Ramasses II: Egypt's Greatest Pharaoh
He is without a doubt the most important figure in the history of ancient Egypt. When you consider that the list of pharaohs includes some of the greatest names in history, including Alexander the Great, it says a lot to place Ramasses at the top of the list. His family was not in line for the rule of Egypt when he was born. His best known military battle, The Battle of Kadesh, ended in a draw, and most historians believe he was the pharaoh who lost control of the Hebrew slaves to Moses. So how did this man become the greatest pharaoh of the oldest empire in the world? It would be too simplistic to say he lived longer than most, although he certainly did. No, what lead to the pharaoh's legacy was his ego and ability to publicize just how great he believed he was.
Ramesses II was the third pharaoh of the Nineteenth dynasty, but to start his story, it is important to look back to the events at the end of the Eighteenth dynasty. In 1351 BC, following the death of Amenhotep III, his son Akhenaten became pharaoh. Akhenaten became famous for his abandonment of the long-standing religion of Egypt. He outlawed the belief in many gods by proclaiming there was only one true god, Aten the sun disk god. Following his death, there was a time of upheaval and not just because of his religious views. His young son, Tutankhamun, eventually took the thrown, but after his death at a young age, there was no one in line to take over the throne. First, an advisor of King Tut became pharaoh but only ruled three or four years then Horemheb, the leader of Tutankhamun's military became pharaoh. During his fourteen-year rule and having no children to succeed him, Horemheb wanted to begin a new era by selecting a family that would rule for generations to come. His choice was Ramesses I.
Ramesses I was from a noble family and had proven himself to be a capable administrator, but more important than that, Ramesses had both a healthy son and grandson. Once Ramesses became pharaoh, there would be no question as to succession. Although Ramesses I only ruled as pharaoh for a couple of years, his family would rule for more than two hundred years, of course his grandson would be pharaoh for 66 of those years.
Realizing that all of the chaos surrounding Akhenaten's religious beliefs and lack of a healthy successor had caused Egypt to lose ground in both Canaan and Syria, Ramesses I's son Seti set out to tighten up the region and fought many battles against the Hittites. He was successful in reclaiming the territories previously lost to the Hittites but not in eliminating them as a potential problem in the future. His son, Ramesses would eventually face them as well. Seti also started several building projects and set out to take Egypt to a new level of greatness, and during his 11-15 year reign, he worked diligently to prepare his son as future pharaoh.
During Seti I's ninth year as pharaoh, his young son, Ramesses II, turned 14 and was named Prince Regent of Egypt. This meant that Ramesses was next in line for the throne. As Prince Regent, the young man was quite active. He not only became commander over the military but also the father of many children. Unlike Tutankhamun, Ramesses was well prepared to become pharaoh in his teens.
One of his first decisions as pharaoh was to build a new capital city, Pi-Ramesses. The city was located in the Nile Delta area where Ramesses grew up, but its proximity to his family was only part of the equation. Ramesses knew Syria was going to consume much of his time and wanted to be closer to it.
It should be noted that one of the reasons why Ramesses II is considered to be the pharaoh of the Exodus is because the Bible mentions the city of Ramesses as one the Hebrew slaves were forced to build. The only city that bares this name is Pi-Ramesses. Exodus 1:11 (Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses.)
Ramesses Military Campaigns
Before even becoming pharaoh, Ramesses was a successful military leader carrying out campaigns against the Hittite's to the east, Nubian's to the south and Libya to the west.
During just his second year of rule, he defeated pirates at sea with a successful naval strategy. In the fourth year, he defeated the Canaanites taking its princes as prisoners. In his fourth year, he captured Hittite territories in Syria along the eastern Mediterranean including Amurru. A kingdom that will become important to the pharaoh in the future. One year later, he returned to Syria and engaged in his most famous battle.
Battle of Kadesh
Kadesh was important to Ramesses not just for an Egyptian push into Syria but also because his father had taken the city ten years earlier. Because of its importance to him, the pharaoh prepared well. He had four divisions of his army, the Amun, Ra, Ptah and Set, and over 2,000 chariots. If not for two strategic missteps, Ramesses certainly would have defeated the Hittites out right.
Ramesses divided his troops as they marched toward Kadesh. This was the first misstep the pharaoh made, and while it proved to be almost fatal, under other circumstances it would have been nothing but minor troop movements. The second misstep happened when Ramesses was just south of Kadesh. Two cattle herders came upon the pharaoh and his men and informed the Egyptians that King Muwatalli and his Hittite troops were still 120 miles away. Ramesses decided that since they had some distance yet to travel, he would make camp with the Amun division and wait for his remaining troops to join him. Later, Egyptian scouts returned with Hittite spies. After the men were tortured, they revealed that the Hittites were actually waiting just outside of Kadesh close by the pharaoh's camp.
