Tutankhamun is, for many, Egypt’s most famous Pharaoh. Quite a few Pharaohs would take offence, starting with the pyramid builders, the mighty Thutmose III or Amenhotep III. One particular Pharaoh would not only contest but ask, what did this teenage King ever achieve? Where are the colossal statues and monuments, up and down Egypt, evidence of his eternal glory? Here is the story of what makes Ramses II ‘Great.’
Reasons Why Ramses Was Great In His Lifetime
Until his tomb discovery in 1922, no one outside of Egyptologist circles had ever heard of Tutankhamun. As a consequence of the turmoil caused by his father Akhenaten’s religious reforms, images were smashed and names erased.
Akhenaten’s statues, those of his wife Nefertiti and son Tutankhamun, were destroyed. After a short reign, Tutankhamun, buried in a small tomb, became all but a minor footnote in Egypt’s long history.
Not long after, Pa-Ramessu, the vizier -prime minister- sat on the throne. A steady hand, from a military family, Ramses I already had a son and grandson, lessening the risk of succession chaos. The first Ramses restored stability. His son Seti I and grandson Ramses II revived the eternal glory of Egypt.
Ramses Inherited Egypt From A Great Pharaoh, Seti I
Ramses I’s reign only lasted two years. Seti’s would last nearly 15 years. It was like a Renaissance, attempting to emulate the great conqueror Thutmose III and the great builder Amenhotep III.
For military matters, Seti lost no time in legitimating his son’s claim to the throne: Ramses was named Commander-in-Chief aged 10. The young Commander later witnessed his father recapture a strategically important town, Kadesh. Seti restored classicism in art, largely contributing to two of Egypt’s marvels, Abydos’ temple and the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak.
The reign of his son overshadowed the importance of Seti’s reign. While Seti succeeded at rivaling the achievements of past Pharaohs, Ramses went on to surpass them.
He Had The Longest Reign Of Ancient Egypt
Ramses became Pharaoh in his early 20s and went on to rule for a record of nearly 67 years. Only Pepi II had previously governed that long, around 63 years, at a time of decline. Ramses II’s reign was a display of might, from the southern border to Syria. Thutmose III first took Kadesh, Akhenaten then lost it, Seti I retook it, only to concede it back.
Regaining Kadesh became Ramses’ defining military achievement. On the way there, “every foreign country was trembling before him.” But Ramses himself admitted having been given false intelligence. “This very hour, I have heard from these two Hittite spies that the Hittite ruler has already come with his allies, with innumerable troops.”
Pharaoh and his troops had just fallen into a trap. The enemy “was waiting hidden and ready on the northeast of the town of Kadesh.” Hittite chariots stormed their camp, and Pharaoh’s shield-bearer warned, “we stand alone amidst the foe.” Ramses replied, “I shall go for them like the pounce of a falcon.”
Egyptian support troops arrived in time to help launch a counter-attack. The assailant became prey and fled towards the river. Temple walls depict Ramses charging his enemies:
“He charged into the midst of the foe, while he was alone by himself … He slaughtered them… overthrew them into the waters of the Orontes. His majesty was behind them like a fierce-eyed lion”.
Pharaoh then claimed, “these are the prisoners of my own capture, while I was alone, no infantry being with me, nor any prince with me, nor any chariotry.”
He Built Monuments All Over Egypt
Writing history in stone is indeed the best way to secure one’s legacy. Yet the other side also claimed victory: “Muwattalli defeated the King of Egypt.” Kadesh ended in a stalemate concluded by a peace treaty. Peace brought stability and prosperity, allowing Ramses to become the most prolific builder of Ancient Egypt.
Ramses started building while still a prince, and as soon as he became Pharaoh worked on creating an eternal heritage. A rough summary of Ramses’ monuments:
- A new capital, Pi-Ramses, lauded for its “beauteous balconies and dazzling halls of lapis lazuli and turquoise.”
- In Memphis, additions to the temples of the old capital.
- In Abydos, completed his father’s temple, added his own.
- The largest individual tomb of the Valley of the Kings.
- The largest royal burial chamber of ancient Egypt for his sons.
