1279 - 1213 B.C.
Ramses II (was the third ruler of the Nineteenth Dynasty of
Egypt. A great warrior, he was also the builder of some of
Egypt's most famous monuments.
or Ramesses, was the son of Seti I. Prior to his accession as
sole ruler in 1304 B.C., Ramses had been coregent with his
father. During the last years of Seti I the reins of government
had slackened, and the first 3 years of Ramses' reign seem to
have been occupied with setting in order the internal affairs of
Egypt. Early in his reign he undertook the task of securing an
adequate water supply for the gold-mining expeditions to and
from the Wadi el-Allaqi in Lower Nubia.
Ramses' royal residence, known as Per-Ramesse, the "House of
Ramses," was situated in the Delta. Its site is still a matter
of debate; various scholars have identified it with the cities
of Tanis and Qantir in the eastern half of the Delta. The
situation of the residence in this area was convenient for a
pharaoh so concerned with events in Palestine and Syria.
The outstanding feature of Ramses II's reign was his protracted
struggle with the Hittites. An inscription of year 4 of his
reign, at the Nahr el-Kalb near Beirut, records his first
Asiatic campaign. In year 5 he launched a major attack on the
Hittite Empire from his base in northern Palestine and
Phoenicia. During the course of this offensive, Ramses at Qadesh
fought the greatest battle of his career. Although neither side
could claim victory, Ramses never ceased to boast on his
monuments of his own part in the battle. Strategically, however,
the result was a defeat for the Egyptians, who were obliged to
retire homeward. The sight of the Pharaoh's army retreating
encouraged many of the petty states of Palestine to revolt, and
in year 6 or 7 and in year 8 Ramses was obliged to suppress
uprisings in the area.
By year 10 Ramses was again on the Nahr el-Kalb, and the next
year he broke the Hittite defenses and invaded Syria. Although
he penetrated deep into Hittite territory, he found it
impossible to hold indefinitely against Hittite pressure
territories so far away from base, and in year 21 a treaty was
concluded which terminated 16 years of hostilities between Egypt
and the Hittites. After the restoration of peace, relations
between the two powers became friendly, and a regular exchange
of diplomatic correspondence ensued. In year 34 Ramses married
the eldest daughter of the Hittite king. In addition to his wars
in Palestine and Syria, Ramses vigorously combated Libyan
incursions into the Delta.
No pharaoh ever surpassed the building achievements of Ramses
II. Among the most famous of his constructions are his temple at
Abydos, his funerary temple, known as the Ramesseum, at Thebes,
and the great rockcut temple at Abu Simbel in Nubia.
Ramesses II's father was Seti (Sethos) I and his mother was Tuya.
Tuya was not one of Seti I's major wives, and therefore Ramesses
II was probably not given the training of a king from an early
age (or as Ramesses II states, "from the egg"). However, he did
serve as a co-regent with his father prior to Seti I's death.
Statue of Ramesses IIWe believe that Ramesses II had as many as
fifty sons and fifty daughters, though only a few of them are
known to us. His chief, and most likely favorite wife was
Nefertari, though he obviously had many others. We believe he
was succeeded by a son named Merneptah who was an old man
himself by the time he ascended the throne.
It is difficult to tell from most of Ramesses II's statues and
depictions on monuments exactly what he looked like physically.
This is because the ancient Egyptian artists were not always
intend on portraying the king in a totally realistic manner. The
king probably never set for specific statues. Rather, they were
based upon approved models.
Hence, the official image of Ramesses II promoted by the royal
artists is not unlike the ageless portraits we find of the
British monarch on stamps or American presidents on currency.
His images depict him as a traditional king: tall, dignified,
physically perfect and forever young, which prompted one modern
scholar to comment that:
"Now Ramesses the Great, if he was as much like his portraits as
his portraits are like each other, must have been one of the
most handsomest men, not only of his day, but of all history."
His many statues and reliefs show his physical characteristics
to include a prominent nose set in a rounded face with high
cheek bones, wide, arched eyebrows, slightly bulging,
almond-shaped eyes, fleshy lips and a small, square chin. He is
often portrayed with a regal smile.
Of course, we have a better idea of his looks as an old man from
his mummy, which has a very prominent, long, thin, hooked nose
set in a long, narrow, oval face with a strong jaw. He was large
for an ancient Egyptian, standing some five foot seven inches
(1.333 meters) tall, and it has been suggested that he shows
many Asiatic traits, which might also be recognizable in the
mummies of Seti I and Merenptah.
Interestingly, the mummy's gray hair had been died red, and
indeed, modern technology has proven that in his youth he was a
red head, which was also not a common trait of ancient
Due to a fortunate combination of circumstances, including
optimal Nile floods resulting in good harvests, international
stability, a large family and of course, the extraordinary
longevity which caused Ramesses to outlive not only his
contemporaries, but many of his children and grandchildren,
Egypt enjoyed a continuity of government that was the envy of
the ancient world. Whether by luck, or good kingship, Egypt
flourished under Ramesses II and her people were grateful.