Ramesses sent word that the three divisions still on their way needed to arrive as quickly as possible, but they would be too late. The Ra division was attacked and all but destroyed before they could reach Ramesses. The Hittites then attacked the camp. The defending Egyptians were having a difficult time and some fled. Ramesses himself claimed that he was left alone to defeat the entire Hittite army. He called upon the god Amun for strength then fought his way through the enemy taking them all out personally. What actually happened is that the Hittites believed they had all of the enemy on the run and stopped to loot their camp, the Egyptian chariots were more maneuverable and he had enough men from the Amun division and the surviving Ra division to drive Muwatalli and his men out of the camp.
Though Muwatalli was driven out of the Egyptian camp, he was not deterred. He still had forces in reserve and believed them to be enough to finish off Ramesses. The Hittites were surprised, however, as not only had the Set and Ptah divisions arrived, but Ramesses had also received support from Amurru in the form of the Nearin division. Over and over the Hittites tried to defeat the Egyptians. Over and over they were driven back to the Orontes River. Eventually, both sides lost too many men to continue the fighting. Ramesses was never able to take the city of Kadesh, but Muwatalli was never able to defeat Ramesses.
After returning to Egypt, Ramesses claimed he had won a great battle and had his victory proclaimed across the walls of his temples like the one at Abu Simbel. They say that the history of war is recorded by the victors. In most battles as old as that of Kadesh, that would be true, however, the Hittites were record keepers as well and had recorded their own version of events. The Battle of Kadesh provided historians a rare opportunity to look at what both sides had reported and were able to pull the truth from somewhere in the middle.
Ramesses would march against Syria again in his seventh, eighth and ninth years of rule. With his oldest son Amun-her-khepeshef, the pharaoh was able to reclaim cities that had been won and lost before, but the Egyptians were not in a position to leave significant forces in conquered territories to maintain their control. It was common for the Hittites to return once the Egyptians were gone and retake the cities for themselves. This led to one more trip into Syria in his tenth year. This time several of his sons accompanied him into battle. Ramesses again claimed a great victory, this time on the walls of the Ramesseum in the city of Thebes. In the end, however, it was clear that neither the Egyptians or the Hittites were capable of defeating the other.
Eventually, Ramesses would enter into a peace treaty with Hattusili III, who was king of Hatti during Ramesses twenty-first year as pharaoh. The Ramesses-Hattusili Treaty was recorded in both hieroglyphics and cuneiform and though nearly identical in wording, The Egyptian copy states that the Hittites came to them looking for peace while the Hittite version states the exact opposite. This agreement was the first peace treaty in recorded history and was hashed out at, where else, Kadesh.
Ramesses II Becomes a God
Ancient Egyptians believed that their pharaohs became one with the war god Horus in their life and one with the god Osiris in their death, but if a pharaoh ruled for thirty years, they would reach the status of a god in their own right. Ramesses II was one of only a few pharaohs to reach that milestone. A celebration known as the Sed Festival took place in the pharaoh's thirtieth year of rule. Ramesses II was now in a league with rulers like the First dynasty's Den, Third dynasty's Djoser, Sixth dynasty's Pepi I, and the Eighteenth dynasty's Amenhotep III. Once the initial Sed Festival took place, it was followed by another every three years and served as a time of renewal for the pharaoh. Ramesses II was to celebrate a record fourteen Sed Festivals.
In several of his temples, Ramesses had sculptures of himself with the gods. Many believe this was just an example of his inflamed ego, but the pharaoh had been made a god by his people and deserved his right to sit among them.
Great Royal Wives
When it comes to wives, Ramesses II had a few. He also had a number of concubines on the side, but he clearly had a favorite, the Great Royal Wife Nefertari. Queen Nefertari was the first wife of Ramesses and by all accounts was a gorgeous young woman. Ramesses loved her so dearly that he had a temple built for her next to his own at Abu Simbel. On the temple, two statues of the queen, done as Hathor goddess of love, were surrounded by four statues of Ramesses himself. She was the mother of his first born son, Atum-her-khepeshef the first Prince Regent under his father. Nefertari would give Ramesses six more known children and possibly three others. Her burial tomb, QV66, in the Valley of the Queens is the most beautiful ever found there.
Isetnofret was the second Great Royal Wife of Ramesses II and mother of five of his children including Merenptah, the thirteenth son of Ramesses and his eventual successor to the throne. Like Nefertari, Isetnofret married Ramesses during the reign of Seti I when Ramesses was still the Prince Regent. Though she was most suredly buried in the Valley of the Queens as well, her tomb has never been found.