- Eight graves for the women in his life, including his mother Tuy and wife Nefertari.
- One of the largest temples of Egypt, the Ramesseum.
- Luxor and Karnak, additions to the great temples.
- In Nubia, seven temples, including the monumental Abu Simbel.
- At least 350 statues, of which almost 50 are colossal, up to 66 ft high, seated.
To build so much, Ramses also employed the typically Egyptian method used to appease impatient Kings. Take an existing temple or statue, chisel out the Pharaohs’ names who built it, and replace it with one’s own. At the stroke of the chisel, another 100 statues instantly became Ramses.
Previous Pharaohs had built impressive pyramids and temples. Ramses turned Egypt into an immense building site, from the Mediterranean Sea all the way to Nubia.
Ramses II Was A Living God
Pharaohs were successors of a god, Horus. Most Kings were also sons of the sun god Ra. They were called netjer nefer. Netjer means god, and nefer perfect, signifying that Pharaoh was a ‘perfect god.’ But was he human, both human and divine, or a god?
One sees Pharaohs among the gods, but as subordinates, serving offerings or being granted favors. Pharaoh, the function, was divine; and Pharaoh, the person, was human. But a person one step away from being a god in the hereafter.
Ramses was more than a ‘good god’. Deep inside Abu Simbel’s temple are statues sitting shoulder to shoulder. Four gods: Ptah, Amun-Ra, Ramses, and Ra-Horakhty. Ramses among the gods, as an equal, not a lesser god. Reliefs show Ramses II, the man, making offerings to Ramses II, the god.
And there are the colossal statues. At Abu Simbel, the 66 ft tall sculptures hewn from the mountainside. The colossus in the Ramesseum, nearly as big, but a monolith weighing 1,000 tons. With the colossi of Amenhotep III, among the tallest free-standing statues ever carved.
Some of these giants were even subject to a popular cult. A stele depicts a man making an offering to Ramses’ statue, “the great god who hears the petitions of mankind.” The statue was worshiped and received gifts, like that of a proper god.
The colossi were ka doubles, containing Ramses’ divine energy, helping to keep him alive in the great beyond. Living images of Ramses looking in the distance, towards eternity, as one of the gods.
His Tomb Was The Biggest Of The King’s Valley
Ramses built for himself the largest individual tomb of the Valley of the Kings. For his sons, a royal tomb large enough for more than 120 princes. Both tombs were, unfortunately, badly damaged by the rare but devastating torrential rains.
Eight times larger than Tutankhamun’s tomb, which contained 5,000 items, Ramses’ tomb had a burial room named ‘House of Gold.’ Since only a few reliefs, fragments, and objects have survived thieves and floods, one can only imagine the treasures it would have contained.
The tomb of his Queen, Nefertari, offers an idea of what it might have looked like in its prime. Her burial chamber is one of the finest examples of ancient Egyptian art.
One Of The Largest Temples Of Egypt, The Ramesseum
Another monument secured Ramses’ eternal life, the Ramesseum. A Mansion of Millions of Years, often called ‘mortuary temple’, while it was, in his lifetime, a memorial to the cult of divine Ramses.
There was a palace, a treasure store filled with “silver, gold, royal linen, every real costly stone”, and fine wines. A ‘House of Life,’ a school where scribes learned to write, read classical literature, and learned to paint and sculpt statues. The Ramesseum was an economic powerhouse employing thousands.
Worshiping the statues helped sustain Ramses’ mummy, buried on the other side of the mountain. The largest was the colossus named “Ramses Sun of the Princes”, later known as ‘Ozymandias’. But on the way towards eternity, Ramses’ monuments first had to survive.
Similar to when a section of the Abu Simbel cliff collapsed, one colossus collapsed from gravity and nature. Then, later Pharoahs used the fallen stone from statues and temples as their own construction material. The “Sun of the Princes” colossus was also defaced and destroyed during the anti-pagan campaigns of the late 4th century AD.
Reasons Why Ramses Was Great After He Died
While all Pharaohs had hoped to become eternal gods, many had short reigns, reigned over half of Egypt, or had little accomplishments. How many Pharaohs were glorified by ensuing generations of Pharaohs?
