strong-willed leadership.
The study was originally published in the journal Antiquity.