Ramesses II (sometimes spelled Ramses), the third pharaoh of Egypt’s 19th dynasty, gets a bad rap. For many, he’s the villain of the Exodus, immortalized by Yul Brynner in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film, The Ten Commandments.And his monuments have irritated poets and historians alike. Percy Bysshe Shelley in his poem “Ozymandias” writes of Ramesses’ “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.” While Egyptologist Barbara Mertz complains, “One gets so tired of Ramses; his figure, and/or his name are plastered over half the wall surfaces still standing in Egypt—at least it seems that way. … [T]he statues of Ramses which so weary the eye are often stubby and unattractive” (244).
But there’s more to Ramesses than a pretty ugly face.
Ramesses was born into a military family during the reign of the pharaoh Horemhab. A military advisor to the more famous King Tut, the non-royal Horemhab achieved the throne by chance. When Tut and his elderly successor both died with no male heir, Horemhab filled the void, and he appointed his fellow officer Paramessu as his right-hand man.
Horemhab, like Tut, had no children, but Paramessu had a son and grandson. When Horemhab died, Paramessu became pharaoh, altering his name to match his ten-year-old grandson’s.
Long live Ramesses I!
Well, not quite.
At age ten, Ramesses went from Troop Commander’s son to son of the Crown Prince. Within two more years, Grandpa Ramesses I died, and young Ramesses became the next Crown Prince.
His father, Seti intended to prepare Ramesses for kingship. Ramesses accompanied Seti frequently. He fought beside his father on battlefields in Canaan, Syria, and Libya. Ramesses also accompanied Seti at various administrative duties and religious festivals. He learned a successful pharaoh must govern, fight, and build.
Like his father, Ramesses longed to restore Egypt’s military prowess and its influence abroad. He fought battles in Nubia and Syria. His greatest foe was the Hittites, who had invaded Egyptian-controlled territory during the reign of King Tut. The two armies clashed at Kadesh, a city in modern-day Syria. Ramesses had mustered four chariot divisions, but each was arriving at the battlefield separately. The Hittite army took one of those divisions by surprise and decimated them. Then they attacked the second division, where Ramesses himself was in charge.
Amid the chaos, Ramesses rallied his troops, counterattacked, and drove the Hittites back. The conflict ended in a stalemate with both sides limping back to home base. Ramesses engraved the tale of the battle on temple walls—claiming victory, of course—and waited for the Hittites’ next move.
Sixteen years passed before that final move came, an offer to end hostilities. Ramesses and the Hittite king drew up a peace treaty, hailed as the first of its kind. The two rulers agreed to stop invading each other’s territories and to support and defend each other from any third-party attack. The treaty outlived both men, ending when the Hittite kingdom collapsed nearly a century later.
The peace Ramesses brokered with the Hittites resulted in a royal wedding. A Hittite princess, given the Egyptian name Maathorneferrura, came to pharaoh’s court and became his bride. Wife number nine or was it ten?
Throughout his lifetime, Ramesses had many wives, though, his first wife, Nefertari remained his favorite. He granted Nefertari a temple in Nubia (Abu Simbel) and made up for his “stubby and unattractive” statues by commissioning a gorgeously-painted tomb for her in the Valley of the Queens. (For more information on Nefertari, see https://karenlkobylarz.wordpress.com/2017/04/23/meet-nefert-ari-a-k-a-sit-thuti/)
During his reign, Ramesses commissioned more than family tombs. He ordered the construction of a new capital city, Pi-Ramesses, “The Domain of Ramesses.” He completed two temples his father began, expanded the temples of Karnak and Luxor, and built seven mortuary temples, including the Ramesseum, dedicated to the worship of his spirit in the afterlife.
