Ramesses II: Birth, Family, Military Campaigns & Death
Regarded by many historians and Egyptologists as one of ancient Egypt’s most outstanding propagandists and diplomats, Ramesses II was a 19th-dynasty pharaoh who reigned from around 1279 to 1213 BC. His over six-decade reign also makes him one of the longest-reigning rulers of ancient Egypt. In addition to his glossed-over military campaigns against the Hittites and the Libyans, Ramesses II is most famous for building some of the most magnificent structures of the ancient world. To fully comprehend how big this pharaoh’s ego was one need look no further than to the imposing statues of him scattered across Egypt; the ones at the Mountain Temple of Abu Simbel are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Who really was Ramesses II? And were all those stories about Ramses the Great crushing the Hittites true? Worldhistoryedu.com takes an in-depth look into the birth story, family, military campaigns, and architectural feats of Ramesses II.
Fast Facts about Ramesses II
Date of Birth: c. 1303 BCE
Date of Death: 1213 BCE
Burial place: Originally buried at Tomb KV7 in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt
Dynasty: 19th Dynasty
Parents: Seti I and Tuya
Spouse: Over 100 wives, including his favorite Nefertari, Henutmire, Maathorneferure and Isetnofret
Children: Close to 200 children, including Amun-her-khepsef, Henuttawy, Bintanath, Khaemwaset, Merneptah, Nebettawy
Religion: Ancient Egyptian Religion
Reign: 1279-1213 BCE
Predecessor: Seti I
Epithets: “Ra is the one who bore him”; “Great Ancestor”; “The Ma’at of Ra is powerful”; “Chosen of Ra”
Also known as: Ramses, Rameses, Ramses the Great, “The Great Ancestor”
Most famous for: Third pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty of Egypt; Greatest pharaoh of the New Kingdom; signing the world’s first peace accord (with the Hittites in 1258 BCE)
Accomplishments: Builder of several magnificent structures and the city of Pi-Ramesses
Greek name: Ozymandias
Birth story and Family
Ramesses’ family rose to prominence about half a century after the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaton (also known as Amenhotep IV) – the so-called heretic pharaoh who was not so enthusiastic about military expeditions in Asia, thereby reducing Egypt’s power in the region.
With no royal blood, the first few pharaohs in Ramesses’ family worked very hard to make Egypt great again, especially expanding its hold in Asia. By so doing, they were able to win the support of the people and bring in massive amounts of looted riches from other regions.
According to Manetho – the Ptolemaic era Egyptian priest from Sebennytos – Ramesses II was born in 1279 BC. His father was Pharaoh Seti the First. His mother was Tuya (also known as Tuy or Mut-Tuya), the daughter of a very influential military officer named Raia.
Ramesses’ father, Seti I, is credited with laying a solid foundation that allowed Ramesses to take off upon succeeding to the throne of Egypt. Pharaoh Seti I crushed some pretty stern rebellions in places like Palestine and Syria. He also fought against the Hittites for greater control of places in Anatolia.
Seti’s victories were short-lived, as majority of the territories he won later fell back into the hands of the Hittites. Just before Seti’s death, the Hittites took control of Egyptian territories in the north. They also had a stronghold in Kadesh, a region along the Orontes River.
Ramesses II’s reign
Right from an early age, Ramesses was introduced to military training and allowed to partly manage his own court. He was also given honorary ranks in the military. By the age of 10, he had attained the rank of captain in the army.
In his early teens, he gained invaluable experience from the time spent accompanying his father into battles. A few years before the death of his father, Ramesses, still in his teens, was appointed co-regent.
Upon the death of his father, Seti I, the teenaged Ramesses became pharaoh of Egypt. One of his first initiatives as pharaoh was to construct a military base near the Nile delta. He hoped this would facilitate easy launch of military campaigns into Anatolia and Asia.
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Ramesses’ Construction Projects – Memorial Temples, Abu Simbel, and Pi Ramesses
In a bid to be recognized as not just a god king, but also the greatest pharaoh of his dynasty, Ramesses set about building temples and monuments of all shapes and sizes across Egypt and Nubia.
This never-before-seen spree of construction would be one of the defining features of his reign. He also improved upon the projects that were started by his father; for example, the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak and the temples at Thebes and Abydos.
Many of Ramesses’ large-scale projects began approximately three years into his reign.
Ramesseum – Ramesses’ memorial temple close to Qurna
When the famous Greek historian Diodorus Siculus visited Egypt, he was beyond speechless upon seeing the massive memorial temple of Ramesses II. The temple, which is known as Ramesseum, was built at a place close to Qurna.
In front of the temple were two very large courts; and to the left of the first court, stood a giant pylon. Found in the background of these structures was a huge statue of Ramesses. What remains today of the statue are the base and torso.
