RAMSES THE GREAT (ruled 1279 to 1213 B.C.)


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Ramses II Colossal statue
Ramses the Great, also known as Ramses II, was perhaps the greatest of all the Egyptian pharaohs. He became Pharaoh in 1279 B.C. when he was in his twenties and the pyramids were already 1,300 years old. He ruled ancient Egypt for 67 years during the golden age of the civilization. He raised more temples, obelisks and colossal monuments that any other Pharaoh and ruled an empire that stretched from present-day Libya and Sudan to Iraq and Turkey. The Bible refers to him simply as "Pharaoh." [Source: Rick Gore, National Geographic, April 1991 [♣]

Ramses, which means "Son of Ra," was five feet eight inches---tall by ancient Egyptian standards. "He had a strong jaw; a beaked nose, a long thin face," says James Harris of the University of Michigan, who X-rayed the Pharaoh's mummy, "That was not typical of earlier pharaohs. He probably looked more like the people of the eastern Mediterranean. Which is not surprising, because he came from the Nile delta, which had been invaded in the past by peoples from the east."♣

The mummy of Ramses the Great has Great has a shock of soft reddish-blonde hair with the texture of peach fuzz. CT scans and studies of tissue material from Ramses II’s body in the 2000s indicate that the Pharaoh had blackheads, arthritis and hardening of the arteries. X-rays of the mummy done in the 20th show he had arthritis of the hip, which forced him to stoop, and gum disease.

Ramses died at the age of 92. Within 150 years after he was buried Ramses tomb was looted and the mummy was desecrated. In 1150 B.C., a grave robber confessed under torture to plundering the tombs of Ramses and his sons. Today Ramses unwrapped red-haired body lies today in the Cairo Museum.

Kenneth Kitchen, professor of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, is author of an authoritative book on Ramses the Great.

Ramses' Grandfather, Father and Women

Ramesses II on chariot
Ramses I was Ramses' grandfather. Seti I, Ramses's father, took his son on military campaigns to Libya when he was 14 and later to Syria to battle the Hittites.

Ramses had eight wives---including his younger sister and three daughters---and numerous concubines, which included several Hittite princesses. Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen said: “If he got tired of hunting and shooting he could wander through the garden and blow a kiss at one of the ladies." In reliefs Ramses II is often pictured with a big dick and strong erection.

While Seti was still Pharaoh he selected a harem for his son. Ramses principal wife, the beautiful Nefertari, quickly produced a son. And not long afterwards his second favorite wife, Isntnofret, delivered another. More and more children followed. "Nefertari had the looks," Kitchen told National Geographic, "He was obviously proud of her, showing her off all the time. But I think Istnofert had the brains. It was her offspring that wielded the most power as Ramses aged."♣

Ramses I and Seti I

Ramses II's mummy head
Pramesse was a commoner and leading bureaucrat when Pharaoh Horemheb died with no heir. Pramesse, also know as Ramses I, the first pharaoh of Dynasty XIX, lasted only 16 months.

In October 2003, the mummy of a pharaoh was returned too Egypt by the Michael Carlos Museum at Atlanta’s Emory University. Much fanfare was made bout the return of the mummy, which some believe in Ramses I based on the way the arms are crossed high over the chest, as was the custom with royal mummies in Ramses time and the resembled of face to faces of Seti I. Ramses II and Ramses VII. The mummy thought to be Ramses I was sold by dealers in the 19th century and ended yo in the Niagra Falls museum where at was displayed next to a two-headed and barrels used by daredevil go over the falls and were handed over to the museum at Emory after the Niagra museum was closed.

Seti I, Ramses I's successor, was a "vigorous warrior." He expanded the Egyptian empire to include Cyprus and parts of Mesopotamia. Seti I lives on as one of the best-preserved mummies. His face is on display at the Egyptians Museum. The Egyptologist Methew Addams told the New York Times, “people have been influenced by that face in their interpretation of Seti as having been a good, wise king, We are really projecting our own esthetic on him.”


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Nefertari was Ramses first and favorite wife. He raised many statues to honor her. She often appeared with him at state and religious ceremonies. She may have traveled with Ramses on diplomatic missions and given him important advise.

