Ramesses II (also called Ramses, Ancient Egyptian: rꜥ-ms-sw or riʕmīsisu, meaning ‘Ra is the one who bore him’) is considered as one of the most powerful and influential ancient Egyptian Pharaohs – known for both his military and domestic achievements during the New Kingdom era. Born in circa 1303 BC (or 1302 BC), as the royal member of the Nineteenth Dynasty, he ascended the throne in 1279 BC and reigned for 67 years. Ramesses II was also known as Ozymandias in Greek sources, with the first part of the moniker derived from Ramesses’ regnal name, Usermaatre Setepenre, meaning – ‘The Maat of Ra is powerful, Chosen of Ra’.
The Young Warrior King –
The son of Pharaoh Seti I and Queen Tuya, Ramesses II was known to have taken part in the battles and campaigns of his father from the tender age of 14 (after being chosen as the Prince Regent). Now to provide some context as to why such a young teenager (and that too a member of royalty) participated in potentially dangerous martial scenarios, we must understand that this very epoch – circa 15th-13th century BC, was fueled by Egyptian imperialistic policies initiated by a succession of powerful Pharaohs. And the Nineteenth Dynasty rulers were even portrayed as incarnations of the god of war and valor Montu (falcon-god) or as personifications of Egypt itself.
Suffice it to say, within this scope of symbolism and imperialism, the Pharaoh and his male line were the most important figures in the state machinery of Ancient Egypt. Thus the royal family members were provided with military education befitting the commanders of an emergent empire. This training for warfare, often imparted by state-appointed veterans, not only included physical regimens and weapons handling 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 and his royal retinues epitomized the spearhead of the Egyptian army with their elite chariot corps. Thus figures 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 battles.
The Early Military Successes of Ramesses II –
As we mentioned earlier, the Nineteenth Dynasty, like its predecessor (the Eighteenth Dynasty) pursued a policy of military campaigns and conquests beyond the traditional borders of ancient Egypt. Thus their armies frequently clashed with neighboring kingdoms and polities, including the Hittites, Libyans, and Nubians. However, after Ramesses II took the throne, on the death of his father Seti I, in circa 1279 BC, the young Pharaoh (still in his early 20s) turned his attention towards a new enemy. This enemy pertained to the Sherden sea-pirates (one of the mysterious Sea People) responsible for ravaging the Mediterranean coast of ancient Egypt by prying on the precious cargo-laden ships that traveled along this strategic trade route (connecting to the Levant and Syria).
So in the second year of his reign, Ramesses II decided to end the threat in a single action. Consequently, after meticulous planning, the Sherden were trapped by the combined efforts of the Egyptian army and navy – as the latter tactfully waited for the pirates to approach the ports and then surrounded them from the rear angles. These pirate bands were then probably defeated in a decisive engagement fought near the mouth of the Nile. Interestingly enough, afterward, some of the Sherden, known for their fighting prowess, were inducted into the royal guard units of Ramesses II. Additionally, the young pharaoh also defeated other Sea People groups like the Lukka (L’kkw, possibly the later Lycians), and the Šqrsšw (Shekelesh).
On the southern front, Ramesses II was known to have marched against the revolting Nubians, whose lands had been colonized by the Egyptians (by circa 15th century BC). In that regard, one of the famous allied troops entailed the Medjay, who were basically Nubian desert scouts of the Ancient Egyptian military deployed as an elite paramilitary police force during the New Kingdom period. And on a controversial note, Ramesses II may have also fought against the semi-nomadic Libyan tribes on the west (who were attested as the Libu or R’bw in Egyptian).
Now the controversy in itself arises from the fact of how Egyptian accounts tend to glorify Ramesses II’s feat in conquering and crushing these nomads. However, recent archaeological evidence suggests that 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). Simply put, there is a chance that such accounts 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.
The Asian Adventures –
However, beyond the scope of Nubia and Libya, it was Syria that brought forth a complicated geopolitical tussle between Egypt and another ascendant empire – the Hittites (of Asia Minor). Now from the military perspective, by the time of Ramesses II, there were four military headquarters spread across the burgeoning Egyptian empire, each named after the god of the region, while being commanded by the chosen senior officers of the army. These massive military complexes were used for training new recruits, creating supply and reinforcements points, and providing royal escorts and even parade troops during triumphal occasions.