After the completion of the temple, he tasked his craftsmen to cover the statues, from head to toe, with carved inscriptions and appellations in honor of him. The walls of the temple are also full of carvings of Ramesses defeating his enemies in battles, particularly at the battle against the Hittite at Kadesh.
Abu Simbel Temples
Of all the monuments built by Pharaoh Ramesses, the most famous has got to be the Abu Simbel temples in Nubia. Painstakingly carved out of the mountain, the temple was built in honor of Ramesses and his favorite wife Nefertari. The massive statues of Ramesses that great you at the entrance perfectly summarize how much reverence the Egyptians gave to the king, a living personification of the gods.
Ramesses II was an expert propagandist; he was skilled at exaggerating battles that ended in stalemates or ones that were almost lost. Almost all the monuments served as a propaganda tool – a perfect reflection of the thoughts that went through the mind of this self-absorbed egomaniac.
Pi-Ramesses – Ramesses II’s capital city
At a place that used to be the summer palace of his father, Ramesses built an entirely new city called Pi-Ramesses. Not even did the likes of pharaoh Djoser or Khufu dare name a city after themselves. Ramesses was a different kind of pharaoh. To reinforce notions of his divinity, the megalomaniac pharaoh moved the kingdom’s capital from Thebes to the city that he built from scratch.
Pi-Ramesses was sited at the eastern part of the Nile Delta. The city, whose name translates into “Terrain of Ramesses, Great ruler in Victory”, was packed with monuments in honor of Ramesses. There have been counter claims that Ramesses built Pi-Ramesses because he wanted to use it as a military base to launch attacks into Canaan and Syria.
Some of his early military campaigns as pharaoh were against the Nubians and the Hittites. Similar to his father Seti I, Ramesses II set out to reclaim lost Egyptian territories in those regions.
In Nubia, he led his army and quelled a number of rebellions. In the Nubia campaigns, Ramesses, 22, was accompanied by his sons – Khaemwaset and Amun-her-Khepsef. After the rebels yielded, Ramesses built temples at Kalabasha, Beit el-Wali and Gerf Hussein. In a typical fashion of the king, the walls of those temples depict him striking down his enemies in Nubia.
The pharaoh also embarked on campaigns in Libya as part of effort to consolidate his hold in the region, especially along the Mediterranean coast.
The size of Ramesses II’s military was in the region of 120,000 men. At that size, his nation was undoubtedly one of the mightiest anywhere in the world at the time.
About two years into his reign, the young pharaoh did not hesitate when he crushed Sherden sea pirates that operated along the Mediterranean coast. Those pirates had for quite some time wrecked immense havoc on Egypt’s trading routes. Many historians reason that the pirates’ base was likely around the coast of Ionia in southwest Anatolia. Some of them also came from Sardinia and surrounding areas. The pharaoh laid a trap for the pirates at sea; once the pirates fell for it, he unleashed his forces on them.
His fourth year on the throne saw him wage war against Canaan in Syria. The stelae at Nahr el-Kalb (near Beirut) commemorates this campaign of his. Ramesses even took one of the Canaanite princes prisoner. The king then proceeded to loot the riches of the Asiatics. He also demanded tributes from a number of tribes in the region.
Battle of Kadesh in Syria
Ramesses II’s most famous military campaign has got to be the stalemate at the Battle of Kadesh in Syria. Concerned about the Hittites (led by Muwatallis) growing influence, Ramesses decided to march his army against them. His goal was to banish them out of the region and establish Egypt’s influence in Anatolia.
His city Pi-Ramesses proved very useful in providing supplies for the troops during the battle. Weapons, chariots and shields were manufactured in the region.
Ambushed and outnumbered by the Hittites at Kadesh, Ramesses returned to Egypt, hoping to fight another day. The Hittite Empire took large parts of Syria, and soon the Canaanites started revolting against Egypt and moving into alliances with the Hittites.
In year eight of his reign, he rampaged through Amurru, Tunip and Dapur. In the latter city, he built a statute of himself. This victory of his was particularly significant. The last pharaoh to claim those lands was Thutmose III; and it was over 160 years prior to Ramesses.
Ramesses-Hittite Peace Treaty
When he finally faced off against the Hittites, he got frustrated by how the territories kept switching from Egypt’s control to Hittite Empire’s control. Hence, both empires sued for peace.
The peace treaty between ancient Egypt and the Hittites is generally considered the earliest known peace accord in history. The Peace Treaty at Kadesh, which was agreed in 1258 BCE, was written in both Egyptian hieroglyphs and Akkadian cuneiform script. One was sent to Ḫattušili III, the ruler of the Hittites, and the other sent to Ramesses.
Not wanting to look weak in their respective nations, both rulers claimed that it was the other who sued for peace. In Ramesses’ case, he went ahead to carve the treaty into the temple at Karnak. In about 18 articles, the treaty invoked the deities from both Egypt and Hittite to keep the peace between the two nations. It covered issues such as extradition, arbitration of conflicts, trade agreements, and economic aid pacts in times of natural disasters.