When his beloved Nefertari died around year 24 of his reign, Ramesses took their daughter Meritamen as his Great Royal Wife. It was customary for the eldest daughter to take on the duties of queen upon the death of their mother and she bore no children of her father. Her tomb was QV68.
Around the same time Meritamen became her father's wife, he also took Bintanath, the oldest daughter of he and Isetnofret, as his Great Royal Wife. Her tomb, QV71, shows a daughter that may have been her father's child.
During the thirty-fourth year of his reign, Ramesses married a daughter of his Hatti counterpart, Hattusili III, Maathorneferure. Little is known about her except that she gave birth to one child to Ramesses and died soon after. If she was buried in the Valley of the Queens, her tomb has never been discovered.
The Great Royal Wife Nebettawy was also a daughter Ramesses II but it is unclear which of the former queens was her mother. Most believe she was the daughter of Neferteri, as it appears she took the title of queen following the death of her sister Meritamen. She had no children and was buried in QV60.
Henutmire was also the wife of Ramesses II, but it is unclear exactly who she was. Ramesses possibly had a full sister with that name, but she also could have been his own daughter by one of his many concubines who was named after the daughter of Seti I and Queen Tuya. She was buried in QV73.
Ramesses was known to have 100 children by the time of his death at 91 years old. There were 56 sons and 44 daughters, and it was clear that he loved them all. Not many pharaohs before Ramesses included images of their children in their temples, but Ramesses seemed to include them in everything. KV5 in the Valley of the Kings, was a tomb the Pharaoh had built for his children, and it included 130 rooms. Because of looting and flood damage, there were no mummies located in the tomb when its true purpose was discovered in 1987.
Though the pharaoh had seven Great Royal Wives, three of them never bore him children, so most of his children were born to women who were simply members of his harem. It is clear however that his children born of his first two, principal, wives were not only the oldest but favored for their legitimacy if nothing else.
His oldest son, Amun-her-khepeshef was his first child and born of his beloved Nefertari. He became the prince regent but died in his father's twenty-fifth year as pharaoh.
Upon the death of his older half-brother, Ramesses, the oldest son of Isetnofret, became the prince regent of Egypt and remained that until his death in his father's fiftieth year as pharaoh.
Pareherwenemef was the second son of Nefertari but died before one or both of his older brothers and therefore never had the title of prince regent.
Khaemwaset, Isetnofret's second son, became the prince regent upon the death of his older brother Ramesses and was next in line for the throne for five years until the time of his death in his father's fifty-fifth year of rule.
Sons five through ten were sons of concubines. They were Mentu-her-khepeshef, Nebenkharu, Meryamun, Amunemwia, Sethi and Setepenre. Canopic jars containing organs of some of these sons were located in KV5.
Meryre, his eleventh boy, was the son of Nefertari and believed to have died at a young age.
Horherwenemef was son twelve.
Merneptah, Ramesses's thirteenth boy and son of Isetnofret, was the oldest living son when his brother Khaemwaset died. Merneptah became the prince regent and eventually pharaoh upon his father's death.
Amenhotep and Itamun were his fourteenth and fifteenth sons.
Meryatum was another son of Nefertari and became the High Priest of Ra in Heliopolis.
Ramesses remaining sons were all born of his concubines.
In addition to the daughters who would go on to become his Great Royal Wives, Ramesses had many others. As with his sons, the daughters of Nefertari and Isetnofret were the most noted.
The oldest was Isetnofret's daughter Bintanath who became her father's wife.
His second daughter was named Baketmut.
Third was a daughter named Nefertari, but it is not known if Queen Nefertari was her mother. It was believed that she became the wife of her brother Amun-her-khepeshef.
Meritamen, daughter of Nefertari and a future wife of her father, was his fourth daughter.
Nebettawy, his fifth daughter was also his wife, but her mother is not known for certain.
Next came Isetnofret, a daughter named after her mother. Her brother, Pharaoh Merenptah, had a wife of the same name and is believed to have been her or his brother Khaemwaset's daughter with the same name.
Henuttawy was daughter seven and a child of Nefertari.
The pharaoh's remaining daughters were all from his concubines.
The Great Builder
In addition to his capital city, Pi-Ramesses, there were many temples to Ramesses all over Egypt. Many are now in ruin but there are several that have become the most famous historic sites in the country.
The Ramesseum in Luxor was one of the pharaoh's first projects and took twenty years to complete. Most pharaohs would not have lived to see a work of such magnitude finished, but Ramesses did. It included scenes from his version of the Battle of Kadesh and many statues of the pharaoh. Because of its location close to the Nile, however, the Ramesseum did not survive as well as other temples to Ramesses.
