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Ramses II
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.
 

 

Ramses, 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.


Hittite Campaigns

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.
 


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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 Egyptians.

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 Sesothes.

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 name.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008