It is Nefertari---of equal size---who sits side by side with Ramses at Abu Simbel and Luxor. A dedication for Nefertari's statue at Abu Simbel reads, "Nefertari, for whose sake her very sun does shine!" In contrast, wives of other pharaohs were usually depicted as diminutive figures at the feet of their husbands.

Little is known about Nefertari's early life. She is believed to have come from southern Egypt and may have been related to Queen Nefertiti. Nefertari bore Ramses five or seven children before she died in 1255 B.C. One painting of her shows her with cobras for earnings. In another Ramses callers her the "Possessor of charm, sweetness, and love."♣

When Nefertari died during Year 24 of Ramses II’s reign the Pharaoh produced the most beautiful tomb yet discovered in the Valley of the Queens. More or less intact today, the tomb features paintings of Nefertari in a sexy linen gown.

Ramses Children

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Nefertari and Ramses II
at Abu Simbel
Ramses fathered more than 100 children, including 52 known sons. According to some accounts he sired 162 children. His father started his harem when he was 10. When he ascended to the throne at 25 he had already fathered ten sons and as many daughters. Kitchen said: "Ramses's house must have resounded with the gurgles, yelps and whimpers of each year's crop or bouncing royal babies."♣

At the age of 20, Ramses took of his sons with him to campaign to quell down a minor revolt and lets them take part in a chariot charge. Ramses outlived 12 of his heirs and when he died his 13th son, Merneptah, took the throne in his sixties. Merneptah was a son of an Istnofret.

Tomb of Ramses Sons

On February 2, 1995, American archaeologist Ken Weeks discovered a huge tomb with at least 108 chambers in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor. Archaeologists considered it the most significant discovery in Egyptology since the discovery of King Tut's tomb.

Known officially as KV5 (the 5th tomb discovered in the Valley of the Kings) and located about 100 feet from the tomb of Ramses the Great, the tomb is believed to have been a burial place for many of Ramses the Great' sons.

KV5 is the largest and most complex Egyptian tomb every discovered and the only multiple tomb for pharaoh's children. Inscriptions on the walls mentions two of Ramses' sons, which is what led archaeologists to believed it may be a tomb for his sons.

Describing the sensation of being in the tomb, Douglas Preston wrote in the New Yorker, "Nothing in twenty years of archaeology has prepared me for this great wrecked corridor chiseled out of the living rock, with rows of shattered doorways opening into darkness, and ending in the faceless mummy of Osiris...As I stare at the walls ghostly figures and faint hieroglyphics; animal-headed gods performing mysterious rites. Through doorways I catch a glimpse of more rooms and doorways beyond."

After being the first person to enter one chamber, "I sit up and look around....There is three feet of space between the top of the debris and the ceiling, just enough for me to crawl around...The room is about nine feet square, the walls finely chiseled from the bedrock...In run my fingers along the ancient chisel marks...Their only source of light would have been the dim illumination from wicks burning in a bowl of oil salted to reduce smoke.

Book: The Lost Tomb by Kent R. Weeks (William Morrow & Co.) is the story of the tomb of the children of Ramses II.

Details about the Tomb of Ramses Sons

KV5 has a T-floor plan and is made up of a series of boxcar-like chambers connected by corridors, and ending with a burial vault. There are a number of descending passageways and side chambers and suites and false doors. One of the largest chambers is sixty square feet. It is supported by four huge pillars arranged in four rows.

Ramses III and the Memphis gods

There are reliefs that show Ramses presenting various sons to the gods, with the names and tools recorded in hieroglyphics. Objects found include faince jewelry, fragments of furniture, pieces of coffin, humans and animal bones, mummified body parts, chunks of sarcophagi, remains of jars used for mummified organs---all debris left behind by looters.

The purpose of the tomb is a mysterious. Its design is radically different from other ancient Egyptian tombs. The rooms are not believed to have been burial chambers because the doorways are too narrow to admit sarcophagi. Instead they are believed to have been chapels where priest made offerings to the dead sons.

One corridors heads in the direction of the Tomb of Ramses and some scholars speculate that they might be connected. No two tombs are known to be connected. Some scholars believe Ramses's daughters might be buried in the tombs, others say that is unlikely. Archaeologists have found no evidence of Moses or the Exodus.