Bolstered by such a massive network and encouraged by the homegrown military power, the young Pharaoh marched into Canaan (southern Levant), a vassal state of the Hittites, in circa 1275 AD. The subsequent campaign was probably successful, with records mentioning the capturing of Canaanite (and possibly even Hittite) royal members who were brought back to Egypt, along with a fair share of assorted plunder. Other records also allude to how Ramesses II defeated a Canaanite army by routing it after its leader was killed by an Egyptian archer.
The Clash of the Superpowers at Kadesh –
Consequently, Ramesses II, following up on his predecessors’ steps, secured a foothold in the southern section of the Levant. On the other hand, the Hittites (Hatti – as called by Egyptians) had already established themselves along the northern reaches of the Levant. Suffice it to say, this momentary standoff hinted at a greater power struggle that would pit the two (Late) Bronze Age empires against one another. According to historian Susan Wise Bauer –
He [Ramesses II] did not wait long before picking up the fight against the Hittite enemy. In 1275, only three years or so after taking the throne, he began to plan a campaign to get Kadesh back. The city had become more than a battlefront; it was a symbolic football kicked back and forth between empires. Kadesh was too far north for easy control by the Egyptians, too far south for easy administration by the Hittites. Whichever empire claimed it could boast of superior strength.
Unfortunately, for Ramesses II, his army, divided into four brigades, marched uninterrupted almost up to the vicinity of Kadesh – unaware of the Hittite army in proximity (possibly hidden by the very walls of Kadesh). The trap was laid by the Hittite king Muwatallis II who paid two Bedouin spies to intentionally misdirect Ramesses II. According to the Egyptian account, these spies were ultimately caught, but the act was too late –
When they had been brought before Pharaoh, His Majesty asked, ‘Who are you?’ They replied, ‘We belong to the king of Hatti. He has sent us to spy on you.’ Then His Majesty said to them, ‘Where is he, the enemy from Hatti? I had heard that he was in the land of Khaleb, north of Tunip.’ They replied to His Majesty, ‘Lo, the king of Hatti has already arrived, together with the many countries who are supporting him…. They are armed with their infantry and their chariots. They have their weapons of war at the ready. They are more numerous than the grains of sand on the beach. Behold, they stand equipped and ready for battle behind the old city of Kadesh.’
The predicament for Ramesses II was exacerbated since two (Ptah and Seth brigades) of his total four brigades were separated by forests and the Orontes River. The remaining two (Re and Amun brigades) were under his personal command. So in the initial phase, the Hittite chariot regiments successfully ran down the Re brigade – and their charge was only stymied by the valor of Ramesses II and his Amun brigade (according to Egyptian accounts). The counterattack by the Pharaoh’s own chariot regiments bought some time for the other Egyptian brigades to arrive on the battlefield. However, in his wrath and frustration, the ever-impulsive Ramesses II advanced too far from his army and was almost trapped between the remnant Hittite forces and the river.
Fortuitously, the Hittite ruler Muwatallis didn’t pursue his apparent advantage, thus allowing Ramesses II and his personal forces to escape. In the aftermath of this incredible battle (in circa 1274 BC), the Egyptian Pharaoh declared a great victory for himself, although, in terms of practicality, the outcome was a stalemate at best. Even more intriguing is the fact that Ramesses II continued to persevere with his expansionist policies in the Levant and Syria. In the following years, the Egyptians captured Moab (in Jordan), Upi (around Damascus), Tunip (western Syria), and even attacked Jerusalem and Jericho. But given the autonomous nature of the realms in this region, along with the balancing power of the Hittites, most of these conquests were only temporary in nature.
The Momentous Peace –
As it turned out, it was once again Muwatallis’ family line that played its role in framing the geopolitics of the region. To that end, after Muwatallis death in circa 1272 BC, his eldest son Mursili III succeeded to the throne of the Hittites. But his reign (possibly 7 years) was cut short by his own uncle Ḫattušili III who took over the power. As a result, Mursili III fled to the court of Ramesses II, with the latter providing him with refuge. Unsurprisingly, Ḫattušili III demanded his nephew’s extradition from Egypt, But Ramesses II refused to even acknowledge the presence of Mursili III within his territories. And this turn of events almost resulted in yet another war between the empires.