The temples to Ramesses and Nefertari at Abu Simbel sit at the southern edge of Egypt along the Nile River and were cut into the mountains present in that location. When the Aswan Dam was built on the Nile River, it created Lake Nasser which threatened to submerge the temples. As a result, they were both moved to higher ground piece by piece.
The larger temple had four seated statues of Ramesses with his mother, Queen Tuya , his wife Nefertari and several of his oldest sons and daughters in various places around their father. Inside there are eight giant statues of Ramesses as the god Osiris, god of the Underworld. The inner chamber has Ramesses II seated with the gods Ra-Horakhty, Ptah and Amun. The three highest gods in the time of Ramesses II.
The smaller temple was for Nefertari and had two giant statues of his wife with a statue of him on either side. She was in the appearance of Hathor, goddess of love, and he was in the appearance of several gods. The temple included reliefs of her children with Ramesses which is how historians know which of the pharaoh's many children were born from his favored wife.
The Tomb of Nefertari, QV66, is perhaps the most ornate work of art in all of Egypt and clearly shows that Ramesses wanted his beloved to make her way to the Field of Reeds, Egyptian Heaven. The walls of her tomb are a virtual life size copy of the Book of the Dead, a guide book needed to successfully traverse the Duat and reach judgment.
Unfortunately, the tomb had been looted before it was rediscovered. The mummy of Queen Neferatri was gone as were all of the possessions her loving husband placed inside for her afterlife.
Ramesses brought peace and stability to his country. He built monuments across the land to prove Egyptian superiority to the world, and he made Egypt more prosperous and powerful than it been for generations. He served as pharaoh of the greatest kingdom in the world for sixty-six years. Nearly all of his subjects were born during his time as pharaoh and knew no other leader. This led many to believe he was truly a god, as living to the age of 91 was unheard of in the 1200 BCs. He out lived his wives and many of his children and in doing so, created a legacy no other pharaoh before or after could top. What many do not mention about Ramesses is that fact that his family loved him so dearly that he outlived twelve sons who could have at any time decided that dear old Dad had ruled long enough and killed him. That says more about the person he was as anything considering that the practice was rampant in ancient times.
In the Twentieth dynasty, founded by a grandson of Ramesses II, Setnakhte, there would be nine pharaohs named after their ancestor but none could hold a candle to Ramesses II. Following that dynasty, the empire truly declined. The Twenty-First dynasty lost control of Upper Egypt. The Twenty-Second through Twenty-Fourth dynasties were largely all Libyan. With the Twenty-Fifth dynasty the Nubians had taken control, and by the Twenty-Seventh dynasty the Persians were ruling the country as pharaohs. By the time Alexander the Great marched into the country in 309 BC, the title pharaoh no longer had the same meaning as it did when Ramesses held it, and after nearly 300 years of rule under the Ptolemies, the country was more Greek than Egyptian. And then the Romans sailed in, and the position of pharaoh was gone forever.
So he wasn't a great military leader like Alexander III, and he didn't unite a country like Narmer. He didn't create a new religion like Akhenaten, or break gender barriers like Hatshepsut. He was also remember for far more than one building project like Djoser or Khufu, and certainly earned more respect than a boy who is only famous because of his tomb (yes that is you Tutankhamun). Ramesses II followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and returned Egypt to the greatness it had once known and that made him the greatest pharaoh ever.
The Tomb of Ramesses II, KV7 in the Valley of the Kings, was placed in a bad location for flooding from the Nile River and was found in very bad condition. Fortunately, his mummy had been moved to protect it from looters. His mummy is in very good condition and provided a great deal of insight to his life. It is known that he suffered arthritis, which is not unusual for a 90 year-old man. His body had sustained injuries, most likely in battle, that had long since healed. He had red hair, which was considered an association with Set, god of chaos, for whom his father was named. It was also discovered that he had extremely bad teeth and an abscess that was bad enough to cause a fatal infection, but it may never be know if this was the cause of his death.
Questions & Answers
Is this the pharaoh whom Moses dealt with?
We have no way of knowing. There are many theories as to who the pharaoh was if the event actually took place. Some scholars speculate that Ahmose was the one because the plagues would be similar to what might have happened after the Thera eruption. Others believe that it might have been Ramses son and successor Merneptah. Still others think that Moses might have been Thutmose the son of Amenhotep III and brother of Akhenaten. The only reason to speculate that it was Ramses or anyone associated with him is because the city of Ramses is mentioned in the story. Like most written histories of ancient times, it was written hundreds, if not thousands of years after it supposedly took place. Pi Ramses would have been well know as a city. The name may have been used simply for that reason.