Many Pharaohs Tried To Emulate Him
Ramses was so prestigious that nine Pharaohs in succession, from Ramses III to Ramses XI, took his name. Ramses III is the only one whose achievements might come close, visible today with an impressive Million Years mansion near the Ramesseum. But his reign ended abjectly when he was assassinated after a palace power struggle.
The last Ramses left royal power so weakened that Egypt entered another era of division and chaos. Pharaohs buried in the King’s Valley were stripped of all their riches to protect them from thieves.
A new dynasty ruled over half of Egypt. To build their capital, Tanis, the Kings took nearly every stone and statue of Pi-Ramses and moved them 12 miles away. In small burial grounds made of stone bearing Ramses cartouche, three of Tanis’ Pharaohs became the only Kings whose tombs spared looting.
Inside Psusennes’ tomb, among the gold and silver treasure, was a modest item. A bronze brazier inscribed with Ramses’ name, which could have easily been replaced with Psusennes’. Choosing to be buried with an object that had belonged to Ramses II meant hoping to bask in his glory.
Psusennes even called himself ‘Ramses-Psusennes.’ Almost one thousand years after he died, priests had a stele carved falsely pretending to be associated with the great Pharaoh.
Eventually, priests ceased carving hieroglyphs on temple walls. Between the last hieroglyphic inscription in 394 AD, and Champollion’s decipherment in 1822, ancient Egypt’s history fell into obscurity.
Ramses II Endured 1,400 Years Of Oblivion
The history of Egypt became exotic folklore. Sand covered pyramids and temples, often used as stone quarries. People ate mummies as medicine. But during this long silence, one Pharaoh’s name remained in living memory.
Although the Pharaoh in Exodus is nameless, the Old Testament mentions a “land of Ramesses” and a city called “Ramesses.” Among the small amount of Greek and Roman literature to have survived were ancient historians’ texts about Egypt. They mention a Rhamsesis, Rhamses, Rampses, or Ramesses.
The Greek historian Diodorus described “a monument of the king known as Ozymandias.” And colossal statues, one of them “the largest of any in Egypt.” Its inscription read:
“King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.”
It became the inspiration for Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Without realizing it, the poet was writing about Ramses II. Ozymandias is the Greek adaptation of an Egyptian name, Usermaatra, taken by Ramses II when he became Pharaoh.
Greek Pharaohs had steles carved with Greek texts and their Egyptian translation. One such bilingual text had been found: the Rosetta Stone. The great minds of the time spent twenty years trying to decipher hieroglyphs.
The First Hieroglyphic Name Read By Champollion Was ‘Ramses’
One of those scholars was obsessed with Egypt and Coptic since he was a teenager. Coptic is the Church language of Christian Egyptians. Champollion was convinced it was based on the ancient Egyptian language, went to Coptic mass to hear the priest and ask his help with pronunciation.
With the Rosetta Stone, scholars could read the name of a Greek Pharaoh. It became possible to guess the hieroglyphic equivalent to the letters used for Alexander, Ptolemy, Cleopatra, etc. An important step, but it nevertheless remained impossible to read genuine Egyptian names.
This is where Champollion’s understanding of Coptic proved to be the breakthrough. Using a recently discovered inscription at Abu Simbel, Champollion tried to read 𓇳 𓄟 𓋴 𓋴. It already was known that 𓋴 likely was an S.
In Coptic, the sun is Ra. So 𓇳 likely was pronounced Ra. Next was 𓄟 that Champollion could guess, with the Rosetta Stone, to mean ‘to give birth’. In Coptic, to give birth is “mise”. Thus, Champollion presumed 𓇳 𓄟 𓋴 𓋴 might pronounce Ra – M – S – S. Almost exactly like the Rhamses or Ramesses known from ancient sources.
To verify that the method was correct, he tried 𓅝 𓄟 𓋴, getting Thot – M – S, Thothmes, or Tuthmosis. Realizing what he had done, Champollion fainted of emotion. After 1,400 years of silence, the first ancient Egyptian word read aloud was Ramses.