The temples he built at Abu Simbel, in modern-day Sudan, remain his best-known work. Both built into a sandstone hillside, the first temple, dedicated to Ramesses and the creator gods Amun and Ra, boasts four sixty-foot statues of the pharaoh, while the other honors Queen Nefertari and Hathor, the goddess of love, on a much smaller scale. Ramesses did adore his wife, but he would never let any relative outshine him. He even carved his name extra deep in temple walls to make it harder for his successors to erase.
In addition to having numerous wives, Ramesses fathered even more children, and he showed them off on his monuments whenever he could. Based on temple and tomb inscriptions, Egyptologists counted fifty-two sons and an equal number of daughters. These offspring include:
- Amunhirkhopeshef – Pharaoh’s firstborn son and possible Exodus plague victim
- Khaemwaset – Son number four, a high-priest of Ptah who excavated and restored some of the monuments of earlier kings. Known today as “the first Egyptologist,” he passed into legend as a powerful magician.
- Meritamun, Bintanath, and Nebettawy – Three of his daughters whom Ramesses elevated to the rank of queen after the deaths of their mothers. He gave each of them a tomb in the Valley of the Queens, one of two royal cemeteries near modern-day Luxor.
Because so many of his children predeceased him, Ramesses built another labyrinthine tomb for them in the Valley of the Kings. The burial site, now known as KV5, consists of 150 chambers. So far the remains of four sons have been found there.
However, many of Ramesses’ children flourished. His thirteenth son, Merneptah, succeeded him as pharaoh, and the rulers from both the 19th and 20th dynasties traced their lineage back to him. Of those pharaohs, nine out of fifteen bore the name Ramesses.
Recent examinations of Ramesses’ mummy determined him to be over seventy years old when he died. Since it’s estimated he became pharaoh at age twenty-five, and he ruled for sixty-seven years, Ramesses likely lived for ninety-two years. In a time when the average life span was under forty, his subjects must have thought Ramesses near-immortal.
Today, Ramesses resides in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and will soon be moving to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. His mummy is that of a tall man, his cheeks sunken, his limbs frail. In the end, perhaps, this commoner-turned-pharaoh was neither villain nor hero—just a grandson, son, husband, and father who held the highest job in his land.
Posterity will continue to judge whether he did it well.
THE WRITING ANGLE
During his lifetime, Ramesses II played many roles. What various roles do your characters play? How do those roles shape them?
WORKS CITED/FURTHER READING
Cargill, Bob. “What Does Archaeology Say about Effective Peace Treaties?” Biblical Archaeology Review, vol. 46, no. 3, Summer 2020, p. 6.
Clayton, Peter A. Chronicle of the Pharaohs the Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson, 2012.
Dunn, Jimmy. “The Tomb of Ramesses II’s Sons, Part I.” Tour Egypt, http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/kv51.htm.
Freed, Rita E. Ramses II: The Great Pharaoh and His Time. Denver Museum of Natural History, 1987.
Hawass, Zahi A., et al. Scanning the Pharaohs: CT Imaging of the New Kingdom Royal Mummies. The American University in Cairo Press, 2016.
Kitchen, K. A. Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II, King of Egypt. Aris & Phillips, 1985.
Liljas, Ann. “Old Age in Ancient Egypt.” Researchers in Museums Old Age in Ancient Egypt Comments, UCL, 2 Mar. 2015, blogs.ucl.ac.uk/researchers-in-museums/2015/03/02/old-age-in-ancient-egypt/.
Marie, Mustafa. “Egypt’s Min. of Tourism & Antiquities Embarks on an Inspecting Tour in NMEC.” Egypt Today, 10 June 2020, egypttoday.com/Article/4/88463/Egypt%E2%80%99s-min-of-tourism-antiquities-embarks-on-an-inspecting-tour.
Mertz, Barbara. Temples, Tombs, & Hieroglyphs: a Popular History of Ancient Egypt. 2nd ed., Morrow, 2007.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ozymandias.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 2020, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46565/ozymandias.
Weeks, Kent R. The Lost Tomb: This Is His Incredible Story of KV5 and Its Excavation. William Morrow, 1998.