But all of that changed in the year 1258 BC when Ramesses II arranged for an official peace treaty – one of the first of its kind in the ancient world. The treaty, with its two versions recorded in Egyptian hieroglyphs (that maintained how the Hittites sued for peace) and Akkadian – the lingua franca of the Near East (that maintained how the Egyptian caved in), contained 18 statutes. Related records from the time, like the Anastasy A papyrus, mention how the Egyptians still controlled some coastal Phoenician towns, with their northernmost border set at the Sumur harbor (in present-day Lebanon).
However, as a consequence of this momentous accord, military campaigns into Canaan were stopped from Ramesses’ side – thereby leading to unexpected peace along the Levant frontier. Thus Syria conclusively passed into the Hittite hands. As for Mursili III, while there was a clause for his extradition in the peace agreement, the historical figure vanishes from the annals of history after the arrangement of the treaty.
The Domestic Scope –
According to most ancient accounts and many modern-day estimates, Ramesses II probably lived till the ripe old age of 90 or 96. In fact, such was his influence in Egypt, buttressed by the length of his reign (67 years), that his death was thought to be the coming of end-times by many of his subjects – some of whom were born long after Ramesses II himself. Furthermore, in his domestic life, the Pharaoh had around 200 wives and concubines, and possibly over a hundred children (according to some accounts, he had 96 sons and 60 daughters) – and he outlived many of his scions.
But among his numerous wives and companions, Ramesses II probably favored Nefertari (not to be confused with Nefertiti) as his beloved queen and chief consort. And in spite of what might have been her early death (possibly during childbirth), Nefertari was depicted quite frequently by murals and statues – with one famous example pertaining to the glorious wall painting inside her tomb. In any case, after the demise of Nefertari, Ramesses’ secondary wife Isetnefret (or Isetnofret) was elevated to the position of the chief consort – and their son Merneptah (or Merenptah) was the successor to the throne (who was already 70 years old during the time of his ascension).
And since we talked about the reign of Ramesses II, the Pharaoh celebrated his jubilee after 30 years of ruling Egypt by hosting the famous Sed festival. Named after the Egyptian wolf god Sed (or Wepwawet), the particular celebration symbolized the continued rule of the Pharaoh. The festival entailed opulent processions and elaborate temple rituals amidst much fanfare and concluded with the raising of the djed – the symbol representing the strength and potency of the king’s rule. Ramesses II himself celebrated around 13 or 14 Sed festivals, by breaking the protocol and sometimes hosting them at two-year intervals (instead of the traditional three years after the jubilee).
Building Projects of Ramesses II –
The balance of Late Bronze Age geopolitical powers in the Levant and Syria involving both the Egyptians and the Hittites and the resulting status quo ironically allowed for some ‘breathing space’ for Ramesses II to focus on his building projects back home – that ranged from magnificent complexes to massive military settlements. One of the latter pertained to the renowned Pi-Ramesses (or Per Ramessu – meaning ‘House or Domain of Ramesses’), the new capital built by the Pharaoh, situated in the north-eastern part of the Nile Delta in Egypt.
The site already served as the summer palace of Seti I, but was later expanded upon by his son and successor Ramesses II. And while there are scant archaeological pieces of evidence for Pi-Ramesses, ground-penetrating radar has revealed arrangements of temple compounds, mansions, residences, stables, cisterns, and canals inside the city. Also, based on its strategic location, the settlement was possibly used as a staging ground for the military campaigns directed towards the Levant and Syria.
As for magnificent temple complexes, Ramesseum served as the massive mortuary temple of Ramesses II. Constructed in a typical New Kingdom architectural style, the gargantuan project boasted its imposing pylons, courtyard, and the main structure with hypostyle walls – all complemented by statuary representations of Ramesses II, along with depictions of war scenes. One particular example portrays the scene of the Pharaoh defeating his Hittite foes at Kadesh, thereby cementing his status (albeit in form of propaganda) as the victorious warrior-king.