Within his lifetime, Ramesses II was venerated as a god,
particularly in Nubia. This cult following continued to
flourish, even after the end of Egypt's pharaonic period. Unlike
many Egyptian kings, who always sought to have their name
remembered and repeated so that their soul could live on, the
Egyptians continued to make pilgrimages to Abydos, Memphis,
Tanis and Abu Simbel in order to make offerings to Ramesses the
deity for centuries after his death. During the Graeco-Roman
period, in order to elevate the status of a god named Khons, the
priests literally rewrote their mythology to allow Ramesses II a
starring role alongside the deity.
Ramesses II's reputation resulted in an amazing following, and
even a period of Egyptian history we often refer to as the
Ramesside period. During the 20th Dynasty, though not
descendents, all but one of the kings took the name Ramesses in
their efforts to emulate him. Unfortunately, only one of the
kings, Ramesses III, would come anywhere close to Ramesses II's
achievements, and in the end, this much weakened era would spell
the end of the New Kingdom. Later still, the weak dynasty of
Tanite kings who only had a tenuous grip on UpperRamesses II
Egypt also attempted to recapture some of the lost brilliance of
Egypt's golden age by choosing to use Ramesses II's throne name,
Usermaatre, as their own.
Hence, Ramesses II's name lived on. In 1822, when we first began
to decipher the ancient Egyptian language, many new pharaohs
became known to us, and later, as new tombs were discovered,
along with other documents, we began to piece together a long
line of rulers. Only then did we know the names of Egyptian
kings and queens such as Hatshepsut, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun.
However, Ramesses II was never in need of rediscovery, for his
name, perhaps corrupted somewhat, was not forgotten.
Even in our modern world, he has also been remembered, though
often not very realistically. He was the handsome, courageous
and good hearted king of Christian Jacq's Egyptian novels, and a
more lonely, complicated man in Anne Rice's "The Mummy". On the
silver screen, he was introduced in the 1909 film, "Mummy of the
King Ramses, and in 1923, became the great pharaoh of Cecil B
DeMille's silent screen epic, "The Ten Commandments".
Afterwards, Yul Brynner would become Ramesses in DeMille's more
famous 1956 movie by the same name, and just recently, he was
not very accurately portrayed in the DreamWorks animated
interpretation of the Exodus called the "Prince of Egypt".
The great king was given the birth name of his grandfather, Re-mise,
or Ramesses I (meryamun), which means, "Re has Fashioned Him,
Beloved of Amun". We often find his birth name spelled as Ramses.
His throne name was Usermaatre Setepenre, meaning, "The Justice
of Re is Powerful, Chosen of Re".
Ramesses IIWe may find many variations of his name throughout
classical history. Ramesses fame was not limited to Egypt, for
he was known throughout the ancient classical world, due perhaps
to a highly efficient royal propaganda machine. From the
Christian bible we hear of both Ramesses, as well as his capital
city of Pi-Ramesses. Manetho, a famous ancient Egyptian
historian, included Ramesses II in his Egyptian chronology as
Ramesses Miamun, or Rapsakes. The Greek historian, Herodotus,
refers to him as King Rhampsinitus. Writing in 60 BC, Diodorus
Siculus, who was especially impressed by the monument we today
call the Ramesseum, the mortuary temple of Ramesses II on the
West Bank at Thebes, knew him as Ozymandias, which is an obvious
corruption of the king's pre-noimen, Usermaatre. Pliny and
Tacitus would later write about him, calling him King Rhamsesis
or Rhamses, and two thousand years later, in 1817, Percy Bysshe
Shelley published Ozymandias, a poem giving his impression of
the once mighty Ramesses:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And Wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear: "My name is Ozymandias,
king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing besides remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In fact, prior to our modern discipline of Egyptology, the
Pharaoh Ramesses II became legendary becoming a fabled king not
unlike England's (Celtic) King Arthur. Like that king, an ill
defined combination of real kings grew about his person,
combining perhaps the deeds of the 12th Dynasty Kings Senusret I
and III with those of Ramesses II under the general umbrella of
Yet, it was not until after Jean Francois Champollion decoded
the Hieroglyphics of the Rosetta Stone that the immensity of
Ramesses II's monumental building works could be appreciated by
modern observers. Now, the real king became famous all over
again, and not only among Egyptologists, though they certainly
began to study Ramesses the Great with a new fervour. Because of
the number of his monuments, he seems to have constantly been in
the news, as discovery after discovery turned up bearing his
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This web page was last updated on:
15 December, 2008