Ramses the Great as Pharaoh

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Ramses II pectoral
Seti died at about age 50 and Ramses became pharaoh at the age of 24. One of first duties as the new Pharaoh was to participate in the festival of Opet in Thebes. During the festival a golden statue of the supreme god Amun was carried from the Temple of Karnak by barge and by foot on a two mile journey to the temple of Luxor where Amun-Min, the phallic god of fertility, resided. The statue stayed at Luxor for about two weeks while the Pharaoh presided over an annual secret renewal ceremony that also was intended to breath new life into the Pharaoh himself.♣

Ramses was very conservative. He discouraged innovation and reform and saw his amain duty as upholding traditional Egyptian customs. Zahi Hawass wrote in National Geographic, More than anyone else, this great king would work to erase from history all traces of Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, and the other "heretics" of the Amarna period.”

Ramses was also considered to be very humane. He went against custom by featuring his children and wives in his monuments and reportedly was well liked by his subjects, who appeared to have been more than happy to toil and raise great monuments in his honor. In one stelae, Ramses boasted his workers "work for me with full hearts."

Monuments Raised by Ramses the Great

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Ramses II at the Louvre
Under Seti and Ramses many large monuments were built, and the Pharaohs seemed intent on asserting their god-like omnipotence. Many scholars assert this was not just an expression but also a way of maintaining control over the empire's large army and bureaucracy.♣

The monument raised on Ramses were distinguished by their immense size not their artistic skill. The greatest monument created during the reign of Ramses the Great was Abu Simbel. Among the dozens of other temples built during his reign were number temples at Luxor and Karnak, including the magnificent forecourts at Luxor Temple, the Hall of Columns at Karnak, the city of Pi-Ramses, and the giant broken statue of Ramses the Great that inspired Shelley's Ozymandias.

Ramsesseum is the mortuary temple of Ramses II. Built as an expression to his greatness, it has been desecrated and was scavenged for materials over the years and now lies mostly in ruins. It features painting of the pharaoh depicted as Osiris, the god of the afterlife, and murals of the Battle of Kadesh. The head of the multi-ton, 57-foot-high colossi of Ramses II that inspired the Shelley poem Ozymandias and guarded the temple were hauled away in 1817 by the Italian adventurer Giovanni Belzoni. He hired scores of Egyptians to drag the seven-ton heads to a boat that carried the heads up the Nile and eventually to London. The bust and other Belzoni "conquests" now form the core of the Egyptian collection at the British museum.

In his poem Oozaymandias , about a colossal statue of Ramses, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelly wrote:
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and Despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of the that colossal wreck, boundless and bare.
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Abu Simbel

Ramesseum plan
Abu Simbel (170 miles south of Aswan) is a monumental temple in southern Egypt with four colossal seated statues---two of Ramses the Great (Ramses II) and two of his wife Neferteri---and two main temples---one dedicated to the sun god Ra-Harakhte, built into the cliff behind the colossal statues, and another dedicated to Hathor built into a cliff on an adjacent hill.

The rock-hewn "grotto" temples at Abu Simbel are somewhat unique. The style is more associated more with the Nubians and other Middle Eastern cultures than with the ancient Egyptians. Unlike many other Pharonic temples, Abu Simbel was never taken over by the Romans or turned into a church by Christians.

Abu Simbel was rediscovered in 1813 by John Lewis Burckhardt. In 1817, after weeks of digging, the Italian adventurer Giovanni Belzoni cleared away enough sand to penetrate the temple. Two years later when the Nefertari’s shrine was uncovered tourists starting venturing down the Nile to visit the site and have been coming every since. The statues are best seen at sunrise.

The Colossal Statues at Abu Simbel are each 67 feet high and weigh 1,200 tons. Each eye is nearly three feet across. The statues were commissioned by Ramses and finished about 1260 B.C., coinciding more or less with Ramses 30 year jubilee when the pharaoh was 45. The statues were chiseled out of the mountainside, and, like the Sphinx and most other Egyptian temples, they were originally painted with bright colors. Scientist have been a able to ascertain from minute paint fragments left behind that the pharaohs headdresses were blue and gold, their skin was pink and the background was painted white.

Abu Simbel Temple

Abu Simbel Temple (behind the statues) is dedicated to the sun god Ra-Harakhte, and the gods Amun, Ptaj and a deified Ramses II. It is inside the cliff behind the statues and is 160 feet deep. Archaeologists have long wondered why Ramses built this temple so far to south of major Egyptian cities. Most believe it was a statement to the Nubians of the power of the pharaoh.