Other incredible architectural and artistic building projects patronized by Ramesses II include the famous Abu Simbel temples and statues, along with other complexes, constructed in Nubia (as opposed to Egypt proper), the tomb of Nefertari, the colossal statues of himself at Karnak, and a range of monumental temples across Egypt (including Giza).
Reconstruction of Ramesses II –
After 67 years of long and undisputed reign, Ramesses II, who already outlived many of his wives and sons, breathed his last in circa 1213 BC, probably at the age of 90. Forensic analysis suggests that by this time, the old Pharaoh suffered from arthritis, dental problems, and possibly even hardening of the arteries. Interestingly enough, while his mummified remains were originally interred at the Valley of the Kings, they were later shifted to the mortuary complex at Deir el-Bahari (part of the Theban necropolis), so as to prevent the tomb from being looted by the ancient robbers. Discovered back in 1881, the remains revealed some facial characteristics of Ramesses II, like his aquiline (hooked) nose, strong jaw, and sparse red hair.
YouTube channel JudeMaris has reconstructed the face of Ramesses II at his prime, taking into account the aforementioned characteristics – and the video is presented above.
Conclusion – Character Profile of Ramesses II
In terms of history, Ramesses II, without a doubt, is considered as one of the most powerful and celebrated Pharaohs of ancient Egypt – the warrior-king who epitomized the supremacy of the New Kingdom, so much so that his successors venerated him as the ‘Great Ancestor’. On the other hand, recent archaeological projects have revealed that on some occasions, the military achievements of Ramesses II have rather been exaggerated by his own state machinery, thereby almost alluding to an ancient personality cult.
This has led to debates in the academic circles regarding the epithet of ‘Great’ when attached to the name of Ramesses II. Few have argued that Thutmose III of the Eighteenth Dynasty is probably more deserving of the ‘Great’ title, because of his hand in creating the largest Egyptian empire. However, even if we go by an objective assessment viewed through the lens of history, Ramesses II was regarded as a mighty and noble ruler, not only by his subjects but also foreign powers, even during his own lifetime.
And while a case can be made for his ‘megalomaniac’ tendencies, the same character flaws can be attributed to many of his contemporaries (and later rulers), especially considering the very symbolic gravity of the Egyptian throne (that was fueled by its fair share of propaganda). Moreover, Ramesses II was probably not a keen commander or a resourceful strategist – but his larger-than-life aura was propelled by his courage and tenacity on the battlefield, as demonstrated at Kadesh. Added to that, in spite of the Pharaoh’s ambitious (and sometimes overambitious) military campaigns in Asia, Ramesses did agree to a momentous peace treaty – which suggests some form of sagacity that tempered the warrior inside him.
As for the domestic scope, like many ancient Egyptian rulers, Ramesses II ‘advertised’ his achievements and legacy by patronizing massive architectural projects and propagandist depictions across Egypt and Nubia. But in contrast to such extravagant endeavors (that alluded to the larger-than-life image of the ruler), the Pharaoh possibly led a disciplined lifestyle focused on the Egyptian ideals of domesticity and family-oriented values. To that end, in spite of having so many wives, consorts, and concubines, Ramesses II was known to have treated most of them and their children with utmost respect and regard.
Honorable Mention – The Exodus Angle
Ramesses II is popularly associated with the Pharaoh figure during the Biblical Exodus, and the first mention of this association can possibly be ascribed to Eusebius of Caesarea, the 4th century AD Christian historian. On an intriguing note, Ramesses II being depicted as the Exodus Pharaoh was rather reinforced by 20th century Hollywood productions, with the most famous ones pertaining to Cecil B. DeMille’s classic The Ten Commandments (1956) and Disney’s The Prince of Egypt (1998).
However, from the historical and archaeological perspectives, researchers have not found any evidence or record that could point to mass migration or exodus from Egyptian settlements like Per-Ramesses (although, the city is mentioned in the Bible as a center of Israelite laborers). In fact, the assessment of ancient Egyptian structures and sources suggest how the Egyptians didn’t make use of slave labor for their construction projects. On the contrary, they were keen to use skilled workers with experience along with volunteering civilians, so as to maintain high levels of precision and workmanship in their buildings and sculptures. In essence, the association of Ramesses II to the Exodus was probably a later invention for a narrative, as opposed to a historical event.
Featured Image: Illustration By Angus McBride
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