In the ensuing decades after the Treaty at Kadesh, Ramesses was able to focus fully on his grandiose infrastructural projects in Egypt.
Did you know: A copy of the Ancient Egyptian Peace Treaty with the Hittites is boldly displayed on the wall of the General Assembly building of the United Nations?
How did Ramses the Great die?
Around the ripe age of 90, Ramesses was plagued by a number of illnesses, from arthritis, heart conditions, to dental problems. His years of supervising monumental constructions had taken a big toll on him. But at the age of 90, Ramesses had outlived many of his family members, including his children and wives. Bearing in mind that the life expectancy of a second millennium BCE royal was not that high, Ramesses’ long life was not a common occurrence.
Ramesses II’s mummy and tomb
Pharaoh Ramesses II was buried in the Valley of the Kings, which was a massive burial ground in the west of Thebes. His burial tomb is known today as KV7. After years of looting by grave robbers, his descendants moved his remains to Queen Ahmose Inhapy’s tomb. However, that was not the end of it as it was moved to high priest Pinedjem II’s tomb.
Archaeologists ultimately found his mummy in TT320 – the ancient Egyptian tomb in the Theban Necropolis. A mummy that was once buried in the finest of riches was buried in a wooden coffin.
The tomb – TT320 – that archaeologist found Ramesses’ mummy also contained the remains of over 50 kings, queens and other influential high priests from the New Kingdom era.
Such was Ramses the Great’s acclaim during and after his life that he was given the name “Great Father”. It was also the case that succeeding pharaohs wanted to associate themselves with him; it has been estimated that nine future pharaohs used his name.
Ramesses II’s wives and children
As it was pretty common for monarchs of those BC eras, Ramses the Great was extremely polygamous, taking over 150 wives during his lifetime.
His favorite wife, Nerfertari, bore him a number of children, including his first son Amun-her-khepsef (“Amun is on his right hand”). Nerfertari died 13 years into Ramesses’ reign. She was buried at the Valley of the Queens at Luxor.
His second favorite wife, Isinofre, bore him several children, including the son who ultimately succeeded him to the throne – Merneptah. Isinofre had immense influence in the north of the kingdom.
Other children of Ramesses II include daughter Bintanath (her name translates into “Daughter of the goddess Anath”), Isisnofret, and Prince Khaemwise. The latter became a priest of Memphis and is generally recognized as the first Egyptologist in history. Khaemwise had mastery in hieroglyphs and antiquities. He also designed the Serapeum, the catacomb for the sacred Apis bulls at Saqqara.
Other interesting facts about Ramesses II
- So ridiculous were some of Ramesses II’s depictions that one claimed that he single-handedly fought (without his army) against the rebels in Nubia. For someone considered a god king by the ancient Egyptians, attaining that feat would not have been thought impossible.
- In the 1970s, the Egyptian authorities agreed to send Ramesses’ mummy to France in a bid to prevent it from deteriorating. Upon its arrival at the Paris-Le Bourget Airport, the French military gave it all honor it deserves, almost like the manner in which foreign heads of state are received. The mummy was taken to a lab at Musée de l’Homme for restoration works before it was returned to Egypt in 1977. According to forensic experts that analyzed the mummy when it was in France, Ramesses was ginger haired. The results showed that he most likely came from a family with predominantly red hair.
- If the studies in France are true, Ramesses II during his reign would probably have been associated with the Egyptian god Set/Seth (the god of chaos and destruction). Ancient Egyptians associated royals that had red hair with Set. Morever, his father’s name, Seti, translates into “follower of Set”.
- As a result of his arthritis in his later years, he might have walked with a hunched back.
- In pop culture, many have placed their bets on Ramesses II as the one most likely to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus. In the Book of Exodus, the Prophet Moses is believed to have battled an Egyptian pharaoh before he could free the Israelites from centuries of bondage in the land of Egypt. To this day, no evidence exists to substantiate such assertions that the pharaoh in the Book of Exodus was in fact Ramesses II.
- In order to seal the ancient Egyptian-Hittite Peace Treaty, Ramesses II married two Hittite princesses. One of them was called Maathorneferure.
- As a result of his longevity on the throne, he is believed to have celebrated 13 or 14 Sed Festivals. The festival is first held for a pharaoh who stays on the throne for 30 years. This alone was a huge accomplishment as only a few Egyptian pharaohs could reign for more than 30 years. Either their unhealthy lifestyles or assassinations cut their reigns short. According to tradition, the pharaoh gets to have the Sed Festival every three years after the first one. In Ramesses’ case, he had a whopping 13 Sed Festivals – a reflection of his 67-year reign.
- He outlived many of his children and wives. Ultimately, he was succeeded to the throne by his thirteenth son – Prince Merneptah.
- Due to his extravagant lifestyle and expensive building projects, he is believed to have left the royal coffers almost empty.