The original temple was built on a site where twice a year---on February 22nd (Ramses II’s birthday) and October 22nd (the anniversary of Ramses II’s coronation)---the morning sun penetrated into the temple's deepest chamber. The timing is probably connected to the symbolic unification, via the rays of the sun, of the statue of Ra-Rorakhty and the statue of Ramses II.

High on the facade there is a of carved baboons, smiling at the sunrise. On the door of the temple there is a beautiful inscription of the kings name. Above the door is the falcon-headed deity, Re-Harakhti. Between the legs of the colossal statues on the facade are statues of Ramses family, his mother "Mut-tuy," his wife "Nefertari" and his sons and daughters.

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Abu Simbel

The temple itself was made up of chambers, storerooms, square painted pillars and two halls with yet more statues of Ramses and a few of the gods. Specialist who worked at the City of the Dead completed most of the subterranean temple with bronze tools.

There are also a number of dedications. Important among these is one of Ramses II's marriage to the daughter of a Hittite king. Beyond the entrance is the Great Hall of Pillars, with eight 32-foot-high pillars of Ramses defied as the God Osiris. The walls have inscriptions recording the Battle of Kadesh against the Hittites. The smaller Hall of Nobles contains four square pillars. The sacred central sanctuary contains a shrine pierced by the sun on Ramses’s birthday, February 21, and his coronation day, October 22.

Temple of Nefertari and Hathor at Abu Simbel (on a hill adjacent to the hill with the colossal statues and the main temple) is a smaller temple fronted by more Ramses stature with two statues of Nefertari, sandwiched in between. Dedicated to Hathor, the goddess of Love and Beauty, and Nefertari, the temple is chiseled into the cliff behind the statues and is thought to have been completed before the Ramses temple. The two temples have similar designs.

The four facade statues of Ramses and two of Nefertari are 33 feet tall. The statues of the queen are smiling. The upper portion of the second statue on the Ramses temple is believed to have fallen off during the Pharaoh's time from stresses in the rock. Queen Nefertari is portrayed with cows horns of the goddess Hathor. The entrance of the Temple of Hathor leads to a hall containing six pillars bearing the head of the goddess Hathor. The eastern wall bears inscriptions depicting Ramses striking some enemies before the gods Ra and Amum. Other wall scenes show Ramses and Nefertari offering sacrifices to the gods and performing religious rituals. There are also superb reliefs of the Battle of Kadesh. Beyond this is another wall with similar scenes and paintings. In the sacred central shrine there is a statue of Hathor.

Ramses, the Hittites and the Battle of Kadesh

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Treaty of Kadesh
The Egyptians and Hittites challenged one another for control of the eastern Mediterranean. The Hittites had iron weapons, the Egyptians didn’t. In 1288 B.C., the fifth year of his reign, Ramses and his young sons mounted chariots and led an army of 20,000 men---a huge number at that time---to Syria for a "superpower showdown" against the Hittite king Muwatallis, whose a force was nearly twice as big as the Egyptian force. ♣

At stake was Kadesh, a fortress town in Syria that guarded the trade routes to the east (the Egyptians, and probably, the Hittites imported silk from China). Seti I, Ramses father, had captured the city, but when he returned to Egypt, the Hittites recaptured it.

Ramses's army was surprised by an ambush from the Hittites outside of Kadesh and the Egyptian army scattered. According to an inscription of dubious merit, Ramses found himself abandoned but nevertheless mounted his chariot and led a charge and Egyptian reinforcements arrived and this time the Hittites were on the run. In reality the Egyptians were routed but neither side was able to gain territory on the other, so Ramses went home and raised a monument to declare his great victory.

Ramses led military campaigns against the Hittites until he was in his 40s. After 15 years of fighting the Egyptians and Hittites signed a peace treaty that proved to be so cordial that the Hittite king Hattusilis III sent his eldest daughter,Maat-Hor-Nefersure to wed Ramses II in 1246 B.C. The marriage almost didn't come off because of a last minute argument between Ramses II and Hattusilis over the dowry.

The marriage between Ramses and Maat-Hor-Nefersure ushered in a long period of peace and prosperity that lasted until Ramses' death. Ramses later married another one of Hattusilis's daughters. The Hitittes may have even sent craftsman to Egypt to make iron shields and weapons for the Egyptians.♣

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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