The Rediscovery Of Ancient Egyptian Monuments Illustrate Ramses Greatness
The Kings of Egypt had absolute power over millions. Today, many Pharaohs remain unheard-of. Who knows about Pharaoh Hor, even as both his mummy and treasure had been found? Or the Kings of Tanis and their fabulous gold treasure?
Ramses erased the names of his predecessors from many monuments, and the same thing happened to him. His Mansion of Million Years became a quarry. His city Pi-Ramses was supposed to last as “long as eternity existed, and eternity shall exist so long as you existed.” A few centuries later, it had vanished into thin air.
Yet an English poet who’d never set foot in Egypt nor seen a statue of Ramses wrote a poem about him. The people involved in the rediscovery of ancient Egypt could see his face and name all over the country. A feeling described by Amelia B. Edwards in A Thousand Miles Up the Nile:
With the second Rameses we are on terms of respectful intimacy. We seem to know the man – to feel his presence – to hear his name in the air. His features are as familiar to us as those of Henry the Eighth or Louis the Fourteenth. His cartouches meet us at every turn. Even to those who do not read the hieroglyphic character, those well-known signs convey, by sheer force of association, the name and style of Rameses, beloved of Amun.
How Ramses II Remains Today The Great
A civilization that lasted three millennia had no shortage of great Pharaohs. Ramses claims of greatness are that he was a living god, had the most jubilees, and longest reign of any Pharaoh.
Nearly all Pharaohs’ tombs are empty, as most royal mummies were either shredded by thieves or ravaged by time. Ramses II is one of the few Kings fortunate to have survived both robbers and decay.
Another precondition to glory is the survival of one’s name. Ramses is recorded throughout Egypt, in ancient Greek and Roman history, as Pi-Ramses in the Bible, and in museums worldwide. But to appreciate the scale of Ramses monuments, one needs to see them in person.
Step out of Cairo’s airport and be greeted by one of Ramses’ obelisks. Visit the Grand Egyptian Museum, and wonder at the colossal statue of Ramses. Drive past Ramses obelisk towards Ramses street for Ramses train station. Pay your ticket with Ramses II banknotes.
He still towers over Egypt, with almost 50 colossal statues. When one colossus was moved from its square, people rejoiced with cheers and music. In Rome, four obelisks praise his majesty. Another in Paris assures the son of the sun that “heaven is your monument; your name will be as permanent as heaven.”
Ramses II emerged from obscurity when his grandfather became Pharaoh. Given a chance to shape history, the measure of his ambition was Egypt, its gods, and eternity. Over one million sunrises have since glowed on his statues, obelisks, and temples. Each dawn, Ramses claims to greatness are repeated, to the point of becoming true.
Preservation of the Ramesseum and the tomb of Ramses II
Please help the preservation of two of Ramses’ most important monuments, with a contribution to the Association for the Safeguard of the Ramesseum.
Ramses II tomb – KV7
After 25 years of archaeological activity and study, the Ramesses II Project is launching a vital campaign to sustain the ongoing program into the future and towards the grand reopening of this important monument. The fragile state of preservation of this ancient wonder imperatively requires a major long-term final restoration effort.
For 25 years, in close partnership with the Ministry of Antiquities of Egypt, the ASR has been sustaining the scientific study and restoration of this exceptional site, on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Although a tremendous amount of work has already been done on-site (excavation and conservation of ruined structures, site-management), the task remains considerable and requires long-term financial support.
The different spellings of the name ‘Ramses.’
One can write Ramses’ birth name in different ways, Ramses, Ramesses, or Ramessu. His full name was ‘Ramessu-Mery-Amun’, born of Re, beloved of Amun. His throne name was User-Maat-Ra Setep-en-Ra, adapted into Ozymandias by the Greeks. It meant ‘the Maat of Ra is powerful, chosen of Ra.’
– K.A. Kitchen, Pharaoh Triumphant, the life and times of Ramesses II.
– Labib Habachi, Features of the Deification of Ramesses II.
– For a list of all the statues of Ramses II, an exceptional catalogue of the statues of the 19th dynasty, in French. “Catalogue de la statuaire royale de la XIXe dynastie”, by Hourig Sourouzian.
– The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians. Adolf Erman; Translated by Aylward